It Happened Again! Can Your Relationship Survive Serial Infidelity?

Couple hugging as they work on healing from serial infidelity.

7 Things That Help Couples Recover From Serial Infidelity (from therapists who know)

There comes a time in some relationships when one of the partners develops an intimate connection with another person. This can be a sexual liaison, an intense internet affair, or a continuous physical connection with a previous or past significant other. In some cases, it is a single episode. Other times, it is a repeated dalliance with a single other. And in a third scenario, is a repeated infidelity experience with a variety of different people.

All three are defined as infidelity, but the repeated nature of offenses is the definition of serial infidelity.

By its very nature, serial infidelity is the most difficult to overcome. Willard Harley of Marriage Builders defines a serial cheater as, “a married person who willfully and deliberately has had more than one extramarital romantic relationship.” 

After discovering your partner’s infidelity, it’s common to ask yourself questions about what went wrong.

When you discover serial infidelity, you might notice you are asking yourself some important questions. Some of these might be:

  • ”Does my partner love someone else?” 
  • “What are they trying to tell me?” 
  • “Is this something that will continue to happen no matter what I do?”

It was probably difficult enough to find out about the first affair and work through that, but now you likely feel really angry and betrayed. You may have blamed them for the first infidelity and even forgiven them.  But, if it keeps happening, you might want to look at yourself as well. 

You might ask yourself:

  • “What am I doing that is harmful to my relationship?”
  • “What cues did I miss from my partner?” 
  • “Are we still sexually or emotionally compatible?”
  • “Am I unable to meet their needs?”

What Might It Actually Mean?

While all of the questions you ask are important, the real value in the questions is in exploring the answers, not in finding blame or “getting it right”. The heart of what is going on does need to be addressed at some point. Asking questions is often the gateway to finding the answers you seek.

Attorney Mary Ellen Goggin writes about the importance of diving into the scary world of communicating with your partner, even if you are hurt and upset. If you can’t talk openly about your feelings and hope that the behavior might just stop, you are likely not going to get through this. Likewise, deciding how you might get back at your partner is not likely to work either.

What does work is treating the serial nature of the infidelity as a difficulty for your relationship. In other words, your parterhip cannot be sustained if this is to continue. 

Once this is agreed upon, you can begin the recovery process. To do this, you need to create a partnership and take recovery on as a team. This will require the first big discussion– how does your spouse feel about their own behavior? If it is not seen as a problem for them, then you will need to rethink a lot of things about your relationship together.

If, on the other hand, they see the damage it is doing, then there is plenty of room to work toward a solution. 

Is There A Way Back To The Relationship You Once Had Or You Wish For In The Future?

Yes, it is possible! You can’t go back to the way it was, but you can use this opportunity to move forward to a new place. 

It is critical that you both acknowledge the damage that has been done by both the past infidelity and the worries about it happening again. You need to speak frankly about the feelings you have when your partner continues to be unfaithful. 

Second, and perhaps more difficult, is to ask what the affair brought to their life? What feelings did it bring up? How did it help them? What value did the affair have to their sense of self? And what did it fulfil or bring to them that was missing? Your role is to listen to what they say without judgment.

As therapists, we want you to know that this may take a few conversations – even several as you dig into the details. It is not easy to stay with this without feelings coming up. And that’s ok. Don’t expect to get all of this out in one setting. 

Often when you give yourself the space to revisit this a few times, you will find that your openness grows as you start to really hear what your partner says. Hang in there, and seek help if this proves more challenging than you can manage. 

Once you’re through those tough chats, share together how you would like to feel about your intimate relationship in the future. You may want to explore the best memories from your past to show you how you want your relationship to be in the future. If nothing from the past comes to you, feel free to explore other options. Invent together the future you want for your marriage. 

That is the way to move forward. It will help you release the past with a clear commitment in mind for your boundaries and desires for your partnership. This isn’t easy. It is challenging but necessary.

As you do this work, keep in mind that there are a few traps you can fall into. Here are some suggestions to help you cope while setting the stage for your own repair and recovery.

7 Mindsets That Will Help You On Your Road To Recovery From Serial Infidelity

  1. Don’t seek revenge. Trying to hurt them back may backfire and it won’t make you less angry. You are better off saying that you are hurt and angry than escalating hurtful behaviors. It’s hard to hear but your behavior makes a huge difference. What you do may encourage them to have more affairs rather than less.
  2. Don’t get caught up in a numbers game. Counting your spouse’s infidelities to justify your indignation doesn’t help you. The issue is not how many affairs, or what type of affair they had (physical, emotional, or both), that matter. What is important to discover is what is underneath your partner’s need to continue this behavior. It’s not who they pick as a partner that needs to be examined, but what’s underneath the behavior that matters.
  3. Keep communicating. You have to speak out loud what you feel if you want to get through this. Don’t sulk, hideout, or assume your partner knows how you feel. You need to say it. Set aside a time to discuss your feelings together so you’re both heard. Do this when you are calm and have ample time to make it through the conversation without distractions or being pulled away in the middle. 
  4. Take it slow. You may not get through this in one “big talk” or discussion. Talk about it little by little and take breaks as needed so you give yourself the opportunity to really get to the heart of your feelings without being overwhelmed by them. Breaks definitely help when you discuss sensitive topics.
  5. Put your relationship back together by doing things that help you feel close and intimate. There are many reasons for affairs. What’s important to know is that your partner’s behavior may not be a rejection of you so much as a cry for help. Some people have affairs out of a fear of being “trapped” in a single relationship or when they feel afraid of being hurt or abandoned by you or others.
  6. Celebrate small victories. When you make progress, say so and have a small celebration.
  7. Keep going. If you love this person and think that they do love you, stick with it. The problem is not that you are with a bad person; it may be you are with a good person who sometimes shows some bad behaviors.

How To Get Started With Your Healing

As we say in our book, Lifelong Love: “The reality is that committing to a relationship over time is not only rare but also extremely challenging…When life presents difficult situations and issues, it is important to take a step back and look at what you are reacting to in your environment and within yourself that may be blocking your commitment to creating and maintaining lifelong love..Here is where the rubber meets the road.”

There is no one good way to get started. You just have to tell yourself that it is time to take this on even though you might be hurting. If you want it to stop or change, you must initiate the conversation from a desire to make it better for both of you. You need to make an agreement that if you start the process of discussing the affairs, you will do so not to judge the other person or get back at them, but to find a positive path forward. 

Need Help & Support?

Even with an agreement between you to work on moving forward, often guidance and support is helpful. In fact, having a third party listen to what you each say may be essential in helping you hear each other. Find a therapist or counselor to help. It will be worth it.

That is the kind of work that we do in Couple Power interventions. We are happy to help and have years of experience doing just that.  Contact us through this site, email or call 434-971-4701. We would love to work with you.

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