*This blogpost was created from the transcript of the recent Facebook Live video on the topic infidelity.
Today I'm going to be talking a bit about infidelity and deception in partnerships as well as what is required to re-establish trust with a spouse. Following any evidence of untrustworthiness in marriage, we usually hope to re-establish trust rather quickly because we don't like not being able to trust our partners. We want to believe we are safe. We want to believe we understand the person we are with. So re-establishing trust becomes our focus and desire often but this focus may interfere with our ability to actually deal with the relational reality we are in and do anything that would make trusting a spouse a wise choice.
So let’s start with understanding infidelity a bit. Infidelity, whether emotional or sexual, is very easy for human beings to engage in. This statement is not to excuse infidelity or pretend it is inconsequential, just to understand why infidelity has been with us as long as monogamy has. As human beings, most of us want the security of a partnership or marriage, we want to have a special person in our life, and we want to know he or she is being loyal to us. That said, because of the issues of validation and how tempted we are by sexual validation (meaning approval or acknowledgment of our desirability from others), it's very easy to seek extramarital validation. In marriage, your flaws and limitations cannot be easily hidden and so invalidation is always a part of marriage, even if your spouse doesn’t talk about your limitations. Whether or not you like it, your spouse knows too much and may find you difficult to desire or trust. Given that fact, the validation (desire or sexual energy) of others who know you less, can be tempting. That said, seeking this energy is disloyal to the marital contract.
Whenever we engage with another person in a way that we must hide from our spouse (for them to not be upset or to continue trusting us), this constitutes a breach. Whenever we mask our behaviors because we know a spouse wouldn't be okay with how we're interacting with somebody (even if it's just at an energetic level), constitutes an infidelity. Withholding information from your partner that keeps them from knowing who you are or prevents them from making wise choices for themselves) is disloyal. And lots of people do this; It's a very human thing to do. This doesn’t make it “excusable”, but it is what human beings readily do. When someone feels insecure in a marriage, feels invalidated in a marriage, feels that they're not getting the love they think they're entitled to or want, then unfaithful engagement (seeking sexual or emotional validation) can be very tempting.
What Drives Unfaithful Behavior?
Unfaithful energy is usually driven not by the desire for sex as much as by the desire for validation, which is likely sexual. It’s also often justified by the contempt and hostility one feels towards one's spouse for not having offered the validation one thinks they're entitled to. A lot of times what's driving that unfaithful engagement, or the justification of it, is the anger that you can't get from your partner what you want or think you're owed. (This anger can certainly be a function of our narcissism and self-justification more than reality. We often behave un-lovably and undesirably but think we should be loved and adored anyway!)
Additionally, some people are unfaithful not because there's anything wrong in their marriage, but because they like the control and privilege of seeking sexual validation from others. It's easy for the betrayed person to think, "Oh, this must be a judgment on the marriage. This is about my spouse not being happy with me." It can be about limitations in the marriage, but often people just like sexual validation from the outside. They want the security of a partner and the aliveness of unfaithful pursuit. Dishonesty and deception are the way they pull it off.
How Do You Determine if it’s an Emotional Affair?
The primary issue is that of deception. If a relationship is just a friendship, there's no need to hide anything. You don't need to mask anything and your spouse can be a part of any of those conversations or engagements at any time because it's all above board. So that might be a friendship that you have, but you're not trying to keep something special or hidden.
The act of hiding is what constitutes infidelity. There are ranges in infidelity. You can engage somebody's flirtatious energy at work or you can have a full-on three-year sexual affair with a coworker. There is clearly a range and the depth of deception has different implications for a marriage, but as soon as you go into the realm of deception and try to keep something special for yourself without your partner knowing, you have now moved into the frame of infidelity or an affair.
Coming Clean Vs. Hiding
You may be unhappy in your marriage. You may feel the pull of an extramarital relationship. But if you say to your spouse, "Look, I need you to know something. I've been hiding from you the fact that I've been doing X, Y, and Z and keeping it from you." This is an act of integrity to come forward and be honest. You’re saying "I am not okay with what I am doing and I need to come clean and play this straight," and that in and of itself is a demonstration of both a spouse’s capacity for untrustworthiness as well as their emerging capacity for trustworthiness.
You may be enraged that your spouse was willing to abandon his or her integrity, you may be really upset that they were willing to mask things from you, but the fact of their coming forward is an important signal that they have an issue with themselves, and their own behavior. There is relief that it's not you that's trying to extract trustworthiness from them, which will never work well. Instead they feel compelled to deal with themselves, and that's inherently a more trustworthy position.
