Cheating Always Means Divorce -- and 4 Other Falsehoods about Adultery

Heart attacks are not always fatal -- and neither is adultery. Cardiac patients can survive and even thrive, once they find a healthier way of living. After an affair, a couple can do the same by finding a healthier way of loving.

I know how wrenching adultery can be, because I watched it nearly tear apart my own family. I also know from my own experience, both personal and professional, that adultery can be a forgivable sin. Fidelity is not a guarantee that love persists, nor is infidelity a sign that love has faded or died. In fact, adultery can even be a way -- albeit dysfunctional -- to try and stabilize a floundering relationship.

Why is adultery so frightening and yet so fascinating? In part because we recognize the appeal of it. We grew up in triangles, competing for our mother's attentions with our father and our siblings, and vice versa. That taught us, deep inside, to be terrified of abandonment and to resent sharing. We never quite give up on the childish fantasy that somehow, someday, we'll find someone all our own who only wants us. This is the destructive fantasy that keeps us looking for love in all the wrong places.

Despite our familiarity with adultery, we still don't understand it very well. It's time we stopped alternatively ignoring, excusing and condemning this epidemic. To deal with a problem, you've got to comprehend it first.

Let's start by correcting some dangerous misconceptions that have taken root in the conventional wisdom.

The Five Big Falsehoods about Infidelity

Adultery is about sex.

Adultery does not necessarily sweep lovers along on a floodtide of passion. In most couples, the wandering spouse is trying to stave off an empty feeling left by childhood hurts and frustrations -- especially if he or she is the adult child of an adulterer.

Frequently, the sex is better at home and the marriage partner is at least as good-looking. When I conducted a random survey of a hundred Americans, for example, only one of those who admitted to having affairs gave "poor sexual relationship" as the reason. More often, the attraction was emotional rather than physical.

Any activity or relationship that drains too much time and energy from life with your partner is a form of unfaithfulness. That may include workaholism, obsession with children, sports or gambling addiction, as well as emotional liaisons.

Adultery is about character.

I'm not saying that a penchant for adultery can be passed along genetically in the same way -- but there is mounting evidence, noted in my practice as well as that of others that there is an emotional dynamic in adulterous behavior that is transferred to the children.

Youngsters can sense that something is wrong even at a very tender age -- children as young as two years old have stunned their parents by babbling about Mommy or Daddy leaving. They may base these intuitions on seen behavior or overheard words, as I did. Years later, these adult children of adulterers will act out their legacy without even knowing it, through their own or their partners' philandering or other dysfunctional behavior.

Adultery is therapeutic.

There's an alarming tendency among some therapists to suggest that infidelity can stabilize a marriage. Some adulterers, meanwhile, contend that extracurricular sex will teach participants how to be better lovers, to everyone's joy.

That's a theory fondly embraced by those who seek a rationale for their wanderings, of course. But the notion that infidelity can enrich a relationship would be laughable if it were not so destructive. It's a lot like the man who kept bashing himself on the head with a hammer because it felt so good when he stopped.

Yes, you may work your way through an affair to find, after it's over, your marriage is stronger -- but it requires incredible honesty and dedication, and it's painful.

Adultery is harmless.

Yes, extra-curricular sex is a pleasure -- one of the reasons betrayers have such a hard time giving up their lovers is that it feels good and it's flattering to have someone around who always puts you first, someone you don't have to nurse through the flu or argue with about the mortgage. Forbidden sex can seem to be nothing more than a delicious indulgence, like chocolate cake.

In truth, this "simple pleasure" is more comparable to cocaine than chocolate -- addictive and potentially lethal. Everyone in a family suffers from an affair -- particularly the children.

We can understand the reasons for having affairs without excusing them. The damage that they do can take generations to undo; infidelity masks the real problems in the individual and the relationship.

Adultery has to end in divorce.

Even if you never forget, you can learn to forgive. Ninety-eight percent of my patients are able to renew their marriages, after they dedicate themselves to forgiveness exercises and adopt a new attitude about their marriages.

If you can come to recognize the real motivations for adultery and learn the skills to deal with the underlying problems, you will get through the trauma.

WATCH: Why Do People Cheat On Their Partner?

Do you agree? Is it really possible to forgive -- and forget -- an affair? Share your opinion now!

Excerpted from Adultery: The Forgivable Sin © 1994 by Bonnie Eaker Weil, Ph.D., with permission from Hastings House Book Publishers.

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