Discovering a partner’s affair, an affair by ‘the one person who’s supposed to love and care for you, protect you from the rest of the world, and treat you with respect, dignity, and honesty’, can be devastating. ‘For many people, few betrayals can be more hurtful and disruptive’ and it is often experienced as a brutal physical and emotional body blow.
[‘Getting Past the Affair’ by Snyder, Baucum, Gordon]
While any uncovering of a betrayal brings distress, Esther Perel, the New York relationship therapist, in her Ted Talk: ‘Rethinking Infidelity’, suggests it exerts an even greater traumatic psychological toll on today’s modern relationships.
In the Western world, over the centuries, the definition of a good relationship has changed and carries a very different set of expectations. It is now more understood as an equal and romantic arrangement and is much less about money, family, class, or status than it used to be. There is now an adherence to the concept of a ‘romantic ideal’ and an acceptance that our significant other should meet and fulfil a whole range of our emotional needs.
Perel identifies some of these needs:
- Be my best friend
- Be my trusted confidant
- Be my emotional companion
- Be my safe haven
- Light my fire
- Support me unconditionally
- Be my intellectual equal
- Share my passions and interests
- Be my greatest lover
- Bring me comfort
- Admire and delight in me
- Alongside, each partner has a wish to claim a place in in the other person’s life as the special one, the chosen one, irreplaceable, the one and only, indispensable…
Infidelity is an attack on this construct and alters how the world is understood. Dreams are shattered and it can feel like the ultimate betrayal, destroying self-esteem and self-confidence: ’If you can do this, how can I ever trust anyone again?’.
The belief in what is ‘real’ is questioned and the exposure of layers of deception, secrecy and lies multiplies confusion and bewilderment.
Perel explains that while the experience of betrayal universally evokes a strong visceral reaction, there is no agreed-upon definition of what infidelity is itself. Depending on the couple, the individual, their community, their religion, their culture, it can be understood to take many different shapes and forms. But it is usually the secrecy and the act of deceiving that is common and rips at the heart of the relationship.
So, does infidelity have to be sexual? Is it sometimes a sharing of a deep emotional connection? Can it be online sexting with no physical contact? Does it include paid sex? What do we mean by monogamy? How do we describe betrayal in a polyamorous relationship? And what about threesomes?
Also, Perel says that betrayal can come in many a guise too. Does it always mean an affair? Could it include behaviour like contempt and lack of respect; indifference, neglect or with-holding; gaslighting; verbal critical attack or physical violence?
It may not have been openly discussed, but every partner, when they commit to a relationship, will have an innate understanding of their expectations and boundaries. They may be able to make accommodations and the boundary may be somewhat elastic, but there will always be a tipping point or a line in the sand.
A marriage vow is an example of an open tacit agreement that should work to deepen trust and increase a sense of safety and security.
There can be fury and a sense of huge injustice when it is revealed that one partner has disregarded