Infidelity in Marriage: Why it Happens and What to Do to Repair Your Relationship
The close-knit bond between spouses is something that God takes seriously. But it’s often true that what we want for ourselves and what God desires for us don’t always coincide, and this is to our detriment. So, it’s not surprising to read accounts such as the following in the pages of the Bible:
And Pharisees came up to him and tested him by asking, “Is it lawful to divorce one’s wife for any cause?” He answered, “Have you not read that he who created them from the beginning made them male and female, and said, ‘Therefore a man shall leave his father and his mother and hold fast to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh’? So they are no longer two but one flesh. What therefore God has joined together, let not man separate.” – Matthew 19:3-6
When two people are married to one another, something that transcends the mere exchanging of vows is going on – God is joining the two people together and creating a bond that no one should separate. Infidelity is one type of assault that can come against this bond; it threatens the foundation of the relationship, sowing deep distrust and pain in the relationship that is difficult to recover from.
However, a marriage can recover from infidelity. Though it in no way justifies the adultery, given genuine repentance on the part of the adulterer, and a lot of hard work on the part of both spouses, it is possible for a marriage to emerge stronger from an affair.
Defining infidelity in marriage.
Infidelity needs to be defined because people have very different ideas about what constitutes marital faithfulness and what stepping beyond the bounds of that looks like. During premarital counseling, couples will often have to define their understanding of various terms and the boundaries that must be set around marriage so that they can relate to each other in a healthy way.
One of the boundaries that needs to be understood is what the Bible demands about the exclusivity of their relationship. As each couple comes to the premarital counseling with different experiences and sensitivities, they may understand the boundaries around their relationship differently.
Hurt from a previous relationship, perhaps through infidelity, might lead one couple to insist on their partner not having friends of the opposite sex, or to not text people of the other sex beyond a certain time of day. They may set physical boundaries such as not hugging members of the opposite sex unless they are family members.
Every couple should recognize the boundary of not having sex of any kind with anyone other than their spouse. Others, however, will also insist that they won’t share their emotions, secrets, or burdens with anyone other than their spouse or a trusted circle of people. The point is that each couple will recognize the Biblical boundaries, and define their own boundaries around their relationship. Infidelity is a violation of marital boundaries set by God.
Even in those circumstances where no clear boundaries were discussed or set, many people understand that certain things are reserved for the marriage relationship, including some of what has been mentioned above. Some would not consider an emotional affair (a close, intimate connection with someone who isn’t your partner that typically involves a romantic and sexual attraction) as infidelity, but the behaviors of secrecy suggest a deeper acknowledgment that it is a form of unfaithfulness.
Financial cheating, which involves either having a secret bank account or hiding credit card debt or secretly spending more than your partner would be comfortable with, may also be considered a form of infidelity (though not grounds for divorce the same way sexual infidelity is) since many couples share financial burdens.
In a recent survey, it was found that young adults and millennials tend to keep more financial secrets than their older counterparts – 61% of Gen Z’ers and 48% of millennials who have significant others kept financial secrets from their partners, versus 28% of Gen X’ers and 19% of Baby Boomers.
Why infidelity in marriage happens.
Infidelity in marriage occurs quite frequently, with it being the leading cause of why relationships end. Around 70% of marriages that break up do so because of an affair being discovered. Both men and women cheat, though they may do so for different reasons.
People have affairs and are unfaithful for a variety of reasons. One reason is that people are unhappy, and an affair is a sinful attempt to escape that unhappiness by getting unmet needs satisfied by someone else. However, there are other reasons for infidelity in marriage, including:
- Being with someone who pays them attention and makes them feel wanted.
- They have doubts about their primary relationship, and they may cheat to either confirm whether they still have feelings for their spouse or to precipitate a breakup by doing something reckless.
- The opportunity simply presented itself.
- They grew close to the other person, falling in love with them.
- As a form of revenge against their spouse.
- Boredom with their married sex life, and desiring excitement.
- Pursuing the path not followed, by rekindling a relationship with an ex.
- As a means of self-exploration and discovery.
These reasons range from impulsive, opportunistic, and casual infidelity to well-thought-out infidelity that takes place to meet deep and unmet emotional and psychological needs. Sometimes affairs are the result of temptation and being caught in the heat of the moment, but they can also be the result of a slow burn and trouble in the relationship. Whatever the reason behind the infidelity, it disrupts the sense of trust in the relationship, and it results in hurt.
Repairing the burst dam.
Being cheated on, whether it’s emotional, physical, financial, or another type of infidelity is gut-wrenching. The prevalence of infidelity in our culture does not make it any easier for you to have to go through it. Infidelity stirs up a swirl of emotions, from feeling betrayed and hurt, disappointment, anger, resentment, disgust, fear, and much else.
You might begin to question everything about the relationship, even your own feelings and desire to remain in the relationship for the foreseeable future. If the relationship matters to you even after the infidelity and you desire to repair things, the good news is that it is possible to repair the relationship and make it stronger than it was before the infidelity.
Trust can be restored, and behaviors can be changed so that the relationship is more open, the spouses are more communicative and better placed to meet their mutual needs within the bounds of the relationship.
There may be many voices that chime in when an affair happens, from friends saying “You don’t have to take this lying down. You can give them as good as you got and find your own side piece;” or family members wondering aloud whether a leopard can change its spots or dropping well-worn pearls of “wisdom” such as “There’s plenty of fish in the sea; you don’t have to stick with the one you landed.”
However, as broadcaster and relationship expert Lucy Beresford highlighted in her TEDx talk, “Infidelity: to stay or go?” most people will feel the pressure to relinquish the relationship from within themselves.
She goes on to say that to reclaim the relationship, people must do their best to reconcile their relationships, taking the pain from that new injury and the distrust it has unleashed, working with it to find some new common ground that will help you and your partner re-establish the basics of trust and intimacy in the marriage.
Finding that new common ground and rebuilding trust in your relationship will require both spouses to work at it for things to be restored. Affairs generate new problems for a couple to deal with, but it is also true that affairs are often (but not always) symptoms of deeper, underlying problems in the relationship.
To rebuild the relationship will require looking again at the foundations to ascertain what happened and why it happened. Some tough questions will have to be asked and answered to ascertain if the affair is ongoing or has ended, what feelings were held or are still held toward the third party, and much else.
Such work can be helpfully undertaken by a marriage and family therapist who is trained to help couples work through these thorny issues in a safe and constructive environment. It will take forgiveness, repentance, and healthier behaviors, but infidelity in marriage does not have to mean the end. Your relationship can be restored and strengthened beyond what it was before.
“Broken Heart”, Courtesy of Kelly Sikkema, Unsplash.com, CC0 License; “Marking Her Place”, Courtesy of Josue Michel, Unsplash.com, Unsplash+ License; “Holding Hands”, Courtesy of Pexels, Pixabay.com, CC0 License; “Open Door”, Courtesy of Dima Pechurin, Unsplash.com, CC0 License