Should I Stay or Should I Go Now?

By Dan Blair, a marriage counselor and family counselor.

AffairsDarling, you gotta let me know
Should I stay or should I go?
If you say that you are mine
I’ll be there till the end of time
So you gotta let me know
Should I stay or should I go?

This classic song from the Clash resonates with everyone at some point in their lives. It is especially poignant and painful after infidelity. Many who have experienced the dark world of cheating may initially say goodbye, but actually most change their mind and decide to make it work. This is a tough decision to make.

Affairs start in the mind and do not necessarily end in bed. They do often break hearts. There are subtle signs that lead to both an affair and recovery.  Signs of cheating should be all taken into account before making an accusation. Unless you have proof in hand, it is better to address the already evident: less investment in the relationship and a much greater investment in other activities, personal changes to increase one’s own attractiveness, and evasiveness about spending time or money.

Cheating is sensational. It is guaranteed to sell the news. It is something that everyone can identify with but is easily judged as betrayal. What is not so easily judged is the small ways that we betray our partners. Gottman says in his book “What Makes Love Last?” that “Betrayal is the secret that lies at the heart of every failing relationship.” Not being there, not following through, putting the kids or career ahead of the marriage are examples.

John Gottman, a leading marital researcher, describes the deterioration of the marriage leading to an absorbing state of negativity called negative sentiment override. This is the stage in a relationship where one partner cannot do enough to make things right. Even positive  attempts fall short or are interpreted negatively. He compares it to a roach motel, where once you check in, it is hard to check out.

Add this to another critical element in the demise of a marriage: comparing your spouse unfavorably to others, even comparing to imaginary spouses that are better than your spouse. These are like nails in a coffin. These are usually kept to oneself, along with crossing boundaries. First comes secret-keeping, then comes cheating.

Deciding whether to stay or go depends on the ability to rebuild trust with someone who becomes trustworthy. Signs of someone who is changing a character trait is complete honesty (minus the brutal details which cause obsessions) with nothing to hide. Next, recovery depends on an ability to step outside the self and one’s own pain, and enter into your partner’s pain (without beating yourself up). It is the ability to feel what your partner is feeling, and on that basis fully regret your actions and betrayal. It involves making personal and relational changes that benefit both partners that stand the test of time. These changes are determined by essential relational skills: empathy instead of defensiveness, asking for what is needed instead of criticizing, and setting personal boundaries on what you are not willing to do, and at the same time what you are willing to do for your partner. Deciding whether or not your partner is being honest depends on these criteria, along with your own instinct about what your partner is like when he or she if faithful, and what he or she is like when she is not. Although this may be a confusing process, it can be used to decide if he or she is an acceptable risk. Verification of honesty may be required. Finally, there may be need for a clear consequence to future betrayals.

Is this painful process worth it? Are you able to overcome negative sentiment override? One idea involves writing down as many positive traits of your partner. Look back over your story. Is there regularity to the energy put into making the other feel loved? Are there examples of admiration for each other? Is it marked by “we” decisions or “me” decisions?  Is that enough to overcome the pain of recovery? Most people also consider the pain and effect of divorce, and realize that there is no guarantee that the next relationship will end up in a better place, and decide that because of shared history and children that it is better to stay together. Some researchers find that over time when all things are considered, the next relationship is not a huge jump in happiness. If trust is unable to be rebuilt though, there is little to sustain a relationship.

Does This Count as Cheating?

By Dan Blair, a marriage counselor and family counselor.

Cheating

What if your wife befriended someone unknown to you on Facebook? What about your husband’s phone always being locked? Is there a problem if your spouse goes out for lunches with a co-worker? Or in general, is a little flirting is okay? Can the use of porn harm a relationship? Where do you draw the line between harmless fun and damage to trust?

Cheating on someone is defined by the one betrayed. It can take different forms and result in anywhere between hurt and disaster. For some it may be an internet excursion, coffee, or a kiss. For others, it is defined by sex. In the case of “harmless fun,” maybe it’s not so much what is said or done, but how you feel afterward that sets the stage for wanting more. It is an emotional connection that lays the groundwork for a physical connection. For most, infidelity is both a reflection of character and breakdown in your relationship.

Definitions of “cheating” differ from relationship to relationship. For most, secrecy is paramount to the definition, along with engaging in an activity that is robbed from the relationship. Maybe you are opening up to someone at work, or at the gym, but finding yourself rushed for time when it comes to sitting down with your partner.

