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ERP 104: How Can Infidelity Make Your Relationship Stronger? [Transcript]

ERP 104: How Can Infidelity Make Your Relationship Stronger?

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Welcome to The Empowered Relationship Podcast, helping you turn relationship challenges into opportunities and setting you up for relationship success. Your host, Dr. Jessica Higgins, is a licensed psychologist and relationship coach who shares valuable tips, tools and resources for you to dramatically improve your relationship.

This podcast is 100% ad-free. To support this show, please subscribe and write a review today. Here is your host.

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Hi, thank you for joining today’s podcast episode. Today’s episode is 104, “How Can Infidelity Make Your Relationship Stronger?”

Before we get started, I wanna thank those of you that are on my e-mail list. I know I have been promoting the Connected Couple program over the last several weeks, and some of you who are on my list are not used to getting e-mailed that much, so I appreciate you hanging in there if you weren’t particularly interested in the program at this time.

In the future, I wanna let you know that I will be creating a different section for people that are interested in curriculum like this and programs, so that you can essentially opt in to that promotion. I’ll try to distinguish between people who are interested in programs and curriculum for those of you that are just wanting to be on my regular newsletter e-mail list. And some of you may not have gotten my e-mail list, because I was giving a discount code in my e-mail for the program, and I think it triggered spam filters, because I get my own e-mails, and all of the e-mails on this last promotion, I think every single one went to my spam filter.

So I don’t know if that means you wanna whitelist or whitelabel – I can’t remember what they call that, but essentially put me as a contact; you’re basically telling your e-mail provider that “Yes, I want e-mails from this person.”

Okay, for today I am going to be answering a listener’s question. This comes from a woman who would like to remain anonymous, and I might have to answer her question in a couple different parts because I feel that there’s two elements and I’m not gonna get to everything today. So what I’ll do is I’ll read her question and I’m gonna answer specifically around infidelity today, and kind of how to work some of what gets brought up within that circumstance.

She also asks me [unintelligible 00:03:02.04] so I’ll save that for another episode. I’ll read her question and then I’ll give my response to what I understand is typical and the opportunities when the threat or an affair has occurred within an intimate relationship; this is within a monogamous relationship.

Listener writes:

If you heard the story of my 18 year relationship, even you might be surprised

Over the last couple of years we really tested the boundaries of us being together

Now we are better, stronger, more intimate and communicative than ever before

We both proclaim most every day how happy we are that we each stood for the relationship when the other faltered. The harshest part we went through was my pulling away, near infidelity emotionally, which caused me to questioned “us” and although that was short-lived, I did pull away for a couple of years emotionally and physically

About the time I was coming back to wanting to repair he started talking to someone at work who pursued him. He said he knew it the beginning she was nothing he wanted, but he was drawn in because she gave him what I was not – attention. They had been talking a month already when I found out. Once I found out, he almost immediately tried to break it off with the other person, but she kept drawing him back and for several months he felt like he was in a vortex of emotions. I stood for us this time. I listened to you and other podcasts, and after a few months he made a clean break and we moved forward.

After 17 years together and me saying no to getting married, we got married. He said it’s what he wanted all these years. So I would love to hear a podcast on infidelity, limerence and how it can be overcome. Your relationship can be stronger and it can even be a wake-up call. It was a blessing in disguise for us.

I love your shows so much. I feel like you are right here talking to me. I listen to the ones that don’t seem like they apply as I now know relationships are like a living entity and always changing. I want to forever stay on top of my game. I share the cliff notes with my hubby and they open up great conversations. Thank you for this gift

Love and light.”

Thank you, Listener, so much. Your question is a great one and I’m excited to answer the question and talk about the topic today. I wanna underscore a couple things… There’s some great awareness in your sharing. You talk about how you took a stand for the relationship, and that you each stood for the relationship when the other faltered, so I think that’s a huge gift to be grateful for.

