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Infidelity is one of the most wrenching experiences a couple can endure. It can destroy families, crush spirits, and break quite a few plates. It causes pain not just to the betrayed, but usually to the cheater as well.
So why do people do it? Experts say that the reasons fall into two main categories. The first has to do with the relationship -- there's either an emotional disconnect or the couple's sex life isn't satisfying to one partner. The second reason has nothing to do with the couple. Rather, one partner simply wants the excitement of an affair, needs an ego boost, or just feels entitled to have more than one sexual partner. "Sometimes, you find someone who has a good sexual relationship with his or her partner and yet has an affair because sex is so important to them that they look for it wherever they can," says Mira Kirshenbaum, PhD, author of Too Good to Leave, Too Bad to Stay (Plume, 1997) and The Emotional Energy Factor (Delacorte, 2003).
In general, men are more likely to cheat for more superficial reasons, like the need for excitement, while women are more likely to stray if there is serious trouble in the marriage. But those lines are blurring, says Shirley Glass, PhD, author of Not "Just Friends": Protect Your Relationship From Infidelity and Heal the Trauma of Betrayal (Free Press, 2002). "In the past, there were significant gender differences," says Glass. "The traditional male affair that was primarily sexual is changing because more men are having more emotional affairs (meaning their feelings for the "other woman" go beyond just sexual) with coworkers. Meanwhile, women are having more sexual affairs," says Glass. One reason: Women now feel more entitled to enjoy their sexuality, so if sex with their husband isn't satisfying they are more likely to look elsewhere than their mothers and grandmothers would have been.
Another trend: With more men and women working together side-by-side, as peers, there's an opportunity for deep emotional connections that didn't exist in previous generations. "You always had the boss who ran off with his secretary, but now I see many men who are in good marriages and are not traditional philanderers who form these deep friendships," she says. "They cross these lines and become more emotionally intimate than they are in their marriage. If there's some sexual attraction and chemistry, that's all you need for an affair."
Although affairs can and do happen to "good" marriages, in general an affair is a signal that something is awry in the relationship. "There are some cases when someone is just having sex with different people out of a need for variety, but most people really think before they go off in that direction. If you have a good relationship, you're less likely to jeopardize it," says Lonnie Barbach, PhD, co-author with David Geisinger of Going the Distance: Finding and Keeping Lifelong Love (Plume, 1993).
A one-night stand or a fling is significantly different from a long-term affair, says Kirshenbaum. "Many flings are essentially experimental. Someone finds something missing in their relationship and checks out what it's like to be with someone else. It turns out to be not-so-great, and they end it. Surprisingly, if no one finds out, often no harm is done. A long-time affair is a sign of a deeper rift -- it's more likely to be found out, and it's more likely to cause more damage to the relationship when it is found out."
To Confess or Not to Confess? Which brings us to another point: Should you confess? In general, it's best to be honest, but our experts agree that there are circumstances when a spouse can spare his or her partner that information. "If a spouse has been suspicious and confronts him, he should confess," says Glass. "But if the spouse has no idea, and the betrayer takes responsibility for working it out on his own, he sometimes doesn't have to cause that kind of chaos," says Glass.
But once a confession is made, Glass says, absolute full disclosure is essential, and the cheater should own up to all affairs that have occurred during the relationship.
We're stressing marriage here, but cheating also happens within unmarried relationships. Is it the same? "If there was no implicit promise of exclusivity, there's no violation," says Kirshenbaum. "But if dating is exclusive and there's a sense of moving toward a commitment, then it can be as big a betrayal as cheating during marriage."
The problem, of course, is that many unmarried couples don't ever sit down and declare a relationship exclusive, or not. And that omission can be the cause of serious pain. "Infidelity can have just as devastating an effect when one person thinks they are committed and one doesn't," says Barbach.
An affair in a dating relationship is also more likely to be the beginning of the end. "Some people cheat as a way of leaving a relationship. They set up the next relationship before they leave the last," says Barbach. "That's different from the person who cheats while maintaining the dating relationship -- this person is much more likely to cheat during marriage."
Can you rebuild trust after an affair? Absolutely, say our experts. Not only do most marriages survive an affair -- many come out stronger than ever. "I've seen many relationships that were much better after the affair, because up until then the couple wasn't dealing with their real issues. Dealing with the affair helped them communicate on a much deeper level," says Barbach.
"The affair is a symptom," says Bonnie Eaker Weil, PhD, author of Adultery: The Forgivable Sin (Hastings House, 1993) and Make Up, Don't Break Up (Adams, 2000). "But the good news is, it's a symptom you can fix. It's a wake-up call."
Building back trust is a long, slow process, but it can be done, says Kirschenbaum. "It's like carrying a bowling ball upstairs one step at a time. One slip and it rolls all the way to the bottom again."
Where to start: Stop playing the blame game. As difficult as this might be for the betrayed, he or she has to stop labeling her spouse as the bad guy. Instead, both partners need to understand what was going on for the other person. They should look at what precipitated the affair, and what each partner needs to do to make it different.
That's not to say that the cheater is off the hook. The cheater needs to do everything possible to make the other person feel safe -- whether that means handing over all credit card statements, providing cell phone and beeper numbers, or making frequent check-in phone calls. "The best thing that a cheating spouse can do is give his partner as much access as needed," says Glass.
The cheater must also be willing to discuss the situation as much as the betrayed spouse needs. Typically, the adulterer doesn't want to dwell on the incident, but the partner can think about little else. "For the betrayed partner it's so traumatic, and they frequently have flashbacks," says Glass. "So it's important for the unfaithful not to be impatient or think they are doing it to punish them."
Weil offers her clients some specific exercises for healing. In one, the betrayed spouse gets 10 minutes a day to "lash the lover" -- to scream and yell and otherwise vent his rage. This enables the betrayed to get out those ugly feelings, while the cheater knows there's a time limit -- which is essential. "If you lash out too much, it contaminates the relationship and brings the person back to the affair," says Weil.
To provide more security, she also instructs adulterers to say "I have had no contact" to their partner every day. This provides a clearly articulated answer to those vague fears that nag the wronged spouse.
Finally, Weil tells cheaters that they must do penance by taking on a chore that is normally not their responsibility, like washing the spouse's car or cooking dinner each night. "Penance should last for as long as the betrayed spouse needs," says Weil.
Of course, credit card statements and clean cars are only part of the equation. To really build trust, the betrayed needs to know that the partner definitely won't cheat again. But how to know? There's no guaranteed sign, but our experts agree that the overall pattern of the spouse's behavior is a good indicator. "The issue is, 'Am I married to a liar?,'" says Glass. "People who have affairs lie about them, but the majority of these people don't lie about other things."
Kirshenbaum agrees. In her 25 years as a couples therapist, she has discovered a reliable rule of thumb: "If someone cheats once, a couple can definitely recover if they both sincerely want to rebuild trust. More than once? It's a lost cause."
Most couples do recover -- and usually emerge closer than ever. "Couples who learn how to work through it together really have a special relationship because it's like going to hell and back," says Glass. "This is a couple who know each other on a very deep level, and that can make the marriage very strong."