Infidelity has always been with us, but in recent decades, our psychological reactions to it have changed.
Formerly, scorn and shame were directed primarily toward the person who cheated; today, more often than not, it is also directed toward a second person in the affair triangle—such as the betrayed spouse, or spouses who decide to remain in the relationship.
In recent years, almost every single one of my patients who decided to stay with a partner after an affair has faced the troubling prospect of being judged for staying, and by the people they most rely on for support and encouragement.
The fact that most people now have the freedom to leave a marriage after infidelity has created an expectation from those around them that they should do so. If they decide to stay, they are likely to hear responses such as, “Don’t you have any self-respect?”; “But you’ll never be able to trust him (or her) again!”; or, “How can you forgive them for what they did?”
This pervasive sentiment against “staying” can be so strong that the betrayed individual may become the target of greater shame and scorn for remaining in the relationship than that heaped upon their cheating partner. By judging a partner who chooses to stay, we are ignoring some very basic facts about relationships and affairs:
- Most couples remain together after an affair.
- Although it takes emotionally challenging and difficult work, many couples are able to mend their relationship and rebuild trust over time.
- When children are involved, surely it is more prudent to at least explore the possibility of healing the wounds of an affair than to toss away an entire relationship without giving the mending process a chance.
International bestselling author and relationship expert Esther Perel(link is external) addressed this issue in her recent viral Ted Talk, “Rethinking Infidelity: A Talk For Anyone Who Has Ever Loved.”(link is external) Perel describes the psychological and emotional complexities that lead to infidelity; how affairs have changed over time; and how healing can occur. She also addresses the current climate of judging betrayed partners when they choose to stay. She explains:
The new shame is staying when you can leave. For centuries women couldn’t leave but now they can (the thinking goes), so why would anyone stay and ‘take it’?… A marriage is not the sum total of this one transgression. Who knows how many less visible acts of betrayal have existed in the relationship? What if the affair happened in the context or years of sexual refusal, distance, or disinterest, which can also be construed as a betrayal of marital vows?
I asked Perel what a betrayed partner should say to friends who judge them for staying. She advised, “Tell your friends or family members they are not the ones who have to live with the consequences of this choice. Tell them you expect them to be supportive, not to immerse themselves in your story as if it was their own.”
Do People Still Judge Hillary Clinton?
I was curious about whether Perel thought Hillary Clinton might still be paying a price for staying married. Was she a victim of the “new shame”?
“Yes,” Perel said. “She is still judged, and way more so by women, who think that if she had self-respect she would have left, as there is no way one can love or trust a man who did this to you.”
But an affair does not automatically sever an emotional connection, especially one built over decades. Couples can rebound and rebuild, particularly when both partners are motivated to do so. If this is the case, both therapists and loved ones can play pivotal roles in getting things back on track.
As a therapist, I tell couples who seek therapy to heal after an affair that my primary responsibility is to the relationship, not to them as individuals. As long as I believe the relationship can recover and eventually thrive, it is my job to help them find a way to make that happen. Similarly, friends and loved ones of those betrayed by affairs should avoid passing judgment for staying. That is the last thing wounded couples deserve—and the last thing we ourselves would want should we find ourselves in their shoes.
Yes, some cheaters prove to be incorrigible, and some relationships are doomed, but when both members of a couple decide to work toward healing and mending—and certainly when we see them actually putting in the effort to do so—we should not only support them but validate their courage and resilience for tackling the immense emotional challenges they still face.
For science-based techniques to heal rejection and failure, including of the marital kind, check out, Emotional First Aid: Healing Rejection, Guilt, Failure and Other Everyday Hurts (Plume, 2014).(link is external)
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