Far too many relationships have been seriously impacted by an affair. Why do affairs happen? Can a relationship survive an affair?
Of all the issues that impact relationships, few are as devastating as affairs. The loss of trust the betrayed partner feels is as if their whole world has turned upside down. The partner they thought they could count on seems to be a completely different person. The partner’s character is now in question, the future is uncertain, and most betrayed partners are not sure if they even want to stay together.
Never intended to cheat
Most people do not plan to have an affair or even seek it out. Another person comes along who is friendly, interested, and attentive, and being around them can feel like a drug high. It can happen slowly and before they realize it, they are involved beyond what is appropriate. Sometimes the involvement is merely flirtatious; sometimes this progresses to sex and intimacy. At some point, the betrayer has a sense that this behavior isn’t right, but the ‘drug’ of an affair can seriously cloud judgment and make one temporarily put their integrity on hold.
I don’t really want a divorce!
Typically, the partner who had the affair does not want their primary relationship to end. With the exception of partners who cheat repeatedly, most love their partners and want to stay with them. They are filled with remorse and guilt, and in many cases, aren’t even sure why the affair happened.
Although there can be many reasons for an affair, there are some common warning signs that signal trouble ahead. One risk factor is a couple who are drifting apart emotionally, spending less time together, and are just going through the motions of being a couple. They may not be arguing a lot, but neither are they looking forward to seeing each other at the end of the day, or having fun together very often.
Conflict may not be obvious and, in fact, couples that rarely disagree are not necessarily better off. Built-up hurts or resentments that never get resolved or discussed can work to erode closeness even when there is little overt fighting. Often there are problems with sexual intimacy; either less satisfying sex, or no sex at all.
Sometimes there is a precipitating factor. A new baby, money worries, family issues, job problems can all create stresses that result in distancing. These things can happen to any of us, but the couple who doesn’t seem to notice that the relationship is slowly deteriorating and lack the skills to tackle this are at big risk for relationship problems, including affairs.
Affairs usually come to light
The partner having the affair may believe that it will never come to light. They may plan to end it on a daily basis, but never quite do so. In my experience, almost all affairs are found out eventually, and with more destructive effects than if they purposely ended the affair and confessed.
With the introduction of modern technology, an affair is hard to keep secret, and a not surprising number of affairs are revealed by cell phone messages, text messages, and emails. The betrayer who wishes to keep the affair a secret seems to have a surprising lack of common sense about being caught. Many would argue that a part of them wants to be caught.
The discovery leads to a major crisis
When the affair is first discovered, a huge crisis ensues. Often the first response to the question, “Are you having an affair?” is denial. This initial dishonesty is a desperate attempt to cover up facts that the betrayer is certain will result in loss of the relationship. Unfortunately, this dishonestly just adds more mistrust than would occur if they just owned up to the affair. The attempted cover-up that goes with the initial discovery only serves to put in doubt any future acknowledgements made. The betrayed partner begins to wonder what is true and what is a lie.
The value of seeking help.
Here is one place that a therapist who is very experienced in working with couples and affairs can be invaluable. Few couples are prepared to tackle this on their own. Rocked by the impact of the disclosure, the betrayed partner is seriously traumatized and the betrayer is left trying to stabilize the situation. Many do not disclose the news to anyone else. They are embarrassed, ashamed, and don’t want their relationship marred by the affair in the eyes of friends and family. Couples have no one to talk about it but each other and they are often barely speaking.
Having a skilled couples therapist to work with who can guide them through this very rocky terrain with map in hand can be essential. This is likely the biggest crisis a relationship ever endures. Look for a couple therapist with lots of experience working with couples and affairs in particular.
Can this relationship be saved? A crucial factor
One of the first decisions to be made is whether to stay in the relationship and begin to heal. As mentioned, often the betrayer does want the relationship to continue; it’s the betrayed partner who isn’t sure if they can ever get past the sense of betrayal.
Here is where its important that the betrayer take full responsibility for their wrongdoing, not minimizing or blaming the other partner for ‘causing’ the affair to happen. This is not to say that they didn’t both participate in allowing the conditions that made an affair more likely, but in no case is the betrayed partner responsible for the betrayer’s poor judgment on their choice of how to cope.
If the betrayer takes full responsibility for their behavior and is willing to do whatever is necessary to repair the damages, then the prognosis is much more positive.
Full disclosure is essential
It is at this point that I encourage the betrayer to disclose the full extent of the affair. Omitting some key information in an effort to avoid hurting the betrayed partner never pays off. Details have a way of coming to the surface eventually, and when the betrayed partner finds out that they are still being lied to or information is still being withheld, it is usually a major setback.
A barrage of questions and accusations
The initial efforts to heal the relationship often include an inexhaustible barrage of questions, accusations and tears. While this is hard on the one who had the affair, it is essential to be willing to tolerate it for a while to begin to dispel the fear that there is no more to be learned. Here is where a therapist who is experienced in working with affairs can help guide the couple toward healthier communication about the affair and eventually an understanding of why this happened and subsequent healing.
Goal: a healthier relationship than it was before
It is not enough to just put the relationship back together. The couple must learn what went wrong, what each of their parts in the distancing of the relationship were, and the skills and tools to tackle whatever comes up between them, both personally and as a couple.
A good relationship is not an accident, and sadly, it does not often happen without conscious efforts on both parts. Since most of us did not learn enough about how to have a healthy relationship and most did not have wonderful role models, it is not too surprising that we are caught off guard when things go wrong. But it is certainly a learnable skill, providing you have a good teacher.
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