When one of you was in a place of ambivalence or doubt or going through something, the other one held the relationship, held the container and the space for your guys’ connection. Also, there seems to be something important about your process. You talked about feeling really distant emotionally and physically, and I imagine there was something you did that invited you to turn back into the relationship. I’m not sure what there was, but I imagine that there is value to that. There was something in him or something in the relationship that you were really wanting to continue. That seemed important. There’s a process in you from turning away from turning in.

I also wanna just say how important it is that he really wanted a clean break, and basically turned that relationship down, the one that he was experiencing at work, and the person that was pursuing him, despite — it sounds like there was a couple months of going back and forth. Even though his initial reaction was “No, I want you”, there was still a process of untangling that other relationship.

More than anything, I just wanna say I’m so happy for you guys, that this has brought you to a place of better communication and really seeing each other and really standing in a deeper level of commitment. My happiness for you – I love that you get that it’s a live, breathing entity, your relationship… And that you guys are caring for your connection in a much more mindful way, and I wouldn’t want anything more for you, just that it keeps blossoming.
So well done, great work, and thank you for sharing. It really feels good to hear your feedback, and I know that it helps listeners.

In response to this listener’s question, “How can infidelity make your relationship stronger?” – I created this podcast episode for you. Before we get started though, I’m also looking at this question and I’m like, “Okay, it doesn’t seem super clear to me that there was sex with a peripheral person.” They both had a distracting interest of someone else outside of their primary relationship, and based on how this is written, I’m unclear if there were… It definitely sounds like there was an emotional betrayal, but I can’t tell if there was actual sex involved or physical betrayal. And this can be really important, because when people are confronted or find out about an affair, there’s usually a crisis, period. It can be shattering.

This is often a time where people will feel great despair; they might feel enraged and just fuming with anger of “How could you do this to me? How could you do this to us? How could you throw it all away?” People have families and children, and their community and their extended family, and just feeling the shatter and the break of that.

It can also bring up great confusion and turmoil, and reeling with “What does this mean? Where do we go? What’s happening? How do we make sense of this all? Are we together, are we not together?” And as I mentioned just a moment ago, the assault to the security of the bond – emotionally, and also as a team, the partnership, how people work together.

It can also be a shattering of what was to come, what people are dreaming for and their goals together. And again, the dishonesty and the betrayal, that can be one of the hardest things to really come to terms with.

So usually it’s normal that when this comes to light, however it gets discovered, whether or not the person that’s having the affair discloses it, tells their partner “Hey, I have something I need to talk to you about”, or if it’s found out. I’ve had so many people tell me “Oh, I was just sitting in the room and the phone was there… I didn’t even look at it, but a message popped through, and unbeknownst to me, unexpectedly it’s some sexy text from some person I’ve never heard of”, or there’s something that gets found out.

And again, there’s usually this initial period of high emotion, great despair, feelings of betrayal, and it can, again, be shattering. So I say that because I do think there’s this freshness that occurs in the beginning phase of this being revealed, and how the couple deals with it I think is the biggest determinant of whether it’s gonna be something that makes the relationship stronger or if it’s gonna be ultimately what tears the couple apart. It is a huge strain on the relationship, I think that’s a fact. In some cases, I do think that it can make the relationship stronger.

So there’s a little bit of a caveat… I’m gonna speak super generally about what I know about relationships and what’s true most of the time. Where this gets even more complicated is when there’s previous trauma; let’s say this is a repetitive that’s happened, or if one of the partners, let’s say the person that was betrayed, had abuse in their childhood or had a parent die and has feelings of abandonment and fear of rejection, fear of being left, it can hook a lot of intensity for that person.

