Kristina Coop Gordon, head of the Gordon Couples Research Lab at the University of Tennessee Knoxville, explains her three-step process for repairing a relationship scarred by infidelity.
In an interview with The Atlantic about heartache, Junot Diaz, the Pulitzer Prize-winning author of The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao and the foremost chronicler of a very specific type of hyper-masculine infidelity, said “people are always fascinated by infidelity because, in the end — whether we’ve had direct experience or not — there’s part of you that knows there’s absolutely no more piercing betrayal. People are undone by it.” Undone. Unsurprisingly, it’s a hell of a word choice. And anyone who has suffered such heartbreak can undoubtedly understand: cheating undoes relationships.
But Dr. Kristina Coop Gordon says that, while cheating might undo your relationship, the unspooled parts can be wound back tighter. Before you roll your eyes, note this: A professor of clinical psychology at the University of Tennessee – Knoxville and head of the Gordon Couples Research Lab, Gordon has spent nearly 20 years studying relationship dynamics and infidelity. About two-thirds of betrayed couples that she and her team have studied are able to not only reconcile but also build stronger, more stable relationships.
Is it hard to rebuild a relationship? Absolutely. But if you use the right tools, it’s not impossible.
While in graduate school, Gordon noticed that troubled couples often seemed “stuck” on early events in their relationships that fundamentally affected how they viewed each other. She couldn’t help wondering what it was that made these events so lasting and impactful. Why, she wondered, did people hold onto hurt?
Around this time, Gordon came across literature on post-traumatic stress disorder and the violation assumptions model, which says that people are born with the basic assumption that people are good, the world is safe, and that we are humans with control over what happens. When an event bursts our bubble — many people point to 9/11 — these assumptions are violated, and people become traumatized in a way that Gordon says mirrors many of the symptoms experienced by those with PTSD.
“The assumptions of relationships are similar,” Gordon says. “They [the spouse] are going to be faithful. They are going to be close and comfortable in a relationship. They will be good. A betrayal blows that to pieces.”
This thinking is reflected in the phrases Gordon and her colleagues have heard over the years when they interview a betrayed spouse. “You hear them say, ‘The rug was pulled from beneath me, I don’t know who they are, I can’t remember what it was like being happy,'” Gordon says. “We rely on these assumptions to feel safe, but when it blows up, we are anxious and fearful.”
When an event bursts our bubble these assumptions are violated, and people become traumatized in a way that Gordon says mirrors many of the symptoms experienced by those with PTSD.
This brings us to the first step of getting over betrayal that, per Gordon: To know that this betrayal was not your, the betrayed’s, fault. That’s not easy though, given that your basic assumptions about the relationship have been knocked out of their sweet safe space.
“We’re really hurt and angry and distorted by emotion in the aftermath of betrayal,” Gordon says. “People either lash out at partners or pull way back and numb it out, or they vacillate back and forth. It’s natural to be emotional.”
What can help couples figure out the betrayal is re-establishing equilibrium. That’s the second step in Gordon’s process. How did the couple get to this low point? What made the cheating partner do so in the first place?
“They [the betrayor] needs to communicate to the injured partner that what they did is wrong and indicate why this happened in a ‘safe’ environment,” Gordon says. “Until this, it’s very hard to move on.”
The most important part of re-establishing equilibrium is recognizing that both parties are actually going through trauma. Bear with Gordon on this one: “When we first started looking at the violations assumption model for cheating couples, we didn’t acknowledge that this was traumatic for the betrayer,” she said. “But that person is also traumatized. They might be struggling to understand why they did this in the first place, and there’s a lot of shame involved.” It takes a lot for a hurt party to recognize that the spouse they fully trusted is actually feeling traumatized as well, but Gordon says being able to understand that is huge in moving a fractured relationship forward into healing territory.
It takes a lot for a hurt party to recognize that the spouse they fully trusted is actually feeling traumatized as well, but Gordon says being able to understand that is huge in moving a fractured relationship forward into healing territory.
Couples who have overcome infidelity often emerge saying their relationship is better than ever.
This also means, if there are kids involved, to be a united front. That might seem nearly impossible, but being able to present as a unit is key in making sure a child feels safe and protected. This is especially dire because the violation assumptions model might teeter towards breaking here, too, making children feel vulnerable, unsafe, and affecting future relationships.
For parents going through a betrayal, that means not undermining the other partner, not being passive aggressive, and not triangulating through kids to affect their thoughts on the other parent. While the temptation is there, remember, these are your kids and they don’t deserve to have their fragile assumptions of safety violated at this age. “Be clear with the kids that you’re working through some problems,” she says. Kids notice when things are off and it’s important to be honest with them, but there’s no reason to be sharing gory details. There’s no reason to be sharing gory details of the betrayal with each other, either, Gordon says.
This leads to the third point of healing after betrayal: Recognizing that both sides might bear some responsibility. This is, in no way, countering the previous statement that a wronged person should not consider it their fault. Rather, Gordon says, each party in a couple has to be open and honest and respectful and realize that there are individual reasons why a person might have been driven to seek another.
“What’s important is understanding what was going on in the relationship when the person engaged in the affair,” Gordon says. “Sometimes, it was internal insecurity, or not getting what one partner was articulating or asking for. If the couple can explore how it happened, it can really go a long way.”
This doesn’t mean that the person who was betrayed should take fault for the situation — Gordon repeatedly says that they are absolved of guilt in that department — but rather they should recognize the context and understand if there is an action or process that they can lean into to make their relationship work better.
That goes for kids too: If they see that parents are actively trying to improve their relationship, then they are going to handle future conflict a lot better down the line. A couple that’s gone through the throes of betrayal can come out ultimately beneficial to their children’s emotional development.
And when both partners compromise and pitch in to figure out what went wrong, Gordon says, she sees the remarkable statistic we pointed out back at the beginning of this piece: Two-thirds of couples she’s studied that are dealing with cheating partners have bounced back. In fact, Gordon says, while betrayal is something many would never wish upon others, couples who have overcome infidelity often emerge saying their relationship is better than ever.
Of course, Gordon has seen plenty of couples who end up not being able to fix their issues, where the cheating spouse refuses to take responsibility for their actions and the relationship is unhealthy or even abusive. In those situations, for the sake of everyone involved — partners and kids — a divorce is probably the best way to go. But for partners that invest in really understanding the betrayal and their own personal role in a relationship, there’s hope — a lot of it.