When a couple gets together for the first time, it can be pure bliss. Though it is a very real possibility, the thought of infidelity invading their relationship often feels remote.
In a national survey carried out in the US, about 25% of married men and around 15% of married women confirmed they had affairs involving sexual intercourse, with this number almost doubling if we include emotional affairs that didn’t have a physical component. So, infidelity is real, and many relationships are affected by it.
Infidelity takes different forms. While having extramarital sex always constitutes infidelity, some people would consider sexting, or phone sex infidelity as well. For others, the boundary they have set is that emotional involvement that shares an intimate connection is infidelity.
Whatever the boundary they may have set, when it is breached, that brings with it feelings of betrayal, pain, anger, shame, confusion, grief, depression, and a host of other emotions. These powerful emotions can be overwhelming.
Why do people have affairs?
Infidelity raises crucial questions about the relationship. What brought about the lapse? Was there something missing from the relationship, and why did the straying partner go outside the relationship without communicating their needs first? Did they communicate their needs?
Are you willing to stay in the relationship and meet whatever need wasn’t being met? None of this takes the partner who strayed off the hook – the fact that certain needs might not have been met isn’t justification for having an affair.
The heart of this is understanding why people have affairs. Getting to the bottom of that is helpful to understand the issues your relationship is facing, and ways you can begin addressing them. What it doesn’t do, as pointed out earlier, is absolve the spouse who cheated from responsibility for their actions.
The more common reasons why people have affairs include:
- Lack of sexual and emotional intimacy in their relationship
- Loss of an emotional connection and poor communication
- Pursuing an affair as revenge against their spouse
- The seductive allure of the forbidden
- An opportunity presenting itself
- Exploring something new and different
- Discovering the life not lived
These and others are the reasons why people have affairs. In some cases, it’s not that the person having the affair is unhappy; they are looking outside the marriage in pursuit of novelty and fresh experiences. In other cases, their unhappiness is an impetus toward infidelity.
Having discussed and found out the reason why the affair happened, the spouse who was cheated on must decide for themselves what to do with what they have learned. The spouse who cheated must also decide how they want to continue – end the extramarital relationship (if they haven’t already), and work on their marriage, or otherwise.
Where does forgiving infidelity fit in?
Infidelity raises another question – should you forgive your partner for what they did? How do you even begin to forgive the betrayal of trust that is infidelity? Should you forgive it? And by forgiving infidelity, what does it mean; and conversely, what are you not doing or communicating by forgiving them?
At the heart of this is understanding clearly what forgiveness is and isn’t, and what that means for your relationship going forward.
What is forgiveness?
Forgiveness is an act of the will in which you let go of your feelings of resentment toward the person who offended you. When someone wrongs you, the complicated swirl of emotions generates feelings of anger, betrayal, and hurt. We may want the other person to hurt so that they feel what we have felt.
Thus, it’s common for a spouse who has been cheated on to have their revenge and cheat as well. The desire to hit back, to give as good as you got, is real and powerful, something we shouldn’t underestimate. Our sense of justice cries out that we should pay them back for what they did.
Holding onto those feelings can lead to the development of resentment. That resentment takes root in our hearts, and it can effectively poison the relationship.
Our interactions can become tinged with it; we read what the other person says and does through the lens of what they did and how much they need to pay for it. Forgiveness is about letting go of that desire to pay someone back for their misdeeds. It relinquishes the right to be angry and pay back the wrong committed.
As important as it is to get what forgiveness is, it’s probably equally important to understand what it isn’t, to avoid miscommunication about what’s happening when you forgive someone. Forgiving someone is not allowing the person to do it again. You’re not saying that it’s open season, and they can go back and do it again.
That’s because forgiveness is not saying that you’re okay with what happened, or that what happened was okay. When you forgive someone, if what they did had extenuating circumstances, there would be little to forgive. Let’s take a moment to look at an example to illustrate this.
Say for instance your husband puts his hands on another woman’s breasts. If he did this on purpose to enjoy it, there are words to be had with him about his behavior. If, on the other hand, he did it on purpose because his job is as a doctor and he was feeling for lumps during a medical exam, that’s a different situation.
In the first case, what he did was wrong; in the second instance, while it might make one uncomfortable, the context means that he didn’t do anything wrong. Forgiveness is needed when a person has done something wrong, and there are no excuses or extenuating circumstances to explain the behavior.
If there are extenuating circumstances, like the fact that the guy is a doctor who was doing his job, then the person didn’t do anything wrong, and there is nothing to forgive. If you need forgiveness, it means what you did was wrong, and there’s no excuse for it whatsoever.
And when you forgive someone, you’re not saying what they did was okay – in fact, you’re communicating that what they did was wrong, and that’s why forgiveness is showing up in the discussion at all.
Lastly, forgiving someone doesn’t mean that the other person shouldn’t reform, or that the consequences of their actions shouldn’t follow. The heart behind forgiving someone is to clear the slate for them to try again and do better, and not to repeat the offense. That is how God’s forgiveness toward us works, and that is how our forgiveness tends to work as well.
Forgiving someone also doesn’t mean that the consequences of their actions shouldn’t follow. Just because you’ve forgiven your spouse their transgression of using an escort or other sex worker, which doesn’t mean they shouldn’t go to jail for illegally soliciting sexual services, or that there are no consequences for unsafe sex such as sexually transmitted diseases. One of the possible consequences of infidelity is divorce.
Infidelity is such a personal and intimate hurt to be inflicted with. That’s because infidelity hits at the heart of a relationship – the exclusivity and sacred trust that marital relationships require to flourish. No one feels the pain of infidelity the way you do, and it’s ultimately up to you if you want to forgive it. Forgiving infidelity doesn’t mean that you’re giving the green light for errant behavior, nor does it mean you’re okay with what happened and there will be no consequences.
An affair raises questions that a couple may not have asked themselves, and when those questions arise, it is up to the couple to decide how they will answer them, and what the result will be. Although 20-40% of divorces in the US are due to infidelity, couples can survive infidelity, and some have emerged from it stronger than before after some much-needed conversations and changes.
“Estrangement”, Courtesy of Eric Ward, Unsplash.com, CC0 License; “Forgiveness”, Courtesy of Gus Moretta, Unsplash.com, CC0 License; “Domino Effect”, Courtesy of Bradyn Trollip, Unsplash.com, CC0 License; “Bible and Breakfast”, Courtesy of Priscilla Du Preez, Unsplash.com, CC0 License