Infidelity: Is Staying the New Shame?

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By Dr. Barbara Winter

Almost daily I get asked questions like the following:

  • If I stay, am I an idiot?
  • What will others think if I stay?
  • I have heard from my family that I’m a martyr if I stay. Is that true?
  • Is staying the new shame?

My answer is typically the same. One needs to assess each situation independent of someone else’s; not all relationships and the betrayals that accompany them are created equal.

Every day there can be some form of betrayal of intimacy. An emotional affair by the water cooler, a secret life on an app, a happy ending massage, a full-on sex worker, repetitive interludes in secret hideaways, and more. And every day there are partners who experience discovery marked by chaos and broken bonds and then ask, “Should I stay or should I go?’

Intimate bonds are fragile, so breakable, that when boundaries are crossed by a partner, they often can’t be repaired. There are moments, multiple moments, in fact, of severe trauma. Not just the moment of discovery, which often entails images, sometimes vivid, that are impossible to shake, but the trauma of disclosure, often staggered disclosure that occurs over and over and almost daily for some betrayed partners. There is trauma to the body, too, often experienced in sexually transmitted disease or simply having to get tested for STDs. There is also family and community trauma. Taken together, all of these relational traumas and attachment injuries threaten the safety that the attachment bond once secured.

With multiple breaches on a multitude of levels, healing requires navigation through a multiplex of wounds, often leaving deep scars.

Navigating the waters of deception with a cheating spouse is a challenge. Working with such couples and individuals – on both sides, the betrayer and the betrayed – is humbling. I honor their willingness to look into their reflection and face their pain and shame. Most of all, I admire them for their willingness to go the distance and make changes in their lives. For the crisis is a mere warning sign, an emphatic announcement that something has gone awry and something equivalent to a revolution is in order.

Within this journey is the aspect of commitment – a decision that I am going to continue the way I am or I am going to be different, and we are going to remain as we are or we are going to create a changed and better relationship.

All of this takes work. A lot of work. It demands immeasurable effort to navigate the initial crisis, and it takes endurance to maneuver and steer through the entanglement of emotions that accompany the experience(s). It’s a big job. But mostly it takes courage to face your partner and plot out a course that involves repair, reconciliation, and commitment. It requires the ability to rebuild the damaged bonds of trust and security.

So here’s what I tell the betrayed partners I work with: If you and your cheating spouse/partner are willing to do the work, then do it. But know that this work requires a mutual establishment of new relationship boundaries and a recovery plan for each individual, for the couple, and for the family.

If your cheating partner does not say, “I’ll do whatever I need to do to work through all of this and repair the relationship,” then maybe there’s not enough of a commitment for you to stay. If the cheater doesn’t commit to and follow through with a program of recovery and healing, that might not be enough of a commitment for you to stay. If your cheating spouse is not willing to engage in self-examination and make changes, then staying may feel shameful to you. If your cheating partner is willing to step forward, however, no matter how murky the waters, then jump into the muddy trench with your partner and work it out.

When Jan attended my group for betrayed partners, her husband was on his third affair. With each affair, she’d taken him back ‘as is.’ And with each affair, there was little work by her husband and therefore little change. For her husband to recognize that the risk to their relationship was high, it was Jan who needed to change the dance. It was Jan who needed to make a shift because without her detaching from his chaos there was no incentive for him to do anything differently. Jan chose a six-month therapeutic separation, which, for her husband, created more chaos. But it also began the path to healing.

For Gwen, there was even greater chaos. Her husband’s name appeared on the infamous Ashley Madison roster for all to see. Public shame and humiliation were enough to help Gwen, who’d always been passive, get strong, step forward, and create boundaries within the context of a path to repair. Although non-linear, the change was significant for both Gwen and her husband, and turning back towards one another allowed for the creation of new healthy bonds.

Mike was less fortunate with his cheating partner, Jim. Once Jim stopped his sexual acting out, he recognized that without the excitement provided by his transgressions his relationship with Mike was unappealing. When Jim turned back to Mike, he recognized failings that, unfortunately, Mike was unwilling to repair, such as Mike’s capacity for respect, growth, healthy boundaries, and to honor Jim. So, it’s not just the cheater that has to do work to save a relationship. The betrayed partner often needs to make changes as well.

To learn more about betrayal trauma and its effects, click here.

To learn more about Barbara Winter’s group for betrayed partners, click here.

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Dr. Barbara Winter is a licensed Psychologist, Sexologist, and Certified Sex Addiction, Group, and EMDR therapist trained in Hypnosis, Emotionally Focused Therapy (EFT), Parenting Coordination/Mediation, and Discernment Counseling. She has been a leading provider in Boca Raton since 1988, where she specializes in working with teens and adults with sexual issues, behavioral addictions, infidelity, trauma, divorce, and couples counseling. She has been quoted extensively in various media outlets and has written for other major blog sites. You can visit her website, www.drbarbarawinter.com, and you can find her on FacebookTwitter (@DrBarbaraWinter), and LinkedIn, posting resources and support that can help others with their relationships, in and out of the bedroom. Check out her regular blog, Sex, Love & Light, here.