A concept I speak a lot about in the relationship course, “Strengthening Your Relationship”, is the concept of self-confrontation---the willingness to deal with who you are in your marriage. This capacity is essential to achieving an intimate marriage. You can’t get around it. If you live honestly, even if imperfectly, you function from a solid, trustworthy position. Not only does living honestly allow you more peace with yourself, but you become inherently more trustworthy to those around you. Your spouse, people close to you, experience you as someone who takes responsibility for himself or herself, and doesn’t prevaricate. This is essential to having people want to be close to you. Who you are makes you easier to trust and be with.
On the other hand, if you have to extract information from a spouse, while they are trying to hide it from you, you will necessarily feel anxiety and deepened distrust. It creates anxiety because of what the fact of their hiding means. The duplicitous spouse wants control of the information. They don’t want you to know who they are, and this is perhaps most distressing. Not only have they been unfaithful, but they have no intention of playing this straight with you. You may have to face the questions of "Were you ever going to tell me? How long were going to hide this from me? How did you feel justified in doing it?" These are all really important questions in knowing who your spouse is and the answers are at the core of the question of trust.
Making a Spouse’s Infidelity Your Fault Vs. Taking Responsibility For Yourself
It can be tempting in confronting infidelity to believe that it is somehow the betrayed’s fault, to believe if you were a more desirous spouse that this wouldn't have happened. It's tempting because we want more control in these situations than we have, so sometimes our desire to take all the responsibility is a way of trying to get control of something we don't in fact have control of. That is to say, you can control how desirable of a human being you are but you can't control if someone desires you or loves you, or if they'll be faithful to you. That's in their court, that's their decision as difficult as that reality is.
Infidelity is Always a Choice
You could be a rotten spouse, exploit every basic assumption of the marriage, and still your spouse could choose to not be dishonest or disloyal to the marital agreement. They might have some integrity and say, "I'm really unhappy and I think I'm going to leave this marriage," or "the person at the office is really looking good to me because of how miserable it's been here," but at least that's above board. They are not justifying deception. No one drives their spouse into infidelity. Everyone gets to decide who they are, and how they’ll respond to the challenges in life. That said, it may make sense to look at your role in the marriage from which a spouse chose infidelity. This is not to say another’s choices are your fault. But you can look at what role you have played in the marital reality. You can always address the part you do have control over. This may be about your own unfairness or immaturity that’s made the marriage unhappy for a spouse. Or it may be that you step down and self-doubt too much, and your spouse takes advantage of that. Whichever it is, don’t confuse facing your own limitations for the idea that you control the trustworthiness of another person.
A spouse who has breached the marital contract in some way has often been kind of tortured by the reality of their own behavior, and when the information comes forward they often feel relieved, like they can now move forward. (They may even pressure you to get over it just as quickly and start trusting them again!).
The person that's been betrayed though does not feel relieved! He or she is dealing with disillusionment and disorientation. There is confusion about the reality of the marriage, who their spouse is and whether or not they can track what is real. Sometimes this disorganization gets handled by the betrayed taking a superior position, persecuting as a way to manage a damaged sense of self. While it feels good and that's why we like it so much, it doesn't help you get stronger. It's certainly understandable up front, I would never be talking to someone who just found out about their spouse’s infidelity about forgiving or anything like that at first. It's certainly a natural and reasonable response, but a lot of us kind of get locked in that position. It's a way of being in the relationship : "I'm the betrayed and you're the loser and we're going to do this relationship from here on out where I’m the superior victim.”
Trust Your Gut
On the other hand, as disillusioning as it is to wake up to a spouse’s unfaithful behavior, it can solidify people’s trust in themselves. Before the admission of infidelity, the faithful spouse has often been tracking that something is off, but telling themselves that they are just paranoid or insecure. Maybe every time they brought up incongruent information their spouse would twist it into, "Why don't you trust me?" And, "No, you're just making stuff up," and the betrayed starts to think they are crazy.
But when they start to figure out, "No, I'm actually mapping reality”, that's the upside of all this is that “at least I know what I know, that I am able to track when something's off." And so that's the good news; that’s the cold comfort in all of the disillusionment.
How Do You Re-establish Trust?
