The first question that comes to mind when a spouse cheats is: Why? A recent study by the University of Guelph in Ontario, Canada, attempted to answer that question and found that the reasons behind infidelity differ greatly between the sexes. For men, it’s typically about the sex-the more sexually excitable they are, the more likely they are to cheat. For women, it’s more about the level of satisfaction in her relationship; if a woman is unhappy in her marriage, she’s 2.6 times more likely to cheat. Regardless of the reason, there’s one thing that’s certain: infidelity is devastating. But there can be a silver lining. “In many cases, it forces issues to the surface of a relationship that would have never otherwise been dealt with,” says Kevin Hansen, author of Secret Regrets: What if You Had a Second Chance? Read on to discover what life lessons these five women gained through their personal experiences with infidelity-and what you can learn from their stories.
“My husband was abusive.” “From the day I married my husband, I knew it was a mistake,” says 50-year-old Elizabeth Smith.* “He was abusive, controlling and expected me to quit my job to make a home for him.” A little over a year into the marriage, she began having an affair with a man that she worked with. “I had no illusions that I was in love, but it was eye-opening to be with someone that made me feel good about myself, made me laugh and respected me for who I was-not who he wanted me to be,” she says. “The affair helped me find myself and proved to me that I could live a life independent of my husband. It also gave me the courage to ask for a divorce. Twenty-five years later, I’m married to a wonderful man. We love making each other happy, and never try to change who the other person is,” she says.
What You Can Learn: While the confidence gained from the affair may have given her the spark she needed to get out of a bad relationship, New York City psychologist Michael E. Silverman, PhD, says if you’re in an abusive relationship, deception isn’t the best way to deal with it. Get help first from a trusted friend, family member, therapist or one of the numerous nationwide resources instead.
“We began to resent each other.” When Vanessa Myers*, 28, married her husband six years ago, they both couldn’t wait to have children, but after their wedding day something changed for her. “I started to really love my job, and kids didn’t seem to fit into the picture,” she says. Her husband was hurt by her change of heart, and began to resent her. “We started fighting a lot, and I resented him for resenting me and we were just constantly hurting each other,” she says. “One night I caught him trying to slip off the condom and that was pretty much the end of our sex life.” Ultimately, the lack of intimacy caused Vanessa to cheat. “I met a guy online and we dated for about a year,” she says. “It ended when my husband caught me.” Vanessa and her husband agreed to seek therapy separately and together, and were able to save their marriage. “The biggest lesson I learned was that if I was unhappy in my marriage, my husband was only 50% to blame. [Having] an affair gave me the courage to ask for what I wanted in my marriage,” she says.
What You Can Learn: While what her husband did may be shocking, the fact that there was unaddressed anger in the relationship created fertile ground for an affair, says Dr. Silverman. “Coupled with the lack of sexual intimacy there was nothing left to hang a relationship on,” he says Even though the affair helped Vanessa learn some valuable lessons and the relationship was ultimately saved, Dr. Silverman stresses the importance of open and honest communication in a relationship as a way for a couple to stay connected-before one of the spouses seeks comfort or intimacy outside of the marriage.
“I was bored and unhappy.” At 35-years-old, Barbara Gisborne was living the American dream. She lived in Madison, Wisconsin, with her loving husband and two children-but she was miserable. “My husband was a good man, but I was bored inside and out,” she says. “In our community, I always felt like a square peg trying to fit in a round hole.” That year, she was in Chicago on business and met Bob, an Australian man, on an elevator. “We had an instant connection. We exchanged numbers, kept in touch, and I decided to fly out to Australia to see him and get him out of my system,” she says. “Instead, I fell in love.” She left everything she knew-her hometown, her husband, her job and her country-to start her life over with Bob in Australia. “I became strong, independent, confident and much worldlier,” she says. “That was 25 years ago and now I can say that my affair was the turning point in my life’s journey. Today, Bob and I are married, own a winery in Australia, and have five children and 10 grandchildren between us.”
What You Can Learn: Though Barbara’s story ended up with a “happily ever after,” that’s not always the case when it comes to infidelity, which is why Dr. Silverman suggests looking inside yourself if you’re unhappy or bored with your relationship. “Healthy relationships grow and evolve, and feeling bored is a symptom of relationship stagnation. Rather than having an affair, increase the romance, change habitual patterns within the relationship and communicate more about your feelings and needs.” If you just need a change of pace, try booking an exotic vacation with your husband or girlfriends, or discuss moving to a new city and starting over.
“My husband was a workaholic.” For 10 years, 49-year-old Barbara Singer created a life independent of her husband because he was never around. “Gary was totally consumed and exhausted by his work-there was nothing left for me,” she says. “I was totally committed to my family and gave it my all, but knew in my heart that I certainly did not want this for rest of my life.” One night, she met up with Tom, an acquaintance, and ended up staying out all night with him. Within a few weeks of meeting him, she ended her marriage, and two years later, she and Tom were married. But within a month, he died of a heart attack. “Meeting Tom was the best and worst thing that ever happened to me. He came into my life and woke me up, showing me…that life is precious and that at any given moment, it can all be taken away, so if I have a dream or a goal, I better get moving on it,” she says.
What You Can Learn: “Barbara felt alone for many years, and feeling disconnected from your partner is the genesis of most of the affairs I see in my practice,” says Dr. Silverman. The remedy? Speak up and begin a dialogue with your partner. Engaging in open, honest communication about your needs with your husband is the key to help a stalled marriage.
“He was unfaithful first.” Larie Norvell had only been married about a year when she found out that her husband had cheated on her. “I was very angry, but I was also very hurt, because I felt like I wasn’t enough for him-like there was something I wasn’t doing for him as his wife, which is why he felt the need to go outside of our marriage,” says the 33-year-old. That jumble of mixed emotions was the impetus for her affair. “I cheated on him-mostly for revenge, but in retrospect it was also because I wanted validation. I wanted to know that I was still desirable to other men,” she says. Once her affair was discovered, the couple separated for a few months-but then began to seek counseling and were able to salvage their marriage.
What You Can Learn: Retribution is a common feeling when someone has been betrayed, says Dr. Silverman. “Anger can be quite powerful in clouding one’s judgment,” he says, which is why he urges any couple dealing with infidelity to seek counseling. Fortunately for Larie, her relationship endured the double deception. “The biggest lesson we’ve learned through all the struggles in 14 ½ years is that we are enough for each other,” she says.