Also, there’s something really real about sex addiction. If the partner that has strayed and had the affair – if they’re in a sexual addiction pattern, it’s more of an addictive thing. Yes, the sex is a huge betrayal, but there’s a pattern around the behavior that’s addictive, and that takes a different angle, and there’s some treatment around that that I would do very differently than I would for the couple that one of the partners has just had an affair and it’s more of their relationship — I’m gonna talk about that in a moment… But most of the time it’s the couple has been having dissatisfaction, disconnect, having some impasse in their connection and they haven’t been honest and they haven’t known how to bring it up with one another and they haven’t addressed it, it’s all been kind of hiding from each other, been on autopilot…

I don’t think anybody ever sets out to have an affair. That’s very rare. It’s usually people are not getting their needs met, they don’t know how to ask for what they want, and then somewhere along the line somebody starts giving them something that they want – the attention, like the woman that is sharing (the listener). She said this person wasn’t even necessarily attractive to her now husband, but she was giving him attention, and he was probably so thirsty for it that it felt really good and it was hard not to engage.

So for someone it can feel like, “Okay… Talking in the lunch room – that doesn’t seem that threatening, and I don’t think there’s anything wrong with that. Oh, sure, I can go to lunch, that doesn’t seem like a problem”, and then somebody’s giving you attention and you start sharing things that you didn’t expect to share, and all of a sudden you’re starting to disclose things that are really personal, and this person is really attentive and holding space and really seeing you and validating you, and it feels so good… It just evolves, and then there’s connection that gets built, and then all of a sudden it’s like “Well, let’s grab dinner” or “Let’s grab drinks after work” and it’s just this progression, and we usually go progressively, progressively, progressively, and then we find ourselves in a situation…

The way I’m saying this sounds so passive… This is how people typically describe it, and this is kind of unconscious, right? We make little things okay – it’s okay to go to lunch, it’s okay to go to happy hour, it’s okay to go to dinner, it’s okay to go to your house when no one else is there… I don’t know, we do these things where the progression is not from point A to point Z, it’s the small incremental things that we have blinders on and we’re not being fully honest with ourselves, and then we end up engaging in behavior because we are very conflicted.

One part of us is getting a need met, and it feels so great when we’ve been so thirsty, and then we have our spouse or our primary relationship that feels stuck, and we don’t know how to bridge that gap, we don’t know how to open up the conversation, we don’t know how to even rock the boat, so we’re in this place of divide.

That’s more commonly what I hear over and over again, and that’s what I’m gonna be addressing today, because it seems to fit this listener’s question.

So I just kind of talked about the first part – it’s just this huge upheaval, and it can feel like it’s uprooting, it can feel shattering, and it can activate a lot of previous pain and hurt if there is that in the history. When people come to me in this stage, it’s high intensity, and I tread very carefully because the person that has been betrayed usually wants to ask a lot of questions, and it could take the angle of “You owe me” and there’s almost this form of punishment involved, and what I’m trying to do therapeutically would be to create a safe space to confront the dynamic, confront the situation, the circumstance without making people wrong, even though the person who had the affair – I’m still interested in learning about what that was for that person.

I won’t necessarily say I endorse the action, but there was something going on that compelled that person to take that action, and that’s what more I’m interested in. So it really is trying to create a dialogue without blame or shame, and this is really hard to do when there’s such high intensity. Sometimes we can’t get there right away, and honestly most of the time people reach out after this initial stage, when the dust settles and they’re kind of looking at “Okay, what do we do?” The crisis of the few hours, days has settled.

The choice point, if people are willing to accept the challenge, is dealing with hard truths about the self and the relationship, and not everybody wants to do this. I had a couple who came into my office in Boulder when I had my private practice there, and the wife was the one that was being cheated on and she brought her husband in, and I could tell immediately he was not interested or willing or wanting to really look at any of this honestly. I referred them out, I didn’t feel like they were a good fit… It felt as though he wanted to play little mind games with me, and felt like there was a little bit of power tripping and perhaps some manipulative behavior, and I don’t in any way feel like he is those things, but some of the ways he was relating to me felt like that.

It just takes a level of being willing to look at some of these hard truths, and that’s an extremely difficult task, and maybe even that much more difficult when there’s an affair, but sometimes the affair is really what blows the lid, and people are forced to look at what’s going on.