The way to re-establish trust with an unfaithful spouse is for the untrustworthy spouse to become trustworthy, which they probably are not yet. And so if you don't trust them at this point, it’s probably out of good judgment. You don't trust the dishonest spouse because you are addressing what's real---that they’ve been willing to deceive you and even possibly twist you up in your attempts to address what’s real. And as hard and as sobering as that is, because it's not the picture you want, the fact that you're willing to stay awake is really important for you becoming more solid. This is essential to knowing what's up and down so you can accurately track if your spouse becomes a trustworthy person or not.
To re-establish trust, you have to trust your own radar. You have to trust that you can map what is real about your spouse. We may want desperately to see a spouse as trustworthy, and if we want this too much we will corrupt our ability to track what is real. We’ll stick our head in the sand, because we often don't want to deal with what we feel and see. Letting ourselves go blind is dangerous to our own well-being in relationships. If you don’t take responsibility for what you track as real, you will always be insecure and stay dependent on someone who is not dependable.
Proving Trustworthiness Vs. Being Trustworthy
Keeping your eyes open to and dealing with what is real is not the same thing as persecuting or interrogating your spouse. To a spouse that is prematurely pressuring you to trust them again, you can take a solid position and say, "Of course I don't trust you because there is no reason yet that I ought to, and until you deal with your own dishonesty and your own untrustworthiness within yourself, you aren't going to be a trustworthy person. Full stop. And so I want to trust you, but more than I want to trust you, I want a trustworthy spouse. So I'll trust you when you've become trustworthy, and that's something that I get to decide by watching you, not that you need to convince me of.” Meaning it's not their job to get you to trust them, it's their job to be trustworthy.
You don't have control over whether or not your spouse thinks you're desirable or legitimate, you have control over your desirability, your trustworthiness, and your own honest view of yourself. The more you try to get somebody else to give this to you, the more that the control mechanism is in the wrong place and keeps you stuck, trying to control something you can’t control. This is what is at the core of infidelity is trying to control. "I want you to be happy with me and stay with me, no matter who I really am. So I'm not going to give you information about me that would make you leave. I want the security of the partnership while I go and get validation elsewhere. But I don't want you to go anywhere, that's why I'm keeping the information from you, so you don’t have a real choice. I want to control the validation or security of your presence, but the only way I'm going to get it is if I deceive my way into it, because if my spouse knew what I was doing she wouldn't like me or desire me.” Of course, that's a dishonest position, and it's bad for the person who lives duplicitously as much as it's bad for the betrayed.
I know this may seem wrong to some, but I would never say “I trust my husband 100%”. This is not because he's untrustworthy; it's because I would never relinquish my responsibility for mapping what's real. The reality is my husband keeps justifying my trust, that's the great news. Everything always lines up. You can slice reality in any direction and everything is consistent. That's a trustworthy person.
I had a couple come into my office once and she was saying, "He used to hire prostitutes, he used to go do all these dishonest things, and it's been eight years since he was caught and went through a church court but something’s wrong with me because I still don't trust him." So I wanted to figure out, "Is it that he's still not trustworthy or is she somebody who is not willing to lean into the new reality that he has become trustworthy?" So I started slicing into the presented picture, and the picture couldn't hang together. There wasn't integrity in the picture. Anytime he would give me a picture of who he was, I would ask him to give me more details or elucidate the contradictory details about that picture, and it would crumble under itself.
If someone is trustworthy, the data lines up. If there is something that doesn't line up, you can go to it and say, "Hey, this doesn't line up. Why not?" And the reason you get you know is true. You feel it's true. If you feel like you've got to convince yourself that it's true, it's probably not true. If you find yourself wanting to make yourself be okay with something, you're probably deceiving yourself.
Unwillingness to Trust Again
Unfaithful spouses can become trustworthy again. They can grow up and deal with their untrustworthiness. Some spouses become people who have more self-respect and are deserving of deeper respect and trust, but their spouse is unwilling to open up to the meaningful change. The betrayed spouse may not want to take the risk or confront their own anxieties about intimacy and openness. Some seek refuge in their victimhood, as a way to not grow and create a better marriage with their stronger, more trustworthy spouse.
Of course others do see their spouse’s development, and step back in to create a better, more honest and intimate partnership. When marriages truly overcome infidelity, both partners become stronger better people and create a marriage qualitatively better than the one that the infidelity ruptured.
To watch the video of this discussion, including questions asked about this topic and Dr. Finlayson-Fife’s answers, watch it in our FREE Facebook Group