There’s more than one way to cheat in a marriage, but only one way to heal: communication.
Your bond with your spouse is far more than a physical one. It’s also emotional and spiritual. You and your spouse are supposed to love and support each other in most aspects of life. You’re each other’s confidants as well as companions. But what happens when one spouse isn’t fully emotionally present anymore? Or what if one of you asks for more emotional availability and talking about feelings than the other feels prepared to give?
So many of us get caught up in the notion of a marriage as staying physically faithful to one another. But the emotional waters of a marriage run deep, and are often more complex than most of us could have imagined as newlyweds.
Thomas Gagliano, a Christian relationship expert, says the term “cheating” has multiple interpretations that go well beyond the physical.
“Cheating is defined by an individual,” he says. It may include anything from frequenting strip clubs to committing adultery, or confiding in someone more personally than you ever do in your spouse. Because the definition is so variable, you and your spouse may have different understandings of what cheating looks like, which is what makes this grey area so tricky to navigate.
But when it comes to emotional cheating, Gagliano believes that what truly matters is the element of trust, not semantics. Once you feel that trust has been broken by your spouse, the marriage enters crisis mode.
“Relationships are formed on a basis of understanding, communication and most importantly, trust,” he says. “When trust is broken and a couple wishes to work through infidelity, it is crucial that both parties commit to a path of healing.”
One of the most difficult problems in a marriage can stem from a spouse who is investing emotional time and energy with a person outside of the marriage. Any number of situations can lead to this, but it often starts with a coworker or trusted friend. When you or your spouse take on a “work husband” or “work wife” to listen to all their woes, it may seem harmless at first (after all, work is tough and we need help navigating that world), but it can have unintended consequences for your home life.
Even if no physical action has occurred, the depth of conversation may be blurring the lines and arousing suspicions. In the end, both you and your spouse may end up feeling betrayed, but it can be especially hard for the person who didn’t initiate the emotional infidelity to heal. How do you even begin to move on after your spouse has admitted to being more emotionally invested in a relationship other than your own?
But the first step to healing is admitting that something is wrong in the first place, says Gagliano: “The person at fault must accept responsibility for breaking their partner’s trust.” Otherwise, it will be difficult to resolve the pain and dishonesty between you. He suggests writing out everything that happened — resisting the temptation to gloss over necessary details — and also writing down a plan of action for how you two plan to resolve this behavior. That plan may encompass everything from marriage counseling to group sessions.
If you’re dating or engaged when the emotional infidelity is discovered, it may be a reason to hit pause and rethink the relationship. But for married people, the problem becomes how to reset, and then move forward together, which can be much harder.
For a spouse, Gagliano says it’s critical to “openly share feelings and questions,” as long as they are intended to work toward healing as a couple. You should avoid bickering and drawing in unrelated information, even if it means treating your conversation like a meeting: coming prepared with thoughts, and taking turns speaking. The person who was cheated on also should come up with a safety plan to guard against future emotional infidelity. Maybe that person will ask his or her spouse to limit their time on the computer or avoid late nights out, for example.
From there, Gagliano recommends to be as open with each other as you can: “Practice honest communication,” he says. “Always work toward mending the relationship.”
Talking face to face about an emotional betrayal will be very difficult for both of you (yes, even for the person who made the mistake) but that doesn’t mean it’s not worth doing. And of course, it’s important to pray — together if possible — to ask for God’s grace in healing and protecting this most important of relationships.
To heal, it requires both parties’ participation — like most things in marriage.