If such an interaction with another is hidden, or not mentioned to your partner, it gives you the chance to hide the relationship if something questionable develops in the future. Other hidden communications include passwords, site destinations, or even innocent conversations that are not mentioned. There may be a reason it is not mentioned.

How does it feel when interacting? Is there a feeling of excitement or anticipation? Do you feel or do anything different for this person that you don’t do for others, including your partner? Does it reflect something that is missing in your relationship?

Sometimes relationships begin to break down before we realize it. Not being there for your partner can be subtle or obvious, but starts in small ways. Marital researchers such as John Gottman, Caryl Rusbult and Shirley Glass have described steps toward infidelity.

A loss of connection starts with less verbal attunements – responses to your partner that lead to your partner feeling cared about or understood. “Attuning” to your partner can be about trivial topics or your core feelings about the relationship.

If an increasing loss of connection is added to inevitable conflict, eventually partners may start withdrawing and withholding true thoughts and feelings to avoid a fight. Meanwhile, a negative view of one’s partner solidifies, and one stops looking to the partner to get needs met.

If you start sharing these thoughts and feelings with someone else and that someone else is more responsive than your partner, a negative contrast develops. Sometimes that “someone else” doesn’t exist yet, except in your partner’s mind.

Resentment builds and over time leads to loneliness, low desire, and loss of romance, fun, and adventure. Boundaries are crossed when alternative relationships are not dismissed, thus becoming options. Secrets flourish and “someone else” becomes tantalizing.

Surprisingly, two-thirds of couples want to stay together after an affair. If there was such a breakdown and betrayal, the task of putting the relationship back together again seems daunting. Understanding the impact of cheating takes time. Some are not willing to give it time because it feels horrible. How do you fully express remorse without excessive self-condemnation or recrimination?

It also can be difficult to admit ambivalence about moving forward. Moving forward needs proven structure and planning to address what’s missing in your relationship and to rebuild trust. Sustaining change over time is the next challenge.

Essentially lines are crossed when energy is missing from the marriage but found in other relationships, work, hobbies, preoccupations and addictions. On one end of the problem could be the joke or story that repeatedly told to co-workers that gets old by the time you tell your spouse.

Or you may be opening up about work or home problems with someone who understands but the same issue is argued about instead of discussed at home. Flirtation with others may be perceived as harmless but does not happen anymore in your relationship.

Finding time for a date night may become challenging but going out to lunch with colleagues is easy. A boy’s or girl’s night out can become more fun than alone time with your partner. Fun and adventure are found elsewhere.

Work and hobbies can become time-consuming and the relationship can get pushed down the priority list. You have heard of someone who is “married to their work,” or “football widows.”  You have also heard of alcohol or drug dependence robbing both the person and relationship of life.

Relationships are subject to the law of entropy and require a constant influx of energy to counteract its decline. It is a priority based on promises and trust and is measured by the amount of time put into the relationship. To protect the relationship couples regularly connect with each other through words and actions. They overlook irritations but address resentments, rather than withdrawing from resolving conflict.

To resolve conflict they make requests while caring about the other’s needs, allow disagreements rather than criticizing, and generate options instead of insisting on one way of doing things. To build the relationship, they take time to regularly review the positive qualities of the other, guard the time it takes to have fun with the other, and seek “adventures.” They support each other’s dreams.

All infidelity starts in the mind before it goes to the heart. This can happen impulsively as in a one-night love affair, but often there is something missing from your relationship that allows this to happen. The more time spent thinking about alternatives to your relationship plants seeds of discontent.

An alternative can be another relationship or any time-consuming activity. If there is something missing from your relationship, and this need is met elsewhere, this hidden outlet can take root and supplant your relationship.

Barry McCarthy, an expert on extra-marital affairs reported that 20 to 25 percent of males cross this line, with an average frequency of six partners. The reason is not necessarily because the marital relationship is lacking, it often starts impulsively and continues if it involves low maintenance. The infidelity rate for wives was reported between 11 and 15 percent, and often involves “falling in love.” 40 to 45 percent of marriages suffer, but 70 percent survive. It is helpful to ask what does the extra-marital affair represent in the marriage and what can be learned before you decide should I stay or should I go.