No time of year is a good time to be coping with infidelity. But when the wounds of a relationship betrayal are still tender and coincide with a traditional family holiday, such as Thanksgiving and Christmas, the sting of infidelity is that much sharper.
Infidelity is a private matter. If there is any hope of repairing the damaged relationship, it is best to deal with it discreetly.
While partners can take proactive steps to rebuild and move forward, including work with a qualified relationship therapist, such reconciliations are much harder when family members, friends, and colleagues must also learn how to forgive, and move on.
When loved ones gather for a Thanksgiving Day celebration it can be difficult, if not impossible, to avoid awkward situations and well-intentioned — but potentially hurtful — queries about your troubled relationship.
If partners have separated and won’t be attending together, as they have in years past, inevitably questions will arise about the whereabouts of the absent partner and the reason for his or her absence.
If partners are still together, trying to repair their relationship, a wide variety of questions and uncomfortable circumstances may arise.
- How, for example, should a couple that is trying to rebuild in the wake of infidelity handle it if the illicit lover, sometimes referred to as the paramour, is also in attendance?
- Should the partner who strayed allow himself or herself to be seated next to the paramour? How about posing for group photos when the paramour will also be in the photo?
- If family members and friends who know about the betrayal are hostile to the partner who strayed, how should the partners respond?
- What should the partners say when well-intentioned guests ask about rumors they’ve heard that the couple has been having troubles?
There are no easy answers to questions such as these and no one-size-fits-all answers. No two incidents of relationship infidelity are identical, and no single set of rules will apply in every case.
That said, I can offer four guidelines that have provided some emotional “armor” for individuals and couples who I’ve counseled when they are trying to cope with infidelity at the holiday season.
[For the sake of illustration, these guidelines will refer to the partner who was betrayed as “Sue” and the partner who strayed as “John.” The suggestions would be no different if the roles were reversed and it was John who was betrayed and Sue who strayed. Sue and John are fictional characters representing a composite of many real-life couples who I’ve counseled.]
1. Do What Is Most Comfortable for the Partner Who Was Betrayed
Whether Sue, who was betrayed, is attending a holiday event alone — or with John — the top priority is to limit — to the extent humanly possible — further emotional injury to Sue.
If Sue does not want John to attend, he should stay away. Likewise, it is okay for Sue to ask John to put in a brief appearance — make a plausible excuse for having to leave early — and thereby avoid any awkwardness associated with seating arrangements and group photos.
2. Do Not Feel an Obligation to Discuss Your Relationship Status with Anyone
Sue (and John, if he attends) owes no explanation to anyone. If Sue gets questions that make her uncomfortable, she can politely dismiss them. “This isn’t the day to discuss that,” she might respond, or “Thank you for your concern, I’m not comfortable discussing it.”
Remember, the less you reveal about your relationship and any problems you’ve had or that are ongoing, the better your chances to one day put the infidelity behind you.
3. It’s Perfectly Okay to Skip Any (Or Every) Holiday Event
Sue’s emotional health is the top priority. If there is any hope for repairing Sue’s relationship with John, their couple is the second-highest priority.
So while family, work, and community holiday invitations can be very difficult to decline, if doing so is what’s necessary for Sue to protect herself, or for Sue and John to give themselves the best opportunity to reconcile, they should decline holiday invitations.
Ideally, by the time next year’s holiday invitations come, Sue and John will be better positioned to say “yes.”
4. It’s Okay to Tell White Lies
We’re taught from childhood that lying is bad, especially to family members and close friends. That’s almost always true when the intent of the lie is to harm another person or escape responsibility for one’s actions.
But lying to protect yourself or your relationship is undoubtedly an exception. If you must tell white lies to prevent further trauma to yourself or to give your couple its best chance of survival and renewal, then that is the moral approach to take.
One solution I favor is to convert a white lie into the truth.
- For example, “I’m sorry, we won’t be able to attend this year, we’ll be out of town.” And actually make plans to leave town.
- Or, “John would love to join us, but he has volunteered to serve meals to the homeless this year.” And actually turn your white lie into a genuinely good deed.
Surviving infidelity is never easy. Surviving it during the holidays is exponentially more difficult. It may, in fact, be necessary to abandon long-standing family traditions in order to best cope. That’s okay. In time, when the wounds of infidelity have healed, it will be possible to forge new holiday traditions and once again create wonderful holiday memories.