So again, people have a choice though – they can say “Nope, you crossed the line, I’m done. It’s over, I’m out.” That’s a choice, absolutely, made much more complicated by having a family together: children, a house, a community… It’s much more difficult to do that.

So if people are interested, whatever the reason is, to take the challenge, this can be “Okay, let me look at how I have been showing up.” And again, when we haven’t been all the way conscious, meaning we’ve been lying to ourselves almost, making excuses, justifying, rationalizing why it’s okay to go to dinner or go back to someone’s house when you’re out of town, like how that’s a good idea… Or how we make somebody flirting with us okay, what kind of stories we are telling ourselves.

So looking at the ways that we may have been deceitful, dishonest, in denial, how we’ve hidden from one another… So partners particularly in long relationships – this could be five years, ten years, twenty years, twenty-five years, thirty years… It’s difficult to see each other with fresh eyes. It’s difficult to really be present and see someone with newness. We tend to get into autopilot. We think we know what the sex is gonna be like. It can kind of feel unexciting and expected, and maybe we let the love life fizzle out, it’s not worth the effort, we’re losing that erotic tension, we’ve kind of lost attention to the sexual relationship and the connection, whereas I’ve mentioned a moment ago, hiding from each other in the way of not getting our emotional needs met.

This brings into mind a lot of the individuals that I’ve worked with that have been having affairs with someone outside of their spouse – I’m thinking of a handful of people, men and women, who have had a relationship (a boyfriend or a girlfriend on the side). In these relationships the common theme is they are dissatisfied in their marriage, emotionally not getting their needs met, and they’re too uncomfortable and scared to broach it, to bring it up, to advocate for what they want, to rock the boat with their spouse. They feel like there’s too much at risk, they don’t know how, and too much time has passed and they feel like maybe they’ve just lost hope.

One person, their spouse was using alcohol and substances and she just felt like he was not available for her emotionally. Another spouse was a workaholic and just emotionally just never really felt soft enough and available and vulnerable enough for him to really share his innermost feelings… Each person shares their part, but they’re just describing their spouse as someone who’s not available, or someone who is invalidating emotionally… Or the couple has gotten into the real practical dynamics and maybe have lost attending to the love, really nurturing the romance and the love.

So these people, the clients that I’ve worked with, have felt great pain around not getting their needs met, but again, this deep ambivalence around not wanting to bring it up and continuing to have an extra-marital affair.

Part of my work is helping them look at and really be honest about how they’re avoiding, what they’re fearful of, their insecurities, and kind of the impasses in their marriage, and the disconnect that lead them to want this outside relationship. When I can invite the couple – if the couple comes to me and I’m working with them both, then we can create a safe space and be like “Let’s look at the dynamics here, look at what’s been unsatisfying, look at perhaps how you guys have maybe created so many rules – you can’t do this, you can’t do that – and trying to control each other, that it’s gotten too stifled.”

There’s lots of reasons why people have affairs. Maybe it’s just like, “Oh, mid-life crisis… I was getting attention from a young hottie and I was like “Wow, I still got it!” and I’ve heard that before!” and waiting to feel the boost of the self-esteem.

There’s a whole bunch of reasons why people will engage in an affair, but rarely have I ever seen affairs happen when their marriage or their primary relationship is satisfying, and there’s a real openness and revealing with one another, and really seeing each other.

Part of it is just creating the safety to look at the hard truths – “What are we avoiding? What’s the unmet need? What are we hiding from each other? What have we gotten unconscious about? What have we been on autopilot about?”

Really what I’m describing is just this readiness to be accountable and to take ownership. Again, that honesty… And this can be scary. It’s interesting to me, some of the clients that I’ve worked with individually, that have been having affairs, that have not talked/disclosed the affair to their spouse or primary person – they feel so much guilt, they feel so much shame, and then they go back and forth between “Okay, I’m not gonna do it again, I’m gonna end it”, and then they feel so bad, and they feel shame, and they feel guilt, and then they’ll be experiencing the dissatisfaction in their marriage, and then they’ll seek out the affair again, or something will happen where they re-engage.

