Learning to Trust after an Infidelity

Arlene Criswell M.H.R., LPC

Infidelity, in a recent research study, was cited as the major contributing cause in about twenty-five percent of divorces. In my twenty-five years as a counselor I have observed that people who learn their spouse has been unfaithful experience many symptoms of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. The shock and betrayal experienced by the hurt partner usually results in both physical and emotional symptoms such as significant sleep disturbances (insomnia, persistent nightmares) fear, helplessness, poor concentration, irritability, intrusive or distressing thoughts or images associated with the infidelity trauma, and exaggerated startle response. Infidelity is a form of trauma that impacts the wounded spouse in almost every area---physical, emotional, and spiritual. With recent statistics indicating a national divorce rate of about sixty-seven percent (John Gottman, Ph.D., 1999), it is imperative that we look seriously at what it takes to help a marriage survive infidelity.

Forgiveness and Trust

A misunderstanding about the relationship between trust and forgiveness often presents a major impediment to healing. When people fall in love, they easily give trust as a part of the building of the relationship. With no evidence that their beloved is not trustworthy, each assumes an attitude of trust toward the other. This trust contributes to the closeness the couple experiences. The sense of trust and safety is enhanced and solidified in the exchange of wedding vows to be faithful to this one partner "so long as (they) both shall live", allowing them to fully invest themselves in the marriage and in their spouse.

When the trust that was so easily given is shattered by one partner’s infidelity (infidelity being defined as the sharing of sexual or non-sexual behavior with an extramarital partner, with secrecy that violates the explicit or implicit expectations of the relationship." Jongsma, O’Leary, and Heymon, 1998), a much more difficult process of rebuilding trust must begin.

Frequently, the unfaithful partner seems offended by the length of time the hurt partner needs to be able to trust again and by the effort required to regain trust. Often, the offending spouse will interpret the hurt spouse’s inability to quickly regain trust as an indication of unforgiveness. " I have said repeatedly that I am sorry---I have promised it will never happen again---what more can I do? S/he just won’t forgive me and move on." is a common complaint.

Most often, the hurt partner has made a quality decision to forgive. But forgiveness does not automatically restore trust. Forgiveness opens the door to regaining trust, in the beginning of the relationship, once shattered, can be regained only through considerable work on the part of both spouses.

"What More Can I Do?"

Healing the pain and disillusionment of unfaithfulness requires work and sacrifice by both spouses. Both spouses must agree on what will be the appropriate emotional and social boundaries for the future, and must commit to maintaining these boundaries with all persons of the opposite sex except the spouse. Partners must be able to discuss and address potential threats to their relationship, as well as the vulnerabilities in the relationship that contributed to the infidelity. It is best to do this with a pastor or experienced marriage counselor, as both spouses feel very vulnerable after infidelity, and people often have vastly differing perspectives of what is fair and reasonable.

Hurt partners often want a great deal of information and detail about the affair and the extramarital partner. While many hurt partners in healing marriages later state regret about having demanded so much detail (s/he has to live with this knowledge for the rest of his/her life), it is important that their requests for information be honored completely and honestly.

The unfaithful partner must demonstrate willingness to allow the hurt partner to objectively test and verify his/her current and future behavior in order to establish a sense of security on which to rebuild trust. This may include the hurt partner verifying the unfaithful partner’s whereabouts at any given time, having complete access to all financial records (including the monthly statements from cell phone bills, individually held and joint credit card statements, individual and joint bank accounts, investments,

retirement funds, and assets). Such fact checking is a necessary part of regaining trust and it is important that the offending spouse not attempt to dissuade the hurt partner from checking up on him or her. (Jongsma, O’Leary and Heyman, 1998) While this degree of fact checking may seem unnecessary or intrusive to the unfaithful partner, the fact is that if there are no secrets, there is no need for secrecy. The unfaithful spouse has created fear in his/her partner. Encouraging the hurt spouse to do whatever checking and validating s/he needs to do to feel safe in the relationship is evidence of taking responsibility for the infidelity and ministering to the needs of the hurt spouse so that reconciliation can mend the wounded family.

Healing the effects of infidelity is an enormous task, but the fruits of the couple’s efforts will reward them. The process outlined in this article is actually a skeletal look at a larger process which includes each partner learning to demonstrate empathy, learning to help meet the other’s emotional needs, and taking small steps of faith which ultimately will restore their sense of unity. God bless you as you work on your marital issues and reconciliation.