Finding out that your partner has cheated on you can be devastating. It feels like the rug has been pulled out from underneath you, and everything that you ever believed in has been a lie. And if you speak to your friends and family, they might be quick to agree, which can further damage your already rocky relationship. Thing is, your relationship can survive an affair — and even thrive from it.
Just ask Dr. Kenneth Paul Rosenberg. Dr. Rosenberg, a psychiatrist in New York City, wrote the book on infidelity — literally. The author of Infidelity: Why Men and Women Cheat spoke exclusively with Celebrity Parents Magazine about cheating, relationships, and why an affair is not all doom and gloom.
Everyone always says, ”Once a cheater, always a cheater.” But is that really the case?
That’s not true. I work in addiction psychiatry, people do better and live healthy lives. They live better lives, when you go through a trauma and you change it and you come out on the other side, you become a better person. When people are in recovery, they are better than before. They get restored.
People do make mistakes. So are there cases when an affair can just be a mistake?
Yes, or even if an affair goes on for longer, it can still be a mistake. The door of bad behavior, once opened, is very hard to close. Once you’ve done it, it becomes easy to do it again and again. People can compartmentalize it, but whether it’s a one-off or continual, or a compulsion, at the end, it’s very fixable and they can live very healthy lives and restore sanity to their relationships.
In your book, you highly recommend that the person who finds out should just chill, to not make any major decisions. Why is that step so important?
For the person cheating, they are showing that they are an impulsive person. And if you are continually impulsive, it will make it that much worse. So they need to stop and take a moment and take a breath and reflect. You’re not going to settle this in a night, or a month—it might take up to a year.
But for the betrayed spouse, they have often betrayal trauma. It sounds made up but having dealt with this, the betrayed is just about the worst experience ever. They lose weight, they can’t eat or sleep. The betrayal of a partner strikes so deeply that it is a terrible offense to us, or so it seems. But they have to chill, too. Maybe you should get divorced, but you need to relax because you’re in the middle of a trauma, and that’s not a good time to make a life decision when you’re in a trauma.
Once the betrayed spouse decides to stay, how do you save face among those people you’ve told about the affair?
That’s a great question. Almost everyone makes that mistake. Sometimes people tell their children, and while sometimes they should know, but it should be done thoughtfully, not impulsively. “My spouse made mistakes and I’ve made mistakes,” you explain it to them. I was in betrayal trauma and didn’t make the best decisions. We all have secrets that make for great gossip. You ask for forgiveness for yourself and your spouse, and ask for compassion for dragging them into this. Everyone needs to be forgiven and compassion is the order of the day.
How long should it take for someone to get over an affair, and when is it too long?
Another great question. There is not statue of limitation on people’s feelings. We all have to keep our resentment and our anger in check, and that goes for the betrayed person, too. There’s a period when your spouse is in the doghouse, and then there’s a period when you go through it. Your feelings of anger and resentment might last a lifetime, but if you keep throwing it up at your spouse, even if it wakes you up at 3:00 a.m., you can’t wake them up and be upset. That’s only going to hurt what you’re trying to do.
That’s why the cheating spouse, sometimes more than the betraying spouse, sometimes needs therapy. Now you might think why that person would need therapy, you weren’t the one who did the bad thing. I think it’s too long when it’s hurting your relationship and damaging what you’re trying to achieve. You do need to forgive at some point, and move on. So after a year, you have to move on. That doesn’t mean you can’t bring it up, but you don’t have to make them suffer, either.
So how do you handle those 3:00 a.m. triggers?
It’s hard. That’s the witching hour for anxiety, that’s when they’ll come up. I’m a big fan of therapy, and I’m also a fan of meditation and relaxation. There are lots of apps for meditation and there’s journaling and medication, which can be used carefully and judiciously.
What about the betrayed spouse who wants to know everything?
There’s no one size fits all solution; everyone has to find their own way. You go over the details and it could be because they want to better understand. My advice is to be done with it. In my book, I call it “pain shopping” and it’s a very self-destructive, masochistic thing to do.
If your partner has shut down and wants to move on and pretend it didn’t happen?
A lot of couples get along by speaking very little and there are some couples who don’t want to talk about it. Denial is a problem, but men in particular, cultural backgrounds and ages, who don’t want to talk about it. If that’s the guy you want to be with, it’s a package deal. Every marriage has its own way.
Is there ever a point that you should tell your kids?
You’re a good parent and you know how to parent your child, but you don’t need me to tell you exactly what to say. As a general rule, when they know, it’s good to talk about it a little bit. Kids are smart, they get it, and there are ways to tell them. “Listen, Mom made a mistake, and it was wrong,” but that kind of confession is good when it comes from the parent who was doing the bad deed.
The time to tell the kids is when you think it’s really necessary, but not because you’re angry. You don’t want them to think that you’re the better parent, and not them. It’s helpful for kids to know that their reality is okay and safe. Things have happened, but it’s going to be okay. We all mistakes, but we get better, and there’s always hope.
When you are the betrayed spouse, how do you rebuild yourself? I would assume that it’s not reliant upon the partner.
Absolutely. When you discover that your spouse is cheating, you don’t try to win them back with sex or favors. You have to make yourself healthy. And that’s actually very attractive. A spouse that is lost and helpless wont’ be good for you, but it also won’t be good for your partner, because guilt only goes so far. You realize life is short, so you go for that job, you write that book, I’m going to take my kids on a vacation, I’m going to go on that diet, not to win back the spouse, but for myself. There’s a great quote from Alcoholics Anonymous that goes, “In order to get self-esteem, you must do esteemable acts.” Not by asking others to validate you, but to do things that are good for you and the world. I think that applies to those who are betrayed as well.