Despite most marriage vows including promises of exclusivity and faithfulness, oftentimes those vows are broken evidenced by a nearly 50% divorce rate. Infidelity violates a couple's emotional and/or sexual exclusivity which commonly results in feelings of anger, sexual jealousy, and rivalry. Infidelity can happen in both happy and unhappy relationships. While there are often warning signs that an act of infidelity may be occurring or is about to occur, there are also other times when the non-offending partner is caught completely off guard. When thinking about infidelity, many people think in terms of sexual infidelity, but there are different categories of infidelity.
We will discuss the following in this article.
Emotional infidelity is the behavior exhibited when one partner engages in or fosters emotional intimacy with someone other than their spouse. One of the biggest challenges to recognizing and preventing emotional infidelity is that it can be insidious in both its onset and progress. In recent years social media has forced more people to acknowledge the seriousness of emotional infidelity. People who send racy images back and forth and have an inappropriate phone or video calls that involve opening up to someone other than their spouse in a personal and emotional manner can all fall under emotional infidelity. Because it does not involve sex, the developing intimacy may not immediately be recognized and often may be “played off” as a deep friendship and nothing more. One of the most troubling aspects of emotional infidelity is that it drains the primary relationship of energy, time, and focus. It also provides a distraction that prevents the partner involved from making the needed emotional and sexual connections that their primary relationship needs. Emotional infidelity is often the stepping stone to physical infidelity.
People may have different standards for what constitutes sexual infidelity. Still, it is often universally accepted as a sexually intimate encounter between a married or committed individual and someone other than their spouse or long-term partner. Sexual infidelity introduces another layer of hurt and damage to an already strained relationship because additional risks are involved. The possibility of exposure to STDs or a child being born from an extramarital affair can create a lasting reminder to the spouse who was cheated on of the betrayal that occurred. Typically, when an extramarital sexual affair is occurring, the partner involved in the extramarital affair engages in a series of lies about their whereabouts. They might tell their spouse that they are out with friends or working late to serve as their alibi for not being home at a certain time. The nonoffending spouse might choose to ignore the signs because the idea of their partner engaging in an affair is too painful or goes against the vision they had for their marriage. However, sometimes the nonoffending spouse might be compelled to demand answers. If the spouse who suspects infidelity challenges their spouse's explanation for coming home late or not answering their phone, there is a chance the offending spouse might gaslight their partner to avoid telling the truth. This might also be an indication that emotional abuse is taking place in the relationship. This causes more confusion, frustration, and pain for the spouse being cheated on. This can leave the non offending spouse in constant suspicion, questioning what else their spouse might not be telling the truth about. Oftentimes, some additional lies can be traced back to the couple's finances.
Just like needing to trust your spouse with your emotions and physical intimacy, you also need to be able to trust them with your finances. Unfortunately, when infidelity is involved due to the spouse engaging with someone outside of the marriage, there is often financial misappropriation that occurs. The spouse committing the offense might pay for an expensive trip, book regular hotel stays, or purchase expensive gifts for the person they are having an affair with. Although financial infidelity is commonly experienced along with sexual infidelity, it can also happen without an emotional or sexual affair taking place.
Financial infidelity involves one spouse intentionally lying or hiding aspects of their financial circumstances from the other spouse. Financial infidelity can take on many forms but is most often seen in hiding assets or diverting income so that a spouse is not fully aware of all the marital property or finances. Other times, financial infidelity can involve spending a huge amount of money from a secret account, often leading to debt that the other spouse is not aware of. Irrespective of the motive behind the financial infidelity, it can leave the non-offending spouse emotionally injured, therefore damaging the marriage.
Impact of Infidelity
While each form of infidelity listed above is unique, all three can destroy a marriage and cause emotional and mental harm to both spouses. A partner’s infidelity can severely impact many areas of a relationship. Besides breaking the trust in the marriage, someone whose spouse has had an affair will often experience intense feelings of anxiety, depression, distress, low self-esteem, shame, and anger. In some cases, these may even lead to symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder. The same can be said for the partner who is the one who initiates the infidelity. They themselves may report feelings of increased anxiety, depression, and guilt, along with feeling trapped and helpless.
