It is common that a person who has cheated on their spouse may not be connected with their partner, and may feel that they want out of the relationship.
Frequently they feel guilty for the pain their partner has experienced, and don’t want their partner to suffer any more. They believe they will not be forgiven, and conclude that it’s best to remove themselves from the relationship. Sometimes there is a moment of clarity in which the person realizes that something was missing from the marriage, and that cheating, although it is wrong, makes them feel as though they are destined to be with someone else.
The situation becomes far more complex when the partner wants to make the marriage work, but the cheater is ambivalent and wants to leave.
Nick is a mechanical engineer. He has been married to Nicole for three years, and they have a two-year-old child. While he was away on business, Nick cheated on his wife with a sales rep that he has known for some time. Feeling terrible, Nick confessed the affair to Nicole, who was devastated.
This couple is in a very difficult situation. Nick feels that what he’s done is unforgivable, and wishes the affair had never happened. His guilt and shame cause him to accept the full weight of Nicole’s grief as his responsibility. Nicole feels betrayed, and believes that Nick must make up for his indiscretion. She punishes him by reminding him several times a week about the damage he has done to their family.
Despite her anger, Nicole wants to work on rebuilding trust with her husband, so she tries to initiate intimacy. Nick does not feel emotionally connected, so he refuses her advances. Rejected again, Nicole imagines that she doesn’t measure up to the other woman.
What’s Really Going On?
In reality, Nick is desperate to reestablish intimacy with his wife, but he is not happy. He hasn’t been happy for a long time. From his point of view, it is his responsibility to please Nicole, but she doesn’t bear the same obligation toward him. He resists having sex with her, because he believes that would indicate his commitment to remain in the marriage, and he’s not sure that’s the right decision. Nick is torn; should he do everything he can to repair their relationship, or should he just release Nicole to find a different life partner? He knows he doesn’t want their marriage to continue on the same track. Nick wants them both to be happy; he refuses to continue pleasing her out of his own guilt and to continue being punished for his mistake.
Nick is willing to take the following actions:
- Get Buy-in. It has been more than eight months since his indiscretion. Nick needs his wife to forgive him so he can make a decision about the marriage without feeling guilty and without being pressured to please her. She only has to commit to this for a short period of time.
- No Options. Nick must choose a timeframe – 3-6 months – and be fully committed to working with Nicole to rebuild trust and intimacy. He has to stop thinking of leaving as a viable option.
- Real Life Experience. Instead of endlessly talking, Nick and Nicole must begin creating real experiences together. They must demonstrate love and caring for one another so they can reestablish the emotional connection. Only when they have done this can they rebuild intimacy.
- Decision. After creating an emotional bond and reestablishing intimacy, Nick can make an informed decision about whether or not he wants to remain married to Nicole.
All of this is a huge risk for Nicole. Not only does she have to accept and forgive the betrayal, but she has to move forward on the assumption that at the end of the trial period, Nick will be committed to the marriage for the long haul. She also has to change her behavior, and cease punishing Nick. It will be difficult, but they both realize that this is the course of action that needs to be taken in order for their marriage to have a chance of survival.