Surviving Infidelity Is Hard to Do

What Do You Do When You Find Out Your Wife Has Been Cheating?

Medically Reviewed by Sheldon Marks, MD on May 01, 2007

How can you tell if a guy's wife has cheated on him?

Well, it depends on the guy, of course, but I do recall my wife and I having dinner with a couple she knew better than I, and thinking that the husband was being awfully rude to the mother of his children.

"What was that about?" I asked my wife later.

"I think he's mad at his wife for cheating on him," she said.

"Wow. You mean he just found out?"

"No, this all happened five years ago."

For most guys in most matters, five years would be an eternity. It's been four years since the Yankees won a pennant, and even longer since Robin Williams made a funny movie. And yet we seem willing to forgive them both. What makes dealing with infidelity so difficult for men? Why can't we let it go?

Dealing With Infidelity: The Stubborn Images in Your Head

"A lot of people have affairs," says Mark Epstein, MD, a psychiatrist in private practice in New York City and author of Open to Desire: Embracing a Lust for Life. "It doesn't necessarily have any ultimate meaning. The hardest thing for men in that situation is to let it be history."

That's rather ironic, given that women often complain about men compartmentalizing everything else. We just had a fight? Let's have sex. We just had sex? Let's watch a movie. Why can't we compartmentalize the idea of our wives being unfaithful?

"Imagining one's partner with someone else is too profound for some men," says Epstein. "[The faithless wife] is a very common theme in porn, but when it gets turned around [when the porn role is being played by your wife] -- it's too intolerable."

"I just can't get that image out of my head," his patients will say. And what does he tell them?

"Yes you can. Though maybe you don't want to."

Surviving Infidelity: Can This Marriage Be Saved?

"Affairs are common and happen for all kinds of reasons, and our culture promotes it," Epstein advises those interested in surviving infidelity. "A lot of marriages don't break up just because someone has had an affair."

Does that mean women are better at letting things go? Not according to Louanne Cole Weston, a family and marriage counselor and licensed sex therapist in Fair Oaks, Calif. "As a group, women hold on to negative -- and positive -- emotional experiences longer than men," she says.

True, says Weston, "some men think they can't fix it if a woman has been with another man." But others want to get in there and make things work. "Some say, 'I need to take a look at myself.' One woman I saw had a longtime affair with a house husband, the father of a kid at her child's school. When it came to light, her husband was upset -- but then he looked at their sex life, his own rapid ejaculation and lack of foreplay and creativity in their time together. It got a bunch of information on the table," she says, and the couple is still together.

How Do Most Men Respond to Infidelity in Marriage?

"Sometimes men will be jealous, sometimes they will be competitive, sometimes they will have a lot of self-recrimination," she continues, listing three classic responses. "But sometimes it will be a huge wake-up call."

Most men would probably prefer to be woken up in a different fashion (a clock radio is nice), but there's the rub: Sometimes it takes a shock to the system to get a man's attention. "If, God forbid, you come home and find your wife in bed with another man, and you are in a stable, gratifying marriage, you need to talk about what happened openly and honestly," says Steven Nock, a professor of sociology at the University of Virginia and the author of Marriage in Men's Lives. "If you can actually discuss what is going on and why it happened, those couples seem to survive. But that presumes a lot."

It presumes, first off, that the husband will keep a cool head. Extreme anger must be dealt with in counseling, which is also the best way to expel the stubborn images Epstein says his patients complain of.

"Men fret over it because of what they imagine happened," adds Nock. "You'll do that until you face it head on. [Surviving infidelity] is going to take a lot of talking and doing things together. And guys are not that eager to talk about their relationship -- especially if they have to talk about her sleeping with someone else."

Married Couples Survive Infidelity Better Than Unmarried Couples

In nearly 30 years of studying men and marriage, Nock has found that "a large majority of couples who cheat do not divorce. ...But it is a dramatic threat to this core basic assumption of marriage, which is that your wife is the one person you're supposed to be able to trust."

Married people are different in this regard, Nock has found. "If you interview unmarried couples who were living together about why they split up, infidelity is the leading cause. But that's never been true about married couples. Infidelity is a problem in divorce, but by people's own accounts, the cause usually has something to do with being incompatible or unable to communicate."

What Infidelity Tells Us About Marriage

Your wife's infidelity can certainly be a symptom, or culmination, of those things -- nothing says, "our marriage is in trouble" like sleeping with someone else. But for a lot of couples it is just a reminder of how tenuous the matrimonial bond is.

"Marriage is full of disappointment," says Epstein. "That has to be dealt with. People have to have an element of forgiveness. For men, the general disappointment comes when you discover that the other person is human and is not there exclusively for you. Her whole life is not actually oriented toward you."

By failing to give you what you need (while maybe giving themselves something they merely want), your wife is reminding you of their own identity -- and the limitations any person has in making you completely happy. The good news, Epstein says, is that it's an adult dilemma. "You discover what you want is not what you are supposed to want from a relationship."

Despite the sometimes icky "you complete me" language of love, at least in the popular culture, surviving infidelity sometimes means recognizing each other's differences. Cheating on someone may not be the best way to remind them that you are your own person. Forgiving them is far superior.

Show Sources

SOURCES: Mark Epstein, MD, psychiatrist, New York City; and author of Open to Desire: Embracing a Lust for Life, Gotham Books, 2005. Louanne Cole Weston, PhD, marriage and family therapist and board-certified sex therapist, Fair Oaks, Calif. Steven L. Nock, PhD, professor of sociology, University of Virginia, author of Marriage in Men's Lives, Oxford University Press, 1998.

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