Infidelity is often seen as the ultimate betrayal. It does not, however, have to mean the end of a marriage. We asked therapist Kat Mindenhall, LCSW, about her perspective on what a couple faced with infidelity on the part of one partner can do to repair the relationship.
eHow: In your practice, how often do you see couples who are invested in healing from an affair?
Mindenhall: We frequently see couples trying to heal after an affair. Although many couples want to heal, it takes a tremendous investment to do the hard work necessary. Not every couple that comes in is genuinely ready to invest in that work, although you'd be surprised at how many rise to the challenge once they understand what’s needed.
eHow: What do you think is the key feature necessary for a relationship to survive infidelity?
Mindenhall: It’s imperative for both partners to be willing to embrace the discomfort they will encounter during the healing process. To heal a relationship it requires that each partner be willing to go into territory that we'd all rather just avoid. By being courageous and engaging the difficult stuff, you and your partner can confront what contributed to the affair and its aftermath and work toward repairing trust.
eHow: Have you found there are any specific characteristics of a relationship that better the odds of surviving infidelity?
Mindenhall: Over the last 40 years, a lot of great research has been done into what makes some relationships stronger. John and Julie Gottman, along with Sue Johnson, are just a few of the thought leaders who have shed light on this question. One important feature is treating your partner how you'd want to be treated, with kindness and respect. Being gentle with your words may seem simple, but it’s actually quite profound. You need to curb criticism and contempt if you want to repair your relationship, which means being mindful of not doing any more harm.
eHow: What kinds of reactions can someone attempting to make amends for being unfaithful expect from their partner?
Mindenhall: It's most common for there to be continuously shifting reactions and emotions. People should expect their partner to do and say a lot of things during the course of healing, but it's important not to let the inevitable lows be something that destroys your hope for the relationship.
eHow: How does patience come into play?
Mindenhall: Patience is the willingness to experience something painful or unwanted because there is value in it. Healing requires a commitment to tolerating considerable discomfort in order to do the necessary work. This requires patience—with oneself, with one’s partner, with the process—with everything. It means both partners taking a step back, accepting the fact that healing is a winding road and doesn't happen overnight.
eHow: Is compassion important when someone is attempting to make amends for being unfaithful?
Mindenhall: I'm so glad you asked about both patience and compassion. Compassion reminds you that your partner is someone you love. It's a softening, a remembering that this person is human and uncomfortable with the situation—just like you. When you have compassion for each other and for yourselves, you are more patient. When you are more patient, you have more mental space to be compassionate with each other, and are better able to focus on healing the relationship.
eHow: In your opinion, which is more damaging: emotional infidelity or sexual infidelity?
Mindenhall: I wish it were as simple as choosing one or the other. Taking emotional energy away from your relationship and investing it in another person is highly damaging. Whether you invest your energy in a sexual relationship with someone other than your partner, or you invest in creating emotional bonds with another person, both situations can be quite destructive.
eHow: What is the best bit of initial advice you would give a couple seeking to begin down the path of healing from infidelity?
Mindenhall: First and foremost, it's courageous to work on healing your relationship. Secondly, it's not an easy path, so you have to be in it for the long haul. The relationship will not be the same as before, and it will take some time to create your new—oftentimes stronger—bond. Lastly, treat the relationship like a broken leg. It needs some tenderness, some protection and can't be expected to bear the same weight as a healthy leg. Don't assume, however, that just because something is damaged it can never be strong again.
About Kat Mindenhall, LCSW
Kat Mindenhall, LCSW, is the Director of A Peaceful Life Counseling Services (http://www.APeacefulLifeCounseling.com) in the Denver suburb of Lakewood, CO, where she and her team of individual and marriage therapists specialize in helping people achieve more connection, clarity and understanding in their relationships.