‘The revelation of an affair is eviscerating. If you really want to gut a relationship, to tear out the very heart of it, infidelity is a sure bet. It is betrayal on so many levels: deceit, abandonment, rejection, humiliation – all the things love promised to protect us from.’ (Esther Perel ‘The State of Affairs’)
Is this the end?
The discovery of, or the disclosure of, an affair can provoke overwhelming feelings of distress and panic in both partners, and can create an acute crisis in the relationship. It is often described as ‘D Day’ – the day that changes the course of the relationship for ever. The world as it was known is gone. There is the ‘loss of the innocence’ that marked the relationship before ‘the fall’ and, if the relationship is to continue, it will mean a careful reconfiguring with a different sense of ‘knowing’.
At first the couple can be caught up in a storm of powerful emotions – grief, rage, terror, shame, guilt, disgust – and it can be at this time that a couple reaches out for help with a therapist. They may have discovered that the coping strategies they had previously employed for dealing with life challenges are of no use and they do not know what to do. For the betrayed partner there is shocked bewilderment that it is the trusted partner that has caused this agony. They are on separated on different sides, lost to one another, feeling isolated and alone. The trust and connection they had assumed they could rely on is broken and they can feel helpless and scared when they begin to realise the extent of the damage. Things are volatile and they are desolate.
The bleak lyrics of ‘The End’ by The Doors sum it up: ‘This is the end, my friend… Of our elaborate plans…Of everything that stands…’
However, the therapy can sometimes offer a small oasis of calm they can cling on to. It can signal a path out of the storm and the task of the therapist ‘is to help couples catch their breath and relocate themselves in the bigger picture of their relationship, beyond the immediate ordeal.’ (Perel)
Can we begin to understand and make sense of the affair?
There will be many questions. We all have a need for meaning-making and operate by making a coherent narrative of our lives. We link the past to the present moment – and link this to an imagined possible future. Infidelity – with its lies, distortions, deceptions – attacks our understanding of the past and creates uncertainty and confusion about what was and what is now real. We lose faith in the future. The couple’s story, the basis on which a life had been built, is now in doubt. Memories are tainted. ‘So did you ever love me?’ ‘Was I ever enough?’ ‘Were you pretending all along?’
In ‘Great Betrayals’ Anna Fels says ‘Perhaps robbing someone of his/her story is the greatest betrayal of all’. She offers the image of a dual cinema screen. On one side someone is reviewing the life they thought they knew and then contrasting that to the newly revealed truth on the other side. There is such confusion and distress. What is really ‘known’? What can be trusted?
As Joni Mitchell sings in ‘Both Sides Now’
‘The dizzy dancing way that you feel/As every fairy tale comes real
I’ve looked at love that way…’
But, ‘It’s love’s illusions I recall/I really don’t know love at all’
Why did the affair happen?
‘Understanding why the infidelity happened and what it signified is critical, both for couples who choose to end their relationship and for those who want to stay together, rebuild, and revitalise theirs… Infidelity can destroy a relationship, force it to change, or create a new one. Every affair redefines a relationship, and every couple will determine what the legacy of the affair will be.’ (Perel)
This can mean painstaking work in the therapy. The therapist is there not to judge but to help and facilitate understanding and healing. What does the affair mean in the context of their relationship and life together?
A broken heart takes a long time to heal and the rebuilding of a broken trust will take continued vigilance, attention and reassurance. Both partners will have suffered a crisis of identity and self-image. If the relationship is to survive there will be a need for an acknowledgement of wrong-doing, an expression of genuine remorse and contrition, and heartfelt apology. And sometimes, and if possible, that happens when there is to be a separation too.