Impact of Infidelity on Children
When we think of the impacts of infidelity, we can easily overlook its impact on children. While infidelity impacts children differently than their parents, it still can significantly affect the children. Many children, especially younger ones, may not even be aware of their parent’s infidelity but often pick up on the anger and painful feelings that infidelity may bring into the home. Older children who may not be specifically told about the infidelity can often sense that their parents feel hurt or betrayed in some way. In the cases where infidelity leads to months or even years of anger and hurt feelings, children will more likely be impacted, especially if they are not given emotional support or offered the opportunity to speak to a trained counselor who can help them navigate through their feelings. Other ways that infidelity can negatively impact a child include their parents using them as their confidants and oversharing details of the infidelity or their feelings. If a child’s parents can work through the infidelity with the help of a trained counselor, the impact felt by the child can often be considered minimal.
Impact of Infidelity on Outside Relationships
The impacts of infidelity are often felt not only within the marriage and family unit but also outside them. Both the individual who found themselves the victim of infidelity and the spouse who is responsible for the infidelity may find themselves isolated from friends and family. The guilt and shame that they feel, especially if they feel as though no one will understand, may lead them to pull away from relationships that they enjoyed before the infidelity. They may feel “not worthy” of attending church and/or may even be mad at God for what has happened. They may feel judged if they decide to try and work through the betrayal and they may also feel judged if they decide that they need to end the relationship. Often couples who walk through the journey of infidelity may see a decrease in their effectiveness at work because of their preoccupation with the many emotions and changes that infidelity can bring into their life.
The Emotional Side of Infidelity
Many emotions arise due to infidelity. While there is no way we could possibly address them all, here are some of the top emotions that are reported by those who have experienced infidelity:
Many couples on both sides of infidelity blame themselves. For the person who was the victim of infidelity, they often wonder if there was something they could have done to prevent it. Did they make their partner cheat? The individual who initiates the infidelity may experience deep feelings of self-blame and self-loathing for their choices, especially as they watch how it impacts their spouse and even children.
Anxious feelings are likely to be an effect of a cheating spouse. Often, individuals report feeling unsettled and as though their whole life is hanging in the balance. They may feel especially anxious if the infidelity was with someone they knew or someone that they must interact with regularly. They may feel anxious about what the future holds and what is the best decision for their marriage and future.
3. Reduced self-esteem.
When an individual is dealing with an unfaithful spouse, they have to come to terms with the fact that the person who they loved and trusted has been unfaithful. They often start to pick themselves apart and wonder “what is wrong with me”?
While infidelity may not always lead to the loss of marriage, it always leads to the loss of marriage as you once knew it. There is always the option to heal and rebuild your marriage, creating one that is different yet equally valuable to your marriage pre-infidelity but it is almost impossible to “go back” to exactly what you had. In some cases, one or both spouses can take comfort in the fact that they can rebuild toward something better, but they still have to process the loss of what was.
When processing the emotions of infidelity, remember to give both yourself and your spouse time and space. It is healthy to find constructive ways to express your anger, sadness, fear, and guilt, and is equally important to give yourself time to grieve.
Should I stay or should I go?
This is a tough one. There are so many factors that must be considered as it relates to this decision. Is there physical, emotional, or sexual abuse involved? How will this decision impact the kids? Do both spouses want to repair the marriage or is one unwilling? Have both spouses tried everything in their power to reconcile the marriage, including marriage counseling and applying what was learned in each session to work towards repairing the marriage? Do you still love your partner? Have you asked God about your next steps? Seriously, have you gone before God regarding this difficult situation?
Although the Bible does speak to the fact that infidelity is grounds for divorce (Matthew 5:31-32), I encourage the non offending spouse to consider the big picture before deciding to leave. Although sometimes a divorce is the best decision for you, it doesn’t keep you from experiencing the grief associated with the divorce. Divorce is hard. It is an emotionally taxing process, so it shouldn’t be a decision you rush into. However, you shouldn’t base your next steps on external pressures from friends, clergy, or family. Although wise counsel is encouraged, you have to live with the consequences of your decisions. Therefore, this is a decision that should be made between you and God. Although whatever you choose to do will pose its challenges, if you seek God’s direction regarding your decision, He will give you peace. If you choose to leave, resources are available to help you divorce well. However, if you plan to fight for your marriage, there are some key steps we encourage you to take if you stay.
