You have just learned that your spouse cheated on you. You are dumb-founded, demeaned, devastated. Every fiber in your being is inflamed with betrayal. You are angry enough to punch your spouse in the face, but do not want to go to jail. You are blind with jealousy and humiliation. You hate your spouse for being disloyal, but at the same time are consumed with feelings of inadequacy. You question yourself. You question why you ever married your spouse in the first place. Finally, the red flames in your conflagrated heart turn to mere hot glowing coals. Then you viscerally realize you only have two very conflicting options: cut and run or try and work through it.
I have some news for you. Do neither.
As a very young divorce attorney, I did not query into the details of cheating. I believed it was outside my role as an attorney. Outside my experience and skill-set. Outside my education and credentials. In truth, I later realized it was just outside my understanding and comfort level. Today, I gather as much information about the details of the cheating as I possibly can. Why? Experience has taught me that cheating is not always the death of your marriage.
First off, I believe there is virtually no difference in emotional affairs and physical affairs. They are equally devastating in the reaction they trigger in the cheated-on spouse, and each are inspired by the very same troubles within the cheater, or within the marriage.
Cheating is almost always a symptom of a marriage in danger, not the cause. Even if your cheating spouse has supposedly found his or her new earthly soul mate, he or she would not have been open for this magical meeting unless your spouse is troubled within, or there are troubled waters at home.
The more common type of cheating in my view is the “non-soul mate” kind. Your spouse has not found his or her new soul mate at all. Rather, your spouse is looking to fill a void within him or herself, or within the marriage. This results in either one meaningless fling or short-term affair with one person; a long-term affair with one person; or meaningless flings with more than one person.
Instead of making the monumental decision to leave or stay right off the bat, commit yourself to gathering more information about your spouse’s infidelity. As hard as it is, my best advice is to temporarily swallow your hurt, shock and pride for just a short time. While this may seem insurmountable to some, it is a small sacrifice to make compared to a blood-bath divorce fueled by anger and betrayal. Worse yet, I have had clients realize a few years or even months later they should not have divorced at all. The marriage was not beyond repair and could have been healed with counseling, therapy, time and forgiveness.
In order to make a rational decision, you absolutely must have a more full picture of the cheating. This requires you to gather more information from your spouse. Here are the factors you should consider:
1. Is your spouse willing to receive professional counseling with you?
This is a major green-light indicator that your marriage is salvageable. In order to work through marital infidelity, communication is essential. If at all possible, enlist the help of a marriage counselor at the earliest possible time. Good mental health professionals who specialize in the dynamics of marriage and divorce are invaluable because of their ability to get to the root cause of the cheating without placing blame on or alienating either spouse. If your spouse is willing to receive help, especially together with you, chances are he or she is just as baffled as you about the unfaithfulness. And wants to heal the problem as much as you do.
2. Has the cheating been short-term or long-term?
It is extremely important to define the cheating. Short-term cheating, and in particular one-time cheating, suggests a “moment of weakness” created by a recent turn of events in either your spouse or the dynamics of your marriage. In this event, the likelihood of successful damage control to keep your marriage alive is high. On the other hand, if you learn your spouse has been cheating for a long period of time with either one partner or more than one, it suggests a far deeper rooted problem within your spouse or your marriage. More importantly, it will be more difficult for you to forgive and trust your spouse on the road ahead.
3. One partner or multiple partners?
One partner in a brief affair or one-time fling suggests a recent dissatisfaction in the marriage that caused your spouse to “self-help” by seeking the comfort of another. This is often reparable if both spouses are willing to try. On the other hand, if your spouse has been cheating on you with multiple partners, it is probably due to deep-seeded troubles within your spouse. A long-term affair with one partner can mean that your spouse would rather be with someone other than you. In this instance, consider the possibility that if your spouse does not want to be with you, it is healthiest to move on with your life.
4. Is your spouse suffering from emotional or psychological disorders?
I am not suggesting in any way that emotional or psychological disorders excuse cheating. Cheaters have a choice, whether or not they have personal challenges. However, there are clear links between certain challenges and extra-marital affairs. Diagnoses such as co-dependency, substance abuse, borderline personality disorder, bi-polar disorder, narcissim and sex addiction all leave your spouse vulnerable to cheating. If this is the case, your spouse has to be willing to agree to therapy and treatment. In the absence of this, he or she has no desire to participate in keeping your marriage alive and you should consider moving forward independently.
5. Take a look at yourself.
It goes without saying that as the cheated-on spouse, you did not “cause” the cheating. The cheating spouse always had the choice of whether to cheat or not to cheat. However, if you believe that your behavior may have a role, now is the time to self-examine. Ownership and understanding of your own human frailties can be instrumental in forgiveness on both sides. If you believe your conduct had any influence on the cheating, own it and be willing to work on it, regardless of whether you or your spouse want to go or stay. It will be healthiest for you in the long run of life.
Once you have gathered the critical information you need about the cheating, take some time out to process how the cheating has affected you. This time varies on the individual and the circumstances, but a minimum of two months is ideal. If at all possible, remove yourself, or have your spouse remove him or herself, from the marital residence. (Of course, if you have children you will still need to communicate about your children and you still need to be a solid co-parent for their sake). You owe yourself some soul searching to gauge the level of trauma and whether you will be able to forgive your spouse, and in some instances yourself. Without understanding and forgiveness, there is no amount of work on your marriage that will keep it alive.
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