The best and worst ways to address infidelity
It’s estimated 70 percent of marriages experience an affair. While common, it’s no less painful for those it’s happening to. Elisabeth Shaw, clinical psychologist and CEO of Relationships Australia NSW, shares how best to handle this challenge.
Betrayal by one’s partner can be one of the most upsetting experiences you can face in an intimate relationship. In fact for some, it can be incredibly traumatic. The effects are not dependent on the level of the betrayal, because depending on one’s own history, the stage of relationship or the promises made, what might seem to some to be a “minor” infraction can still hit hard.
Infidelity can take many forms. It might solely have involved a level of emotional connection and attachment; it might have been a brief and opportunistic physical “fling”, or a much longer-lasting parallel sexual and loving relationship.
It might have been something quite separate to and distant from the primary relationship, such as with someone overseas, or it might be with a best friend. It may involve someone online who has never been met in real-time, or it might be engagement in pornography, which you believe robs your relationship of time, attention, sexual energy and focus.
Whatever the circumstances, there are productive and not-so-productive ways of confronting this challenging time in your relationship. Here’s what you need to remember.
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Trust your own judgement
If a whole lot of things don’t add up, then speak up. You don’t have to be correct. What you need at this stage is the reassurance that your concerns are taken seriously and worth responding to. If this is not available, it may not be confirmation of infidelity but could still raise other concerns about emotional support and reliability.
Keep the issue local
Don’t confront your partner’s lover. It is tempting to blame them, as if your partner would never have strayed without their temptation. This deflects the responsibility and is more about you wanting to keep seeing your own partner in a good light.
Don’t minimise what has happened
The person who has committed the betrayal can be tempted to minimise the involvement as if it will let their partner down lightly, but generally this doesn’t assist. It can actually make your partner feel worse, as your caginess can just perpetuate the sense of secrecy.
Don’t engage in technicolor illustrations about what happened
At the other end of the spectrum, if you have betrayed your partner you might be asked for full disclosure. All the details can be unhelpful and make matters worse. You have to judge where you are tormenting him/her with being withholding, and when you are providing pictures that will live in their head for eternity.
Don’t tell everyone you know
You need to get support but do so with a professional or a neutral friend who can give you support as well as give you the space to make your own decisions. Too often people spiral in their distress and tell family and friends, then decide to stay together.
This can mean you have harmed all your social supports, and the betrayal has to be worked through with a cast of thousands. Some might never forgive your partner, even if you have.
Decide to stay or go
Some stay with both relationships as they “can’t decide” and the partner, who is fearful of loss or worried about their children, gets caught up in going along with that. This ultimately stacks the options in the “betrayer’s” favor. If your partner can’t decide between you, then it is not for you to win them back.
They have to resolve where their heart lies; you have already demonstrated your worth. The betrayal of the relationship breaks trust that can be rebuilt over time and with help. However, this requires you both to agree to work on it, and for some people this may also be too painful or difficult and you need to give yourself permission to say ‘no more’ and either take time away from the relationship or consider ending it.
Consider the bigger picture
While infidelity is always the choice of the person who acts on it, looking together at the state of your relationship is valuable. It may be that particular problems or issues have set in, or complacency or conflict avoidance. An analysis of this does not mean that infidelity was inevitable; it wasn’t.
However, it can give you a common purpose regarding repair, which is to work together to make the changes you need to strengthen your connection.
Repair takes time
Couples often cycle back over the events and have to work on an effective apology, understanding and repair. Often the re-establishment of trust can seem to involve a lot of practical and concrete requests like “be home on time” or “ring me every day”. However, trust comes about over time and through the hard work the couple does to make sense of what has happened, and to strengthen their relationship.
Once there is repair, those practical “rules” are not the main game and can feel constraining, impacting your closeness. Trust needs to eventually be measured another way.
Work towards peace and closure
A couple has to close the chapter eventually. It doesn’t come with quick apologies and brushing issues under the mat; however, nor can there be endless punishment and revisiting of it. If this is happening, there is more work to do.
Infidelity is one of the most challenging events a couple can face. It is painful, even devastating. It can initially seem to shatter your sense of yourself, your worth and your faith in your partner. For those who have the affair, they might have shocked themselves with their behavior, and may live with guilt and remorse about it.
Many couples who do the work to repair the relationship, where they both realise there is too much to lose, can also say they are stronger as a result. This deep work and repair is best done with a neutral, experienced couple therapist to guide you, who provides the scaffolding to keep you emotionally safe while you work it through.
Elisabeth Shaw is CEO of Relationships Australia NSW and a clinical and counselling psychologist specialising in couple and family work.
Relationships Australia NSW offers a wide range of services to support those that have experienced the trauma of infidelity. For more information about how RA NSW can help you, visit: or call 1300364277.