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How a Couple Can Overcome a Long-Hidden Infidelity

Uncover the motivation and then attempt the healing process together

spinner image  couple therapy. Male mental health professional is discussing with man and woman. They are wearing casuals. Mature couple having problems in a marriage.
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After their first few psychotherapy sessions with Julia, Carol and Ben were making progress with rekindling their relationship, which had, after 20 years, become stagnant and distant. But then everything stalled. The couple suddenly seemed less interested in getting closer.

In Julia's experience, stalling often stemmed from a fear of disclosing an emotionally charged secret. And that secret, Julia knew, is often infidelity.

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Carol and Ben's story, highlighted in our just-published book, AARP Love and Meaning After 50: The 10 Challenges to Great Relationships—and How to Overcome Them . illustrates the effects of unfaithfulness, whether recent or years prior.

Infidelity is relatively common, as we've seen in our work as psychologists specializing in helping individuals and couples over 50. And research supports our experience: About 20 percent of men and 13 percent of women commit adultery, according to the University of Virginia's Institute of Family Studies. We also know that the incidence of infidelity increases, not decreases, with age. Surprisingly, women are most likely to cheat in their 60s; for men, in their 70s.

Julia probed a little, believing Ben had cheated on Carol. She led them through a slow, deliberate process in an attempt to reveal secrets and get closer. Here's how Julia proceeded, adapted from Love and Meaning After 50:

Consider revealing the old affair

Not all relationship experts believe older affairs need to be revealed; some think it ultimately does more harm than good. But we believe that secrets have insidious negative effects and are often a barrier to closeness whether revealed or not; at least, once they're cautiously and carefully shared, there is a chance for remorse, anger, disappointment and healing. One research study found that couples who revealed infidelity during couples therapy and then dealt with the emotional reactions were more likely to survive in the long term than those who went through therapy and didn't.

Revelation of an affair often creates a crisis for couples that requires them to confront not just what happened but what has been dissatisfying about their communication, decision-making, degree of respect and affection, division of labor and other aspects of their relationship. Sometimes, this crisis creates powerful impetus for both spouses to significantly change — or walk away from one another.

With Julia's gentle prodding, Carol revealed she had had an affair when their 18-year-old daughters were young children. Ben was surprised but not shocked. As Julia noted, it was as if he had always known that Carol held back emotionally from him.

Delve into the motivation for the affair

In our clinical experience, we've found that spouses generally stray because they are unhappy with their relationship. A partner may seek an affair out of anger or unmet emotional or sexual needs.

When Julia asked Carol why she had had the affair, she explained that Ben had been a heavy drinker in those years and often came home from work late, neglecting her and their children. Ben hung his head and agreed that that had been true.

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Talk it out — with help

Learning that your partner was unfaithful hurts deeply, even if the affair was a drunken one-night stand or occurred many years before. Strong emotions sweep in. We've seen two opposing responses: a rush away from the cheating spouse to protect oneself, or toward the spouse to save a suddenly threatened relationship. Neither is as effective as reflecting on what this violation means. It often takes the involvement of a trained third party, such as a therapist or pastoral counselor, to help both spouses to slow down their reactions and instead begin the hard, painstaking work necessary for healing.

Ben became upset, angry and tearful at Carol's news. Julia empathized with him, while also helping him listen to what Carol needed to share with him.

Reconnect through remorse

Affairs almost always do damage. They can't be shrugged off too lightly or forgiven too easily, no matter how eager spouses may be to put it behind them. We have seen time and again that the offending spouse needs to express authentic remorse for as many times over as many years as the injured spouse needs to hear it. This may be wrenching to revisit and hard to hear, but it's the only way trust is restored and the relationship is put on better footing.

Carol felt remorseful for her affair. Ben, in turn, was remorseful for his drinking and irresponsibility. Julia helped them express these emotions and hear one another, expressing a candor and vulnerability they hadn't shared in years.

When couples are able to face their most difficult challenges together — walking through the process that many of our clients have successfully used — they have the opportunity to increase their connectedness and intimacy, and go forward with a better marriage than ever.

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