I describe to them, it’s almost like you’re letting the tension out through the affair. When we don’t have affairs, the tension builds enough where it motivates us to bring it up with our partner. We’re so unhappy that we feel like we can’t continue without addressing it. But if we have an affair, it’s almost like letting the steam out, so we’re getting the need met on the side, but we never have the fire enough to take action to evolve the relationship. So it’s wanting more, but not knowing how to ask for it, and then relieving the tension, so you never really give yourself the opportunity to go direct with your significant person. Because what happens when it gets found out, again, that lid gets blown open.

When I’ve worked with couples where they’ve been in this phase, it’s so fascinating to me… They’ll  tell me, “We’re actually talking more than we’ve ever talked before. We’re having deeper conversations, and weird enough, we’re having better sex than we’ve had in years.” It’s almost as if — again, the lid gets popped open or blown open, and there’s this space that gets opened up, and the couple starts to just let all the stuff go and just see each other, and meet each other with what’s real. All the other expectations, obligations, promises, commitments in the sense that have been constricting, and pressures… They just really meet with what is, and they get honest and they get real.

This starts to give way to a new possibility, of awareness, of being able to reflect. If we’re gonna get really real here, we don’t know what’s gonna happen… And we’re gonna get really honest – there’s not as much to risk; everything has been risked. The worst thing has happened. We’re in the midst of great pain, but we’re not as afraid, because we’re in it. It’s already a mess, so we might as well just be honest.

This is that breakdown/breakthrough thing. I’ve had a couple episodes recently where I’ve been talking about that process.

From this place, people can then engage in an honest, safe dialogue. And again, suspending the compulsion to decide what they’re gonna do, prematurely decide… Like, tolerate some of that uncertainty to be in the place of exploration, in a safe container, and that’s where someone like myself or in the helping profession can hold a safe space, with the goal of real honesty and compassion and understanding. “Let’s get to know, regardless of what outcome is gonna come from this, what can we get out of learning what happened in our relationship; the dynamics, where we might have been hurting and hiding, and what that’s about for us each individually, and how that has affected our relationship.”

I can just tell you, there’s so much more to be gained from this approach, than reacting out of pain and attacking and trying to punish and hurt, because that’s usually really unrewarding. As much as we’re wanting to show our partner how much pain we’re in, they’re feeling pain by our reaction, and then they pull away. So while we might underneath the attack really want somebody to say, “Oh, I’m sorry you’re hurting… Let me hold you, let me tell you I love you…” – most of the time that’s not gonna happen. Rarely, rarely, if ever have I seen that happen.

With this safe dialogue, sometimes… Again, it’s asking questions, answering tough questions, with the goal of gaining clarity, clearing some of the betrayal, dishonesty, so that there’s a ground to stand on. Like, “I’m not crazy, okay? I was worried…” and it’s a little bit of perception checking, like “Was that my fear and suspicion and worry that was making up a story, or that actually did happen and that was for good reason that I was suspicious?” That building honesty can give a ground to stand on, to perception-check around “What’s mine, what’s yours?” and that’s tricky to do in a non-judgmental way. That’s why having someone to help is so important.

I will tell you – I’m thinking about this listener… It wasn’t clear, but it didn’t sound like she had somebody to help support them. You know, people can feel like “Okay, everything’s blown open”, and there’s a little more authenticity involved, and sometimes people cut out the games. “I’m not gonna stick your nose in something you did last week or blame it on you… It’s because you that I did X” – sometimes all of those games fall away and people are really able to just cut to the core.

These types of conversations give insight to where pain has occurred and where there’s been disconnect, and people can really see “Oh gosh, I’m so sorry I ignored you” or “I’m so sorry I wasn’t available.” It doesn’t make any actions okay or condone any action of an affair, but the acknowledgment and the ownership of like “I get how you were feeling unhappy, and that I can take my part in how I treated you.” This starts to help rebuild trust.

