Infidelity and divorce mediation.
Statistics around infidelity can be shocking. One study published in the Journal of Marital and Family Therapy stated that emotional or physical infidelity affects 41% of marriages. According to self-reported stats, as many as 74% of men and 68% of women report that they would have an affair provided there would be no ramifications.
Before we go too far down this path, let’s take a moment to answer an important question: What is infidelity?
- Does kissing count?
- Is a one-night-stand a big deal?
- What if there was no physical contact, just a “special friendship”?
Judy Rader, a marriage and family therapist, has stated that “the most useful definition of infidelity encompasses the breaching of an emotional and/or physical relationship boundary.” This means the concept of cheating can vary across many different relationships.
Some couples are emotionally monogamous and physically open. Other couples live by the opposite rule. In some marriages, pornography is forbidden. Some individuals abide by their own standards, and have never discussed such boundaries with their partner—until there’s a problem.
Any activity that crosses a line has the capacity to erode a marital bond. How do you know it’s bad if you’ve never discussed it? A simple test is to ask, “if I was fully transparent with my spouse about this relationship or interaction, would I feel comfortable? Would my spouse receive the information easily?”
If it has to be hidden, it’s probably a problem.
The extent of the problem is determined by the individuals whose relationship is at stake. There’s no rule or standard to say that genital contact is more or less devastating than an emotional affair. Cheating of any kind represents a breakdown in the bonds of a marriage.
But, is infidelity itself the thing that destroys marriage? Not according to Sam Margulles, Ph.D, Esq, who suggests that infidelity usually happens after the marriage has begun to weaken. In other words, infidelity is typically a symptom and not the cause of dis-ease in a partnership.
Another question that plagues our culture is, “Why is infidelity so common?”
You can search the web and find no shortage of explanations:
- “Men are jerks.”
- “Women are shallow.”
- “There’s a lack of integrity in our society.”
- “People don’t know what it means to commit.”
- “Kids these days…”
These are simplistic statements of blame. They come from a place of anger, oozing from deep wounds. In reality, it’s not so simple. Let’s explore just a few possibilities that can wither a marriage prior to infidelity.
Not doing “the work.”
The bonds of marriage don’t become rock-solid simply by the presence of rings any more than you can bench press 500 pounds simply because you have a gym membership. Building and maintaining intimacy in a marriage requires presence, planning, consideration, and a bit of heavy lifting.
When a couple forgets (or fails to make time) to exercise their intimacy muscles, strength is lost. In these cases, a partner who is craving the kind of intimacy that’s been no longer available might seek it outside the marriage and fulfill his/her needs with a different partner.
Barriers to a healthy physical relationship.
Let’s be honest: real life in the bedroom usually doesn’t look like it does in the movies. There are many reasons why individuals might feel shame or sexual insecurity. Such issues are awkward to discuss, and for many it’s easier to sweep the issues under the rug (or, under the bed) and pretend they don’t exist. Unfortunately, this practice can lead to resentment and overall lack of satisfaction.
Partners “grow apart.”
It’s natural for humans to grow and change as time goes by. Through new experiences, connections, and educational opportunities, we become different people than we were on our wedding day. Ideally, married partners are tuned in and nurturing their bond through these changes. But, that can be hard as there are mounting obligations related to children, community, and work that take peoples’ focus away from their marriage.
For some, there comes a moment of realization that they no longer know their partner and do not feel connected to him/her. The sadness of this understanding can quickly force an alternative connection into the spotlight.
Regardless of the underlying reason(s), when a couple faces the fact of infidelity in their marriage, they have an important choice to make. Do they confront the problem(s) as a team and repair their marriage? Or do they determine that the marriage is too far gone, and go their separate ways?
Both of these choices can be executed in a healthy manner, if each person commits to a healthy mindset and productive process. Let’s take a look at each option in a little more detail.
Marriage Therapy After Infidelity
This option is a challenge for everyone, even the therapist. When a couple seeks counseling after one party has been unfaithful, both partners bring strong and competing emotions to the table. These emotions can include shame, fear, grief, anxiety, and (of course) anger. The level of distress can threaten a positive outcome, even with the best of intentions.
For the person who was cheated, knowledge of the infidelity explodes all previous understanding of reality and identity within the partnership. New questions compound with no easy answers:
- Was our entire marriage a lie?
- How could I have been so blind?
- Who is this person who could do such a thing?
- Will I ever trust again?
- Can we become partners again?
- Do I even want this to work?
Indeed, s/he may experience symptoms of post-traumatic stress such as anxiety, difficulty eating, sleeping, or focusing on daily tasks. Flashbacks and triggers could become a regular occurrence, and may take months or even years to abate.
The partner who was unfaithful also endures their share of emotional upheaval. When the cover is blown off the affair, the box it was in falls apart and the unfaithful party can no longer rationalize, justify, and compartmentalize their actions. The traumatic response of their spouse often comes as a shock as they are confronted with the potentially dire consequences of their actions.
- Will I lose my marriage?
- Will I lose my family?
- Will others find out what I’ve done?
Therapists will help the unfaithful partner process feelings of fear, guilt, shame, worry, anxiety, and anger. Additionally, the affair may need to be mourned before real healing can take place in the marriage.
