In a previous blog (Does Sexual Betrayal Cause PTSD?) I discussed how infidelity is an attachment injury. You caught your partner in a lie about sexual betrayal, so your partner has lost your trust. You can no longer feel securely attached to a partner you can no longer trust to tell the truth. Yet sexual betrayal also hurts our self-esteem because it means that our partner is dissatisfied with the quality of the sex and/ or the emotional intimacy with us and is looking for and perhaps found something better with someone else. That may create self-doubt and insecurity about our romantic desirability. A monogamous commitment implies that we are our partners’ favorite lover. Infidelity suggests that may no longer be true and someone else may have taken that place of honor in our partners’ desires and/ or affections.
Part of romantic intimacy is the feeling of being someone special in our partners’ affections and desires. The idea of soulmates suggests a unique and special connection with our partners that could not be easily replicated and replaced with somebody else. Some believe that the feeling of soulmates is simply a romantic illusion unique to the honeymoon phase of a relationship. Yet research has found that some residual feeling of romantic chemistry may last throughout a long-term relationship spanning decades. What can emerge after the honeymoon is over is an appreciation that our partners, despite their imperfections, are still unique and special individuals, still our soulmates. We are lucky to have them in our lives. It’s also quite an ego boost if our partners return the favor. We are off the pedestal and our partners still love us despite having seen us at our absolute worst. That’s true love.
Infidelity wounds our pride because it appears to say that we are no longer our partners’ favorite lover, so they are looking elsewhere for better sex and/or greater emotional intimacy. And if our partners are repeat offenders (i.e. they engage in repeated infidelities), it would seem that they actually are finding greater sexual and romantic fulfillment outside of the relationship than with us.
Recovery from infidelity is therefore not only restoring trust that our partners are truthful people who will honor their recommitment to monogamy. Recovery also means restoring or perhaps creating for the first time a conviction that the members of a romantic couple are still soulmates, still each other’s favorite lover. The betrayed partner has to overcome worries that formerly unfaithful partners still harbor secret romantic yearnings for past affair partners and therefore might relapse someday (i.e. resume infidelity). The unfaithful partner has to feel that it is indeed worth it to recommit to monogamy, that the betrayed partner is indeed their favorite lover and it’s definitely worth it to sacrifice further extra-marital sexual relations despite the temptations. How do couples develop a conviction that they are each other’s favorite lover? Is it to arrange date nights or go on a romantic vacation in a tropical paradise? Unfortunately, the solution is not that simple and requires more emotion work than that. The following are the essential steps that must be undertaken:
- See Your Partner Realistically: Look at your partner realistically warts and all. What are your partners realistic flaws, the flaws that make them less sexually or romantically desirable? Think about how you feel about those flaws—frustrated, turned off?
- Honestly Assess Your Attempts to Change Your Partner: Think about your experiences with your partner pointing out those flaws. Did it get you anywhere? Or did your partner get defensive and angry? Did it just turn into escalating and frustrating power struggles? Did your partner just turn around and start complaining about all your faults?
- Assess How Ongoing Power Struggles Effect Romantic Chemistry: Usually such frustrating and ongoing power struggles undermine the romantic chemistry. We feel that our partners don’t accept us as we are with all our human imperfections and will only accept us when our flaws finally get fixed to their liking. That makes us feel badly about ourselves, especially if the flaws seem fundamental to the kind of person we are.
- Learn How to Accept Each Other Despite the Imperfections: If we come to the realization that our partners won’t get fixed to our liking no matter what we do, we are left with a difficult choice: Do we end the relationship because we can’t and don’t want to learn to live with our partners’ unfixable flaws or can we commit to the relationship, despite those flaws, because our partner is worth it (i.e. the benefit we get ultimately exceeds the cost of learning to live with our partners’ imperfections).
- Appreciate Your Partner for Learning to Accept Your Flaws: If you have a partner that genuinely accepts you as you are without trying to fix you, you are among the lucky few. That partner is special and not easily replaced and should not be taken for granted. Most extra-marital lovers are untested in that regard and perhaps incapable. You are extremely lucky if you have a lover that accepts you despite your imperfections. A partner such as that deserves to be treated as your favorite lover in the whole wide world.