“Oh what a tangled web we weave when first we practice to deceive”. –
Walter Scott, Marmion
What is Marital Infidelity?
Marital Infidelity is when a triangle is created within a marriage. One spouse engages in a close emotional and or physical relationship with a third party, without the knowledge and or approval of the other spouse. It is also described as adultery, cheating or an affair. Once a spouse has created a triangle, it is usually maintained by the deception and secrecy towards the other spouse. Lies of omission or commission are commonly featured.
Marital infidelity, whether emotional or physical, is a violation of the implicit and explicit trust between marital spouses. When a triangle is created by one spouse, without the knowledge or consent of the other, the implicit and explicit marital trust is betrayed. In a monogamous marriage it is usual for both people to have made an agreement to be sexually and emotionally faithful to each other. Marital infidelity breaks this agreement. The cause of marital infidelity is a deficit or lack of personal boundary on the part of the betraying spouse.
Impact of Marital Infidelity
When the marital agreement is broken as a consequence of infidelity, the trust between spouses has been abused and as with all other types of abuse there is a perpetrator and a victim. In most cases immense suffering is experienced, particularly by the betrayed spouse.
Psychological and emotional trauma is the norm when the betrayed spouse becomes aware of the infidelity. It is helpful at this time for the betrayed spouse to understand that these responses are normal responses to what is a very difficult situation for them. Anxiety, depression, rage and jealousy and a lowering of self-esteem and or of body image are typical psychological and emotional responses experienced by betrayed spouses.
The initial impact on the betrayed spouse can be likened to an acute grief response, which in the early stages can be very debilitating. There is a sense of unreality and shock, often followed by a sense of psychological and emotional numbness. The betrayed spouse`s physical health is also often negatively compromised, insomnia, anorexia and muscle aches are common symptoms, all associated with an elevated stress response. At this stage the spouse can struggle to function normally. The betraying spouse can also experience similar psychological and emotional symptoms once the triangle is revealed.
There is often a myth that responsibility for marital infidelity can partially be attributed to the non- betraying spouse, or to the marriage itself, particularly in situations where prior marital problems and discord may have existed. This is not the case.
Further, in the early stage of revelation, as in all forms of abuse, the victim of marital infidelity often tends to question themselves and wonder if they are somehow culpable in some way for the event. Consequently, the betrayed spouse can additionally experience guilt and shame as well as the range of other difficult experiences.
However, it needs to be clearly stated that the responsibility for marital infidelity does not belong to the betrayed spouse. It is the sole responsibility of the betraying spouse , even in marriages where there has been prior severe dysfunction. The betraying spouse made a unilateral choice at some point, to break the implicit or explicit marital agreement, at least by withholding information from their spouse about the emerging triangulation.
As every marriage is unique, the impact of infidelity can have varying outcomes. It really depends on what each of the spouses wants to achieve. Often the decision to end the marriage is taken. It can be helpful to seek support individually or as a couple when this is the case, in order to facilitate a `good ending`.
However, infidelity does not necessarily mean there is nothing worth salvaging in the marriage. There is in fact evidence for post marital infidelity growth. For this growth to develop however, both spouses need to be willing and able to meet the challenges associated with re-building trust in each other. With shared motivation and commitment, a new and robust, intimate, shared reality may be created and emerge over time. Professional counselling is also available to assist couples with this endeavour and can be very effective and helpful.
“Turn your face to the sun and let the shadows fall behind”. Maori proverb
By Dr Anita Corfe
Cpsychol. DCPsych. BSc (Hons)
Reg.Psychol. PsSI, AFBPSs. EAP
Counselling Psychologist & Integrative Psychotherapist