A moment ago I was talking about tolerating some uncertainty, and I just have a note here about… To relieve the pain and to relieve the stress, sometimes people will try to prematurely get to an outcome. “Okay, let’s just stay together, I forgive you. Let’s try to make everything be okay and let’s put a Band-Aid on it.”

When it’s not genuine and it’s too premature, you guys haven’t actually done the work, it’s hard to actually have transformation, the question around making the relationship stronger. It’s very difficult to do that with a jump to trying to just make it better. And people get desperate, I’ve seen this too, where people don’t wanna lose their partner and they beg and plead… We wouldn’t think that that happens, but the person that was betrayed sometimes gets panicky and starts to plead and beg, “Don’t leave me… What do I need to do?”, but does that really give ground for helping give insight and awareness to what’s problematic? Does is shine the light? It’s just more of a premature strategy to relieve the tension.

So some of this does require tolerating some uncertainty and discomfort, and that’s where a good helping coach/relationship coach/psychologist/counselor can provide some safety and help people feel regulated enough, safe enough to confront some of this.

The last thing I wanna talk about is being able to develop some shared meaning. What can happen through these conversations of real understanding and openness and honesty, and really taking ownership and learning more about each other, there can be deep healing, for sure. There can be reconnection, rebuilding trust, ironically… But really creating a new foundation.

I’ve had so many people tell me that “We’ve been ignoring and hiding from each other, and we’ve been on autopilot for years…” Years! So sometimes this is what happens for people – things have to get bad enough, painful enough for us to look, for us to pay attention, to give it the space and the time. When this happens and it’s blown open, we’re forced – it’s like a crisis – to deal with it.

While what I’m describing is not easy work, it can be so fulfilling and so rewarding. I’ve had a chance to see success stories where couples have been able to have these types of conversations, really hear each other, understand each other’s pain, be able to lean into one another, see each other and love each other more fully, and wanna help each other, which allows them to create a new foundation, which I’m talking about. Some of the examples of this are, for example, a couple where the husband operated very much to his wife’s preferences. She kind of ran the show, and it was kind of “Happy wife, happy life” motto. And for him to begin to share himself more fully, wanting perhaps a little more freedom to do his individual pursuits, but in a way where she’s supporting him and he’s communicating to her, that he doesn’t have to steal it away like he’s a little boy. So it has to do with having real shared power and respect in how they honor each other, even if it feels conflictual, and that they have a path around how to do that.

What might have felt extremely threatening, that they would avoid or get into this problematic dynamic, they now have a path of how to approach the conversation and really bring light and honesty, so that they can get to a win/win.

Another couple really worked to cultivate emotional intimacy. I remember she was telling me, “I feel like you’re teaching us how to be vulnerable with one another”, and I’m like “Yes, absolutely!” So through our work together, they really began to be more connected emotionally, which allowed the one individual that was having the affair to really get that need met; that had been a deep longing and yearning, and so to have that connection in the marriage was extremely profound.

I encourage you to consider the power of this work and getting support if you feel that your relationship could benefit from attention and honesty, ownership and awareness, what can really help transform your relationship if you have any disconnect, any unmet needs or longing and yearning… To have these safe dialogues and communication that brings you to a place of having your relationship be stronger.

Even if you don’t have an affair… The affair, in the context that I’m describing, is really the catalyst that brings a relationship to a crossroads. I think this could be prevented way earlier on if we’re willing to look. But as so often I’ve talked about, we tend to hide, and it’s uncomfortable, and we avoid.

If you feel that I might be able to be of service to you, whether or not it’s engaging in a program that I have to offer, or in some coaching capacity, please feel free to reach out to me. My e-mail is jessica@drjessicahiggins.com and I will respond. If you’d like the show notes for today’s episode, you can go the website, DrJessicaHiggins.com, you can click on Podcast and you can find all of the episodes on that page. Again, today’s episode is 104, How Can Infidelity Make Your Relationship Stronger?

I wanna thank the listener again for submitting the sharing, as well as the question. Until next time, I hope you take great care.

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