What Do I Do?

Can a relationship be salvaged once the couple’s contract has been broken? The honest answer is that it depends on the couple’s desire to be a couple. With a willingness to be honest with self and partner, hard work, and the healing passage of time, couples can come back from the brink. But both people have to be committed to the process. A single person can’t save a couple relationship anymore than one person can shake hands without the cooperation of the person they want to shake hands with.

The place to begin is, as always, with yourself.

To the cheater: If you are the one who strayed, you need to take full responsibility for it. Your partner didn’t make you do it – no matter how difficult he or she can be. If you were unhappy, the honest thing to do would have been to say so and work out a separation, a divorce, or a new “contract”. You didn’t have to have an affair to make a change. It’s time to take a hard look at yourself and acknowledge what beliefs or personal issues led you to break the most basic of promises. Are you willing to confront yourself? Are you willing to bear your soul to your partner and make a commitment that doesn’t have an escape clause? If so, you may be able to salvage this relationship (if your partner will have you) or make a better one the next time around.

To the innocent victim: Your challenge is to refuse to be further victimized. It is absolutely within your right to insist on a genuine apology. You didn’t have a say in the breaking of your contract. For your relationship to survive, you must have a say in what happens now. What do you need from your partner in order to rebuild your trust? What kind of time do you need to heal? If you can clearly assert those needs and your partner can respond to them, your relationship still has a chance.

To the not so innocent victim: On the other hand, if you have been up to some mischief yourself, honesty requires you to acknowledge it. In your case, you and your partner are both to blame; your partner for cheating and you for covertly supporting it. Is your desire for the relationship at least as big as your fears? Can you squarely face old issues of insecurity, moral confusion, or a misguided need for drama? If so, your relationship has a chance.

Understanding Comes Next

The next step is equally difficult: Each of you must take a step back and try to dispassionately understand your partner’s point of view. You can’t fix the relationship unless you have some understanding of both sides. In my therapy sessions, I often ask each partner to convincingly and sympathetically argue the other’s position. The point is to help each partner walk in the other’s shoes in order to gain a broader perspective on what went wrong. Perhaps one or more of the reasons listed earlier in this article rings true. It’s okay to make guesses as long as you each let your partner refine your thinking. You’ll probably learn things about each other that you didn’t know or fully appreciate before.

Recontracting the Relationship

Finally, it’s time for that difficult talk; actually many difficult talks. Remember that you are not in a judicial process. You are attempting to heal your relationship. A judicial process involves accusations, anger, digging for “truth” and exacting punishment. Healing involves understanding what happened from both people’s perspective, allowing room for the sadness and hurt, but then redirecting your focus to what you want to do to make your relationship better.

Both of you need to ask yourselves whether you have been clear about your own expectations of yourself and your partner. You each need to develop a deeper understanding of the other’s needs and assumptions about relationships. Appropriate apologies must be made and accepted. Issues of trust and respect have to be clearly addressed. This is the kind of discussion that needs several attempts before it will be done.

Have patience. With issues as tender as love, trust, and commitment, it will take a few rounds before each of you has said what really needs to be said. It will take more than a few rounds for each of you to believe that you have been really heard. Once you’ve talked it through, you will each have the information you need to decide whether you want to try again or separate.

There are really only three possible outcomes:

Abandonment of the Relationship: Some couples decide that their differences and hurt are just too great and separate. Bent on revenge, some people only want to hurt back. Others, too discouraged and shamed to try, sadly give up. Still others find that when they get down to it, the assumptions of the two are so disparate they are irreconcilable. Couples in this group usually end up in lawyer’s offices, trying to sort out through the law what they couldn’t do through conversation with each other. Some people end their relationship sad but wiser. Others never give up their bitterness.

Maintain a painful status quo: Still others can’t stand the idea of exposing themselves to the kind of honest scrutiny that healing work requires and/or can’t stand being seen as a “failure” in marriage. They avoid or abort the conversation and go on living in quiet bitterness and disappointment, becoming more and more distant from each other. Yes, they stay together or married. No, they are not happy.

Make change: Some couples find the courage and wisdom to work on a healing journey on their own. They do the work, manage their feelings, and recommit. Through the experience they learn more about themselves and more about life. As a result, the couple is stronger, if less innocent. They are able to move on, focusing on the present and future.

Other couples want desperately to stay in the relationship but find themselves stuck in an impasse. Committed to their commitment and to each other, they look for help. These couples make an appointment with a marriage therapist. The therapy room, the regular therapy meetings, and the support of the therapist provide a safe haven for working through painful but necessary discussions. Because therapists see many, many couples over the years, they can often offer useful, practical suggestions for getting unstuck. Because they are professionals, they know how to stay objective but kind. Because they know how to be non-judgmental, they can also help the couple resolve feelings of shame and anger. When the work goes well, either the couple will find their way back to each other or they will agree to separate, but without the rancor of those stuck in hurt and revenge.

In Spite of it All, We Still Believe in Love

Sadly, we live in a time when it seems that the world conspires against relationships. Celebrities change partners as often as they change fashions. Most people marry but over 50% of those marriages in the USA end in divorce. The children of those divorces don’t have a model for what it means to work through differences and recommit over time. But by junior high these same kids look for boyfriends/girlfriends as a certification that they are popular and mature. Popular songs normalize cheating. Country songs speak to its pain. The U.S. culture claims to value marriage but then bars a significant group from doing it. In the USA, we’re really confused!

None the less, there is something in the human condition that desires above all else to love and be loved; to be special to at least one other person; to build a life and a history and a safe haven from the stresses of the world, to provide a safe nest for raising our children. It still matters enough that advice columns like mine receive plaintive requests for help from those who are doing their best to find that special someone who can be trusted to stay true. It still matters enough that issues around the meaning of marriage are part of the political debate. It’s a good effort. Being in a committed relationship over a long period of time is one of the most rewarding and deepening things people can do.

P.S. About kids and cheating:

Many of the letter writers want reassurance that finding out about a parent’s affair won’t affect their children. To do the topic justice is beyond the scope of this article but it would be a disservice to not at least acknowledge that the issue looms large. Suffice to say that whether the marriage/relationship survives or ends, the consequences for kids are multiple and often sad. Not only do the kids lose the family they thought they had, but their model of a committed relationship now includes duplicity and betrayal. Depending on how the adults handle it, they may also observe a model of appropriate shame, forgiveness, and problem-solving. Some kids are resilient enough to deal with their feelings and manage the situation. Others vow to themselves that they will never, ever let love fail. Many conclude that love doesn’t last and commitment doesn’t work. Having watched one of their parents get terribly hurt, they decide never to set themselves up for the kind of pain and avoid commitment. Alternatively, they might conclude that it’s better to be the hurt-er than the hurt-ee and take the role of the cheater. In some cases, it takes several generations for the reverberations of cheating to get worked back out of a family.