Moving on from Infidelity
Rebuilding trust after infidelity takes time and can look different for every marriage. It is something that both individuals in the relationship must be committed to. While there are no “set rules” of how to rebuild trust, there are a few things that are helpful to many couples who are in the rebuilding phase. Working towards a place of forgiveness is one of the initial steps. During the escalating phase of suspicion of the infidelity, to discovery, to the eventual conflict, a lot of words and actions were shared or done that require repair. The offending spouse must be willing to take accountability, and not only ask for forgiveness from their partner but needs to repent before God for their actions. The non-offending spouse might also have responded by committing an offense in retaliation. They too will be responsible in that moment for asking for owning up to their offense and asking for forgiveness to their spouse and before God. God heals people, not relationships. Before the marriage can become whole again, healing on an individual level needs to take place. Both parties should consider participating in individual counseling as well as couples counseling to work on their own personal recovery while seeking to rebuild the marriage. It is especially important to work with a trained marriage counselor to help the couple to begin the process of engaging in difficult conversations while learning to communicate with each other effectively.
Some of these difficult conversations may include sharing uncomfortable details of the infidelity. Although the non offending spouse might not always want to hear these details, sometimes they might want to know what took place, and the offending spouse needs to be willing to share the details and be honest. This is important for the person who initiated the infidelity but can also be important for the spouse who was the victim of the infidelity. Both partners must be willing to communicate their thoughts openly and honestly on what led to the infidelity, how it impacted them, and their goals for the future of the marriage. It is crucial to remember as you are working on rebuilding trust both spouses may still need to offer reassurances. As you work on rebuilding trust it is important to remember that healing is a process; there is no quick fix. There will be ups and downs. The road to rebuilding trust is not a straight line and at first, the bad days may outnumber the good ones, but as you and your spouse work towards rebuilding there will be more and more good days. The ups and downs may continue for a very long time, and both spouses must prepare for this. The ups and downs do not mean that progress is not being made, it just means that you are still on the path to rebuilding. Infidelity does not have to be the end of your marriage. Many couples have recovered from this painful experience, and with God’s grace and two willing couples, your marriage can too.
Support After Infidelity
Rebuilding after infidelity is hard, but it is especially difficult when done alone. If you are experiencing the impact of infidelity, we encourage you to join a local support group. There are many online groups available that can provide you with a safe, confidential space to process your emotions and to discover that you are not alone in your walk. As mentioned above, individual and couples counseling are also incredible resources that can help you to heal and restore your marriage. If you are looking for support to help you rebuild your marriage, our team of counselors is available to support you. You can learn more about our counseling services by visiting our website or scheduling an informational meeting with a member of our team today. You don’t have to go through this journey of healing alone. Get connected to a supportive community today.
Dr. Davis is a counselor on the Faith on the Journey Counseling Team. She has Doctorate of Christian Counseling and 20-plus years of clinical experience across a variety of settings including outpatient specialty clinics, crisis intervention, structured outpatient programs, inpatient psychiatric facilities, large non-profits, ministry positions, and private practice. I specialize in counseling in areas of divorce, infidelity, grief from miscarriages, abortions, illness or other types of trauma. I also have extensive experience counseling sexual and domestic violence survivors, and individuals struggling with PTSD.
Rev Jocelyn J. Jones
Rev. Jocelyn J. Jones is an author, speaker, and entrepreneur. She received her bachelor’s degree from the University of Iowa in journalism. After earning her B.A., Jocelyn worked for channel 20, WYCC. She left the television industry to serve as the Executive Director of the ARK of St. Sabina, a youth center on Chicago’s Southside. While at the ARK, Jocelyn earned her master’s degree from the University of Chicago in social work. Tragically, the lives of several families she served were shattered due to gun violence. Those experiences and her own quest for emotional healing inspired her to establish her company, Faith on the Journey Counseling. Jocelyn earned her master’s degree in theological studies from McCormick Theological Seminary. She is an ordained minister, a training facilitator with the Trauma Healing Institute, and the author of the book Breaking the Power of the Mask.