The consequences for a couple are dire enough when a relationship is compromised by cheating. But they increase exponentially when revelations of unfaithfulness are in the glare of the public spotlight. Such has been the case for the 37 million Ashley Madison subscribers whose misdeeds were uncovered and exposed in a hack of the website, which connects members interested in having extramarital affairs. Multiply that number by the partners and children of those involved, and impact is of epic proportions.
Sheri Meyers, Psy.D, a marriage and family therapist and host of the TV show “Straight from the Heart,” is among the national media’s most frequently interviewed experts on relationships and infidelity. She wrote the bestselling book, Chatting or Cheating: How to Detect Infidelity, Rebuild Love, and Affair-Proof Your Relationship.
Dr. Meyers offered guidance for those whose indiscretions the data leak might have revealed. She recommended coming clean through “empathetic honesty,” an approach referred to as “rigorous honesty” in recovery parlance.
Q: What do you find is at the root of opting to use websites like Ashley Madison instead of engaging in affairs with people face-to-face?
A: For one thing, it feels farther away. Some people can justify it as not cheating because there’s no physical touch — “I’m just having fun, and it’s only fantasy. I’m not going to do anything with it.” Or they look at it as a possibly easy way to hook up. It takes a lot of time in person to get into what your sexual fantasies are. Ashley Madison users lead with them. They’re titillated just going onto the site.
Q: I’ve read that at least three suicides have been linked to the hack. Do you think mental health referrals will rise as a result?
A: I expected a lot more reaction when there are 37 million people, that there would be more people coming forth and it would be in the news more. It was the week it hit. This is major, especially if it comes unexpectedly and you find out that your partner has cheated. It’s like having the rug pulled out from under you or a 9.0 earthquake for your relationship.
Q: How do we as a culture need to address the dynamic of infidelity?
A: We’re in very interesting times. I’m fascinated that 37 million, mostly men, signed up and are seeking affairs. That was a shock. One thing this is showing us is that we have no privacy on the Web. We have to let go of that illusion. It’s a call to open up more freely about our sexual dreams and desires with our partner. If we do that, we take sex out of the secret realm, which is where acting out and addiction thrive.
Q: If one or both parents cheated, are the children likely to continue the pattern?
A: If you have a pattern of infidelity in your family line, you’re either going to act out against it by becoming the opposite, because you don’t want to be like that parent, or it almost feels like “That’s what men do.” In the past, if a woman was caught cheating, they still got the Scarlet Letter. For men, it was passed off as a mid-life crisis. There was always a reason or excuse and forgiveness, because they’re guys. In most traditional households, it was the man who cheated and somehow the woman brought him back and there was more honor. As long as men provided and came home and still cared, the thought was, “It’s only sex.” That’s changing now. Not all affairs are sex anymore. They’re emotional. You might never have met anyone on Ashley Madison on a physical level, and you’ve still cheated.
Q: Are there any reasons not to divulge to a partner?
A: Don’t confess when there’s a safety risk, when you’re already ending the relationship, or when your partner truly can’t handle it because or emotional instability or difficult circumstances outside your relationship. It has to be pretty dramatic, because otherwise, you’re keeping another secret. Cheating thrives on secrecy. If you want to make your relationship work, you have to be honest. Not telling about the affair makes it easier to cheat again.
If you want to end the pattern of cheating, you’ve got to bust yourself. Focus on the four R’s: Recognize and acknowledge the pain you’ve caused, regret what you’ve done and the pain it caused, be responsible for your actions and inactions, and remedy the situation by giving your partner whatever they need to feel safe and rebuild trust.
Q: How can the cheating partner regain trust?
A: Trust is like faith. You have to keep renewing it. It’s a byproduct of steadfast reliability, accountability, close connection, openness and communication. You have to be willing to be an open book to your partner. If your partner wants to check your email or Web activity, you have to say OK. That’s what makes it harder. Most cheaters are used to a certain amount of privacy. They can get away with it. It takes two people who want to make the relationship work, changing the old rule and looking at what will make them happy. I see it as an opportunity to build what you want. At first, it’s on the cheater to prove their reliability, but ultimately it takes two people to look at what didn’t work and what does work, and they need to restructure the old rules and be open about what they want. They need to hold hands and communicate and learn what being on the same team really means to them.
Q: Why’s empathetic honesty important?
A: It’s both compassionate and empathetic, because sometimes we can give too much information at once, and this is already a 2 x 4. Empathetic honesty is understanding how it would feel to hear what you’re sharing. Your partner will, when they come out of shock, have a million questions. The truth will come out more and more and will be based on what your partner can take in. Keep it simple. You’re opening a door to a dark closet and turning on a light. There’s too much to see and take in at once. There are going to be a lot of conversations.
Q: Where do you draw the line between deluging your partner and withholding information?
A: When you’re telling the truth, you don’t lie. You can tell them that this is all you can say for now. It’s all about getting that first level of truth out and then letting it settle in. Just because you say it once and go through this apology and forgiveness ritual, you have to be prepared that it’s a long road. It’s not done in one conversation.
Tips Before the Talk
Dr. Meyers proposed a few questions to ask yourself before speaking to your partner about what’s guaranteed to be a painful conversation for both of you.
- Am I giving up my affair?
- Am I ready to be faithful?
- Am I willing to do what it takes to rebuild my partner’s trust?
She also provided advice for what to do before the confession:
- Confess the whole truth to yourself.
- Imagine how the situation would feel in reverse.
- Understand that your partner’s emotions and self-esteem will be affected for a while.
- Don’t blame your partner for the affair. Forgive him or her ahead of time for anything you’ve been blaming them for.
Whether you and your partner choose to remain together, there’s relationship repair to be done. Consider whether an underlying addiction is fueling the cheating. Treatment is available if necessary on outpatient, inpatient and support group bases. Even if you leave this relationship, the issues that led to the behavior might remain. Just as happens when you transplant a flower from one pot to another, you’ll carry the soil to your next relationship.
By Edie Weinstein, LSW
Follow Edie on Twitter at @edieweinstein1