To say the least, there’s a lot of baggage to unpack (and repack). Throughout this therapeutic journey, a couple might meet with their therapist individually as well as together in joint sessions. Along the way, the therapist will regularly check the couple’s desire to recommit as well as normalize any emerging ambivalence while helping the partners understand and process their ever-changing emotions.
As a couple forges ahead, it will be necessary to co-create the story of the affair. This is vital to recovery as the human nervous system can process difficult information more effectively than it can handle a state of not knowing. With pertinent information out in the open, couples can reach common ground regarding what the affair was/wasn’t. From there, true grieving and healing can take place.
Steps toward restoring trust might include complete transparency in current behavior. This means a therapist could encourage the unfaithful partner to share access to account passwords, phone records, and text conversations. Such openness and collaboration can help restore intimacy and authenticity to the relationship. These factors comprise a firm foundation upon which a couple will begin to co-create a new story.
Divorce (Divorce Mediation?) After an Affair
For a couple deciding to divorce after infidelity, things can get ugly pretty fast. Because the couple is no longer comprised of people who consider themselves “partners,” the terminology around this scenario often revolves around the following:
The Victim, who typically feels scorned, betrayed, and humiliated.
The Cheater, who might feel guilty and remorseful or defensive and justified.
This is quite a polarized situation, and the “good vs evil” dynamic is often supported by those who are rallied around each person. It’s easy to imagine what can happen if a couple embarks on a journey through divorce, fueled by their emotions surrounding the affair…
- The victim blames the cheater, setting the stage for a fight about who deserves The victim will often adopt a position that, under the circumstances, the cheater is not entitled to alimony or spousal support.
- The victim might also insist that the cheater is an unfit parent and attempt to block access to the child(ren) on a consistent basis.
- The victim can take things a step further by deciding that, because the cheater caused the divorce, the victim deserves the bulk of the marital estate.
- The cheater, feeling threatened, might hide assets.
- Because “the best defense is a good offense,” the cheater may retaliate by hiring a high-profile attorney to intimidate the victim.
- Fast forward four years and $80,000 later… both parties have liquidated much of their marital assets and have struggled to move forward in their personal lives.
- In the end, the couple’s children endure years of emotional turmoil as a result of an issue that had nothing to do with them in the first place.
Is there a better way forward? Can a couple utilize divorce mediation despite the strong negative emotions that accompany infidelity?
The answer is yes, but it takes work. Mediation isn’t simply a way to save money on a divorce. And it’s not a magic cure for the complications that stress relationships before, during, and beyond a separation.
Mediation is a collaborative process that demands a certain mindset. In order for couples to successfully mediate, they must be motivated to compartmentalize their feelings about the infidelity during the mediation sessions. They must hold each other in respectful regard. They must prize the wellbeing of their family over payment for perceived grievances.
When a couple commits to divorce mediation, they honor each other, their past, and their future. They empower themselves to construct creative solutions that will be the most appropriate to serve their unique situation. Mediation sets the stage for respectful release and cooperative coparenting.
Let’s take a look at how the mediation process differs from the competitive divorce illustrated above:
- Husband and wife make a commitment to contain their emotions about the affair. They seek support through alternate avenues instead of allowing their feelings to dictate the legal process.
- Both husband and wife step up and come to the table to work toward an amicable and fair resolution of legal matters.
- As feelings of guilt or remorse present themselves during negotiation, a mediator can help to explore financial distribution using the law, not emotions, to guide the process.
- Equitable distribution is established according to state law.
- Custody schedules and parenting agreements are determined by the parents, according to the best interests of the children.
Through the use of mediation and the support of additional professionals, a couple can maintain greater control over themselves as individuals, as well as the process itself, and the future of their family. The skills learned and utilized in the mediation process will continue to serve the parties as they create a new story as coparents. And the children of parents who mediate a divorce are often subject to far less stress than those who find themselves weaponized as part of a bitter battle.
Some Key Points:
- Infidelity is, unfortunately, a relatively common and extremely complicated factor in many marriages.
- Upon uncovering infidelity, a couple is faced with the choice to preserve the marriage or end it.
- A qualified therapist can help a couple navigate the anger, anxiety, and grief involved in recovering from such a marital wound.
- Couples who divorce as a result of infidelity must choose the type of process to use.
- Competitive litigation tactics can be costly in terms of money and the emotional wellbeing of all family members.
- Mediation can help a couple to collaborate for the good of their family, but it demands full participation, shared goals, and the right mental framework to proceed.
Tara Eisenhard is an author, divorce coach, and educator who helps struggling singles overcome shame and frustration so they can find peace and create a life they love. She is also the author of the novel "The D-Word: Divorce Through a Child's Eyes." For more information, visit TaraEisenhard.com.
About the Author
Tara EisenhardTara Eisenhard helps struggling singles overcome shame and frustration so they can find peace and create a life they love. She’s a child of divorced parents, an ex-wife, a “next” wife and the previous partner of a divorced dad. Personal experience taught her that divorce is about evolution, not dissolution.
Topics: Healthy Legal Options