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Sexual Infidelity

Ideas on Working Through Sexual Infidelity in a Relationship

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Updated May 29, 2011

Statistics on infidelity vary widely. Some research suggests few people engage in activities that they consider to be infidelity, while others say that most of us do it at some point. Of course few, if any, of us agree on what counts as infidelity, which makes collecting statistics sometimes seem futile.

Even less understood or talked about is how many relationships continue successfully after one or more people have done something they, or the others, think of as infidelity. That is, how often do relationships survive an infidelity?

If you talk with relationship or couples counselors or sex therapists you may be surprised by what you hear. Keeping in mind it's a skewed sample, since most people seek counseling or support when there's an identified problem, most therapists I know say that they have lots of couples where infidelity has occurred and where the relationship not only survives, but thrives, after infidelity.

Mind you, few therapists suggest that it was the infidelity that improved the relationship. Rather it was the hard work of communicating, compromising, and connecting with each other over an extended period of time that allowed partners to stay together and create space for everyone to get enough of what they need to make the relationship successful for them.

If you've experienced a sexual infidelity (however you define it, and whichever side of it you're on) and you think you want to make the relationship work, here are some key points to consider. If you're not sure where to start a conversation with your partner about making it work, you may want to use these points not so much as facts, but as discussion topics.

Showing Up (Consistently) Counts for Something
Everyone in the relationship needs to be committed to doing the work, and hanging in there. Working through feelings of betrayal and having the kinds of conversations you'll likely need to have (about everything from sexuality to family to past, present, and future, to dashed dreams and new hopes) will not be easy and won't always be fun. If one person in the relationship is just going through the motions of trying to make it work, it probably won't work. Unless in the process of going through the motions, they find their own motivation for sticking with it. Either way you need to be honest with yourself about how hard you're really willing to work. And have a few things in place that will help you make it through the times when you've reached your breaking point and are ready to leave.

You Need to Give Up the Fantasy Before Finding New Dreams
We absolutely live in a fantasy world when it comes to sex and relationships. It's a fantasy that there is some "normal" happy long term relationship model that most of us experience. We all struggle, and infidelity happens. Even when it doesn't, monogamy is hard and people struggle, often giving up their dreams in order to maintain the outward fantasy of a successful relationship. When infidelity is acknowledged it's a break in the fantasy. You can't pretend anymore. But that can be a very good thing. If you're willing to let go of your fantasies about compulsory monogamy, about what relationships are supposed to be like, about what life is supposed to be like. Doing the hard work of building a healthy relationship is even harder if you keep telling yourself no one else has to work at it.

Accept Change as Necessary (Maybe Even Good)
There's no going backwards in life. We can't get younger, we can't erase our lived experience, and even when relationships feel like they are standing still, we are changing and they change with us. After an infidelity has been disclosed you won't be able to put it back in a box. Your relationship is going to change. But consider the fact that the change can be good, not bad. It's even possible that working through a sexual infidelity will mean that your relationship as a committed couple ends. That may be incredibly painful, but it may also, eventually be a good thing. Part of giving up the fantasy is giving up the idea that you can predict the future. You can't. But being open to the possibility that what's to come could be good, that good things can develop out of pain, may offer some motivation for the work you and your partner need to do.

Taking a Leap of Faith
If the infidelity has left intense feelings of betrayal and mistrust in the relationship there will come a time when you will have to decide to try and trust again. There are no guarantees. The partner who betrayed you can't actually prove they won't again (and of course, they might...but so might you). So there will be a leap of faith at some point, since you can't really feel safe and have a healthy relationship if you are always waiting to be betrayed. The good news is that working on a relationship takes time, and the leap may never feel like one great jump. It may be more like one day realizing that you aren't worried about where your partner is or what they are doing. That you can act in a way that is free of fear of being betrayed.

Seek Out Support
Relationships are complicated at the best of times, and few if any of us can work through something like sexual infidelity without the support of others. For many, finding a therapist or counselor will be the best way to get help that feels helpful and unbiased. You may also turn to your community of friends and family. Just try and be respectful of who you turn to. We all need a space where we can communicate freely without fear of our words being blown out of proportion or judged as too harsh. It can be very difficult for family and friends to have to hear some of the things you may need to talk through, and still be in favor of your relationship working out. This is where third parties who maintain rules of confidentiality can be most helpful.

Think About Working Through, Not Getting Over
Try not to think about getting over the infidelity, or making it go away. It won't ever go away (it happened and you can no more erase it than you can erase any other part of your past). And the idea of "getting over it" can feel dismissive. Instead, you may want to reframe the work as getting through it, or getting to the point where the infidelity isn't impacting your daily lives or your relationship in a negative way. At the beginning it can be impossible to imagine this, but it can and does happen. Both with time and talk we can find ourselves one day living a life we never could have imagined even a year before.

Know That It Can Work
Of course there are no guarantees, but remind yourself often that plenty of other relationships have survived and even thrived after a sexual infidelity. If the situation is feeling futile, check in with yourself and with your partner about what you can do to alleviate some of that feeling in the moment. If it stays for an extended period of time it may be that it's not going to work for you. But focusing on negative thoughts can be a trap. And many messages in society promote a kind of throw away attitude that says it's better to leave and start again with someone else. When we hear stories of relationships working out it is often through the intervention of religion or a particular kind of self-help practice. Those may work for you, but if they don't, remember that if you and your partner are committed to it, you may be able to make it work in a way that is all your own.

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