For most people, committed relationships mean monogamous relationships. Outside people have no place in the emotional or sexual space of the partnership. Yet affairs happen. According to one source, 41% of marriages have one or both partners admitting to infidelity (either emotional or physical). When any relationship is considered, 57% of men and 54% of women admitted to infidelity at some point. Given those statistics, it’s important to understand a few basic things about infidelity from a marriage counseling perspective. For this article, “affair” will be used to cover all infidelity including one night stands.
First, it’s definitely NOT impossible for a relationship to survive an affair. With counseling, many relationships actually can become better than they were prior to the affair. That’s possible because most affairs don’t occur in a vacuum. Instead, there is usually a level of unmet need happening prior to the infidelity. Esther Perel hypothesizes that sometimes women are unfaithful for reasons other than dissatisfaction with the relationship, per se. Some of those reasons may be not liking who they are IN the relationship or may be a response to a developmental stage (e.g., empty nest) or a mortality issue (e.g., needing to feel more alive after a dramatic loss). Even in these examples it suggests communication isn’t what it should be.
Obviously preventing an affair is the best option. However, it might happen anyway. Here are some things to keep in mind to help keep open the options for healing. Remember, this is generally early phase information. Most couples will do best if they seek professional help quickly. You can also start by reading recommended books.
The betrayed partner:
1) In your hurt and anger, try not to lash out in a destructive way. It may feel good in the moment but it’s fleeting. It’s also not good for YOU either. It will add even more negative to a terrible situation.
2) Be careful about who you talk with about the affair. Naturally your friends and family will be on “your side”. What happens if/when you try to work on the relationship? Those people will be angry on your behalf. They may tell you that it’s crazy to try to work things out. They may hold negative feelings about your partner for a very long time. That can make the future interactions challenging for everyone. Talk with your partner and call a therapist with experience in infidelity. An individual therapist should NOT bash your partner.
3) It’s reasonable to ask questions but be careful. Too much detail, especially about what sexual things may have been done (or said) can’t be forgotten easily. All too often the betrayed partner wishes s/he didn’t know things later on down the line.
4) Being angry doesn’t give you permission to be abusive. If you are feeling out of control physically or emotionally, try to self soothe. Do some aerobic exercise to work through the body sensations of feeling out of control. Take a time out if you need one.
5) Being emotionally abusive is still abusive. Be aware of whether the hoops your partner has to jump through are reasonable. Will those hoops create later damage to the relationship? Will they create financial harm to the family? Some hoops are totally appropriate but not all.
6) Try to have the discussions at reasonable times, in reasonable ways. The middle of the night is generally unproductive. It tends to be unproductive to have these discussions under the influence of substances (e.g., more than 2 drinks or any drug).
7) Don’t involve the kids. This is parent information, even if your kids are adults. No matter what you are feeling, your kids need to have a good relationship with their other parent. They don’t want the affair information and chances are their hurt and anger will get spread to both of you.
The betraying partner:
1) Emotional affairs are still affairs. A breach of trust is a big deal. Do your very best NOT to minimize this. It makes sense that you feel guilt and shame but don’t allow those feelings to tempt you to minimize what your partner is experiencing.
2) Tell EVERY betrayal. Don’t leave out pieces or incidents hoping you won’t be discovered. Most of the time it eventually comes out. When it comes out in drips, it’s a constant erosion of whatever trust could be building up in the aftermath. Yes, it’s painful but this is a case where if you partner is asking for information, don’t “soften the blow” by hiding things. See the point above on giving too much detail about sexual incidents. That’s not helpful but how many times it’s happened or how many affairs needs to be disclosed. Allow your partner to guide you on how much s/he wants to know. Some partners don’t want to know how many times or where, others do.
3) You will almost always want the process to go faster than is reasonable for your partner. S/he cannot just “get over it”. It’s going to take time. Rushing it only feels disrespectful on top of the betrayal and it backfires. When you rush, invalidate or pretend “it’s over, moving on” then it’s likely going to take your partner even longer than it might have before.
4) Building trust back up is likely going to involve being much more accountable than you were before. Most partners need transparency after an affair. Most partners need some level of being able to check in and/or get reassurance.
5) No, you cannot keep in contact in any way with your affair partner if you want to keep your primary relationship. There are some situations where you must work with that person and you cannot change jobs (either of you). In those situations, you must have ground rules about contact. Nothing outside of bare minimum to do the job. No contact one on one without others present, especially not out of town or when using alcohol.
6) Yes, I understand there were reasons you had an affair. I also understand that your affair partner likely meant something to you. These will be subjects for good marital therapy but your partner doesn’t want to hear them from you. Especially not in the beginning. Especially not without the help of a professional.
7) Even though it seems counter-intuitive, be the one to bring up the subject. It’s on your partner’s mind constantly anyway. When you initiate the discussions in a gentle way, you are letting your partner know that you want to help the healing, not run away from the issue. One way you might do this is to simply ask “How are you doing with the affair today? What would you like to talk about in that regard?”. When you make your partner initiate all the discussions s/he often feels like you don’t care about what s/he is feeling or what they need.