When a relationship starts to crumble what’s the appropriate action? Many therapists comment that by the time couples come to visit their office the damage has done on for too long, hurts and distrust run too deep and iceberg that’s wedged between their love is too entrenched to allow for the examination and work required to restore the relationship to something both parties are happy to continue with. While that sounds bleak marriage counselling does work for many couples so in our next series of articles will tackle a few topics often dealt with in marriage counselling and explore what we might wish to think about as we seek a better version of the couple we form half of. This week we will start with the dreaded “I” word infidelity.
Long term relationships morph and develop over time. The manner in which a couple relate to each other is vastly different in the early stages of a relationship and when they are an established entity. And yet, there remain 2 individuals in every relationship and each of them has their own nuanced set of triggers, issues and emotional styles.
Infidelity is its own buzz word. It is an understood cause of detriment in long term relationship. Before we dive into the issues surrounding infidelity, it is important to examine what the concept means to us. In order to understand how important fidelity is to each of us, we need to examine, at least briefly, what the attitude towards relationship, fidelity and trust was in our families of origin. Were our parents married? Were they openly faithful to each other? Did we ever encounter infidelity in our childhoods (within our parents’ marriage, or friends’ parents or the wider community of which we were a part)? This will massively influence our feelings towards sexual and/ or emotional faithfulness within our own relationships.
Next, from this grounded place, it is important to examine what our experience of infidelity is within our own sexual relationships. Was it a death knell in a previous relationship? If it was, was it the only issue that the relationship had?
Sometimes we can use infidelity as a ‘get out’ clause in a relationship that is no longer meeting our needs. Infidelity, with all the betrayal of trust that is bound up in it, makes one partner a victim in a universally understood way. Whilst these social norms can ring particularly true for a partner who has been betrayed by infidelity, it is really important that we don’t allow the social norms to become more important than our own knowledge of the emotional state of our relationship.
All conflict reduces complex emotional behaviours to simple states of blame and retribution. Once we are engaged in a conflict of any kind, at least part of us becomes consumed with ensuring that our conflict partner is aware that we are In The Right and that we are Not To Blame for what is occuring.
This is particularly true of infidelity. Finding a way to blame the person who was unfaithful is easy. Finding ways to blame the person who was not unfaithful can become the tool that the cheater uses to absolve themselves of personal guilt, which has grown from their innate systems around their understanding of relationship, fidelity and their partner. Allowing that blame is not the key to overcoming infidelity, is a much more complex piece of emotional work, for both partners.
A relationship that has weathered an infidelity, if healed in a full way, can be stronger than ever before. It opens the way for partners to discuss how they treat each other, what they expect of each other and, most vitally of all, how they engage with the other’s anger, vulnerability, fear and sadness. If a betrayed partner succeeds in demonstrating the fullness of their emotion to the person who has cheated on them, and the relationship can hold their particular level of sadness, pain and anger, then both partners come to a new level of understanding of what can be sustained within their relationship long term.
Fidelity is a social construct that allows long term relationship to be sustained beyond the immediacy of initial sexual attraction. Knowing how vital (or not vital) each part of this construct is to us as individuals as well as to the ‘us’ that exists in relationship can bring a new, heightened self awareness and a commitment to a relationship that transcends mere social norm.
By Lorraine Hackett & Silvia Ribeiro