Recent revelations of superstar pro-golfer Tiger Woods' "transgressions" in his marriage have brought the topic of cheating front and center yet again. While most couples whose relationship suffer this injury do not have to deal with it in a public forum, they share with Tiger and his wife the challenging task of dealing with the aftermath of such a transgression on the relationship.
Once the cheating has been revealed, what's next? How does a couple go about managing the tremendous fallout from this disclosure?
Here is some advice I would give to Tiger, or others in his situation, as he contemplates working through this issue.
1. You must first decide whether you are seriously willing to invest in repairing your damaged relationship. If you have ambivalence about your relationship, or uncertainty about ending your liaison(s), you are not ready to work things through with your partner and should not do so half-heartedly. That will only ultimately cause more pain than you have already inflicted.
2. If you are serious about working things through with your partner, stop all contact immediately with the person(s) with whom you have cheated.
3. Focus first and foremost on acknowledging the betrayal and hurt caused by the cheating, versus explaining the reasons for your cheating.
4. Contrary to the advice often given by other psychologists, do NOT provide an excessively detailed description of the affair(s) to your partner. Once that detailed information has been shared, it will become impossible for your partner to erase the hurtful imagery of the betrayal from their mind. Often, this will result in a painful preoccupation by your partner as the details are re-played over and over in their mind, which will undermine the rebuilding of trust later on. The focus of your disclosures should not be about assuaging your own guilt, but on protecting your partner from further pain. Do not lie about the details, or diminish the extent of the betrayal, but do not let the details become the focus of your conversations with your partner.
5. Recognize that the cheating resulted from some of your own personal failings that you will need to address. The biggest failings in cheating are the dishonesty and the betrayal of trust inherent in the cheating behavior. Whatever difficulties you may have had in the relationship, you will have to own your dishonesty and your betrayal of trust.
6. Recognize that an affair often reflects something wrong in the relationship that is not being addressed. Begin to identify the issue that you have not been addressing honestly in your own life or in your relationship.
7. If at all possible, do not share the occurrence of or the details of the cheating with your children. Children should not be put in the inappropriate position of worrying about the boundaries of the parents' relationship. This is for the grownups to take care of. Children are not, nor should they be, in a position to resolve their parents' relationship issues. Sharing this information with children is often done only to punish the other parent for cheating and alienate the children's affection from them, or to inappropriately seek emotional support from the children.
8. If the children do inadvertently become aware of the cheating, do not lie about the issue, but do not provide them with details of the cheating. Focus on addressing the feelings of confusion, hurt and betrayal and refocus the responsibility for repair of the relationship on the parents.
9. Apologize. Apologize. Apologize. But be aware that your partner cannot be expected to protect you from becoming aware of the hurt that you have inflicted on them. You must be able to tolerate witnessing the real pain that has been caused by your cheating and be prepared for the possibility that the damage that you have done to the relationship is irreparable.
10. Seek couple's therapy. If you are serious about repairing the relationship, you will need help as a couple in working through the pain from the cheating and the unresolved issues that preceded it.