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Can cheating in marriage be healthy and help it in the long run?

Many would think that affairs signal the end of a marriage. We speak with psychologists to understand if/how infidelity makes or breaks a marriage.

sex and relationships Updated: Nov 06, 2017 12:42 IST
Sanya Panwar
When someone cheats in a relationship they value, it is almost never just about sex.
When someone cheats in a relationship they value, it is almost never just about sex.(Shutterstock)

Can cheating be healthy for a relationship? Can it make your marriage stronger? Is infidelity a cure for your marriage problems?

The answer is a big, fat no: The effects of cheating in a marriage can be catastrophic.

For Mumbai-based counsellor Anita Singh, infidelity is not just a betrayal of vows, it is a rejection of everything the betrayed partner believed they were in the marriage - the lover, parent, trusted confidant, emotional companion and intellectual equal above all others. And it can damage their very identity.

Nor is infidelity just sex, she says. Sexting, watching porn, Facebook friendships with old lovers, dating apps, massage with a “happy ending”, all these things can fall into the category of infidelity.

“Infidelity is betrayal on so many levels. Deceit, abandonment, rejection, humiliation, all the things love promised to protect us from,” says Singh.

Where affairs would once have been discovered by lipstick on a collar or receipts found in a pocket, one can now go digging and find messages, photos, and emails showing all the expressed desires and daily interactions of a cheater. (Shutterstock)

Why is infidelity so traumatic?

Kolkata-based psychologist and counsellor Polly Sengupta believes affairs are more damaging now than ever before. One of the reasons modern affairs can be so traumatic is our ability to see the relationship in vivid detail, she says.

Where affairs would once have been discovered by lipstick on a collar, receipts found in a pocket or information from a third party, one can now go digging and find messages, photos, and emails showing all the expressed desires and daily interactions of a cheater.

Did you think of her when you were with me? Did you tell her I could not satisfy you? Did you say the things to him you used to say to me? Did you love her more, desire her more, give her more of yourself than you gave me? Even when one has the chance to ask those questions, hearing the answers is not the same as watching them play out in real time. This, Sengupta says, is genuinely traumatic. And can easily be something from which a relationship never recovers.

“Staying in a marriage after infidelity can also feel more shameful for the person who did not cheat, than the one who did. It isolates the betrayed partner because if they tell people about it they know they will be judged for not leaving,” say Sengupta.

Many couples do stay together after an affair. Some do not. But staying does not always mean the relationship is healed.

“Affairs can lock couples into a bond of guilt and fear that never goes away. The cheater may be distraught at the pain they caused their partner and children, and may feel they cannot add to it by abandoning them,” says Sengupta.

The betrayed partner can become so caught up in humiliation and fear that they cannot let go of the relationship but also cannot move beyond the betrayal. “Destroyed by the affair but trapped in a never-ending cycle, relationships like this can limp along for decades,” says Sengupta.

Infidelity is not just a betrayal of vows, it is a rejection of everything the betrayed partner believed they were in the marriage. (Shutterstock)

How can couples heal from infidelity?

Affairs are very, very destructive because the bond of trust has been broken. But after years of working with couples who have experienced betrayal and affairs, Singh can vouch for the fact that it is possible to get marriages back on track and rediscover trust, caring, friendship and passion.

But she makes it clear that it is far from easy. Healing from infidelity is a slow process for most people.

“The unfaithful partner must take responsibility for breaking trust and for rebuilding it so the burden of trusting again is not carried by the person betrayed. It also requires a level of shared honesty and insight that many people find too difficult to manage in the aftermath of an affair,” Singh says.

When someone cheats in a relationship they value, it is almost never just about sex. Singh says, there is often a feeling of loss and mortality underlying the need to stray, and many cheaters she talks to say they did it to feel “alive”. According to her, affairs are common after a bereavement or change that leaves the cheater wondering about the person they used to be before marriage, or the person they could have been without it.

“Passion and communication, dissipated over years of a long relationship, might feel easier to find outside it. Secrecy, emotional connection and sexual alchemy bring back feelings of vitality - being alive - that are too easily lost in the prosaic management of home, children and work,” Singh says.

However, she is quick to add that it’s an explanation, not an excuse.

Sengupta says that in most cases the betrayed partner will respond with “Do you think I was happy? That I didn’t want more? But I did not cheat, why did you?”

Couples who can find the answers to those questions, she says, and a way to feel alive with each other may be able to reinvigorate a relationship that was previously unfulfilled for both of them.

Infidelity, however, is not a prerequisite for this change. As Sengupta says of people who cheat, “If they could bring into their relationships one tenth of the boldness, the imagination and the verve that they put into their affairs, they probably would never need to see me”.

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