As a marriage counselor, a crucial part of my work entails the arrival of a couple that is devastated by the discovery of infidelity. Their intimate bubble has burst, raw emotions have been unleashed, and immediate resolution is unlikely, to say the least. I always consider it hopeful that both of them have come for help, as that is an indication that the relationship still matters to both of them. But, there is immediate pain and guilt to deal with first.
I have learned that infidelity takes many forms, from pornography or a secretive lunch, to a full-blown parallel relationship over a long period of time. One of the reliable themes for this work is that secrecy matters at least as much as any sexual behavior. It is trust that is broken, and the security implied by vows of fidelity that is shattered. From the perspective of the victim, the guilty party has withdrawn from their partner in the most aggressive way possible, with little understanding of the other person’s emotional sensibilities, and the injured party has interpreted this passive secret aggression as betrayal. Healing is complicated.
It is often said that people will forgive and not forget. How is that so true? When a couple is working on healing from infidelity, the guilty party often complains that they are still having to explain their actions multiple times, and that there should be a time limit on the anger, fear, and pain that has enveloped the couple. Actually, even though forgiveness can be genuine, forgetting is practically impossible.
One technique I use is to ask the partner who wandered to tell me about their own personal memories. When in their lifetime were they rejected, defeated, or insulted? When have they felt an excruciating loss? When did they feel like a failure? How strong and clear is that memory? What are their feelings now about that coach, sibling, teacher, parent, or lover that made them feel so helpless and hopeless? The answers are profoundly emotional and clear, often from decades before. How on earth can they expect their partners to forget a similar experience if they can’t forget their own?
For couples dealing with this disruption and injustice, good will and hard work can lead to a new acceptance and forgiveness, but it is not reasonable to expect the behavior to be forgotten.