How To Negotiate A Fresh Start After Infidelity

One of the questions I get asked most frequently is “Can a marriage survive infidelity?” And the answer is yes, it can, but that doesn’t mean it will or even that it should. It all depends on how you negotiate to move forward. You need to require some things of yourself, and you need to require some things of your partner.

Let me give you an example of how that would go. You have to sit down with your husband or wife and say something along the lines of:

"Okay, when you did what you did, and then when you say it meant nothing — that it was just a passing fancy, a weak moment — it may have meant nothing to you, but you need to understand that it speaks volumes to me. Here’s what your behavior says to me. It says, ‘I don’t respect you. I don’t take your thoughts and feelings into consideration when I make certain decisions.’ And it says to me that I simply don’t count to you.

I’m telling you this because I want you to know that if you ever do this again, you will do it knowing full well the message that you’re sending to me. And that will make my decision very simple then, because you will have consciously made a decision knowing that your decision said to me that I don’t matter to you. So if you do that again, we’ll both know what that message is. And then there won’t be anything more to talk about.

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Maybe you didn’t think of it that way the first time, which is why I’m giving you a second chance. But I want you to know what it will mean if it happens again.

And now you have to hear me out. I need for you to understand what your behavior did to me. So I’m going to talk about this, and you’re going to listen to me until I fully believe that you get it. I’m going to require myself to give a voice to my feelings long enough to be certain that you get it, because if we go forward, I have to forgive you. Because the reason I’m going through this is that I don’t want this to be a life sentence for you or for me. So, I want to negotiate a really fresh start where I know you now have insight and I can, with confidence, forgive you and not punish you for this every day for the rest of your life.

You ‘ran this off in the ditch,’ and it is your job to get it out. I want to be very clear that trust is going to have to be earned back. People who have nothing to hide, hide nothing, so I will expect total transparency from you going forward. I will undoubtedly check to test your honesty, and that is my right, and I claim it. If that is too high a price to pay, I understand. If you want to be with someone else, I understand. Do what you have to do, but if you want a life with me, those are the terms. There will be no more ‘second chances,’ so if you don’t want that reality, then at least tell me now. If you are willing to step up and own this, then I am willing to try."

Marriage is a constant negotiation, and the negotiation window never closes; it’s always open. You may think that once you say you’ll honor and obey, till death do us part, you’re set for life, but you’re not. After the honeymoon, you’re going to change, and your spouse is going to change. After you have children, they’ll make a difference in how you and your spouse relate. So will in-laws. Maybe one of you will have a job, or get a new job, that makes unanticipated demands on both of you.

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Your relationship will always involve an ongoing series of negotiations, because frankly, with just the changing of technology, there are constantly new things that can greatly impact a marriage. When I got married more than three decades ago, there were no such things as laptops, tablets, texting, Facebook, or instant messaging. The fact that so many methods exist by which people “connect” or “hook up” means that something like “cheating,” which used to seem black and white, has to be constantly redefined. Is it cheating to “friend” someone on Facebook? To text or IM them without your spouse knowing? Is it cheating to keep separate email accounts with passwords your spouse doesn’t know?

That’s why I say that people who have nothing to hide, hide nothing. Going forward, you both have to be an open book. You have to be a picture window. So a wife can tell her cheating husband:

"You can’t have secret email accounts or Facebook accounts with private passwords. You can’t get upset if I check on you from time to time, and it has to be on the table that I’m negotiating my right to do that. And if that’s too intrusive to you, it’s OK for you to say so. Because I’m just telling you what I need in order to go forward, and if you can give me that, I can give you a second chance. But I need things in return, and that’s why this is a negotiation. So, I want to negotiate that with you, and if it works out, then great.

And if there’s any part of this that’s just too high a price for you to pay, I fully understand that. But you need to understand that I cannot live with a serial cheater. If you made a mistake, we’ll do the reparative things we need to do, but we need to have a better plan going forward, and these are the terms and conditions that I want from you. And if you need some things from me, then I’m all ears."

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We all need to work on definitions of things that are important to us, and our negotiations should not be combat; they should be collaboration. But you need to understand that when you start this process, you must have a goal. Particularly in relationships, your goal should be that your partner understands what you feel is important. When you get into an argument, sometimes you think your goal is to win when, in fact, your goal should be to be understood. You should be saying:

"You don’t have to agree with me; you just need to understand how I feel, and that will be the basis of our relationship and a measure of where we are at any given point. Because if you know how I feel and what I value and you consistently choose to behave at odds with that, that will say a lot about where we are in our relationship. And the same thing goes the other way as well, if I behave at odds with what you hold dear. But if we trust each other, trust that we love each other, trust that we have a marriage in which we’re committed to a common future and to our family, we’ll find ways to accommodate whatever happens, in whole or in part. Maybe some serious changes in behavior will have to be made, but that will be possible, as long as we understand what’s important to the other person."

So, think about that if you’re wondering whether a marriage, your marriage, could survive infidelity. Once you get over the shock and anger, what do you want to express in a negotiation to move forward? Not just to express your anger, not just to punish your spouse. If your marriage is to survive, you have to start your negotiation with the goal of being understood and giving understanding.

Modified excerpt from Life Code: The New Rules For Winning In The Real World by Dr. Phil McGraw (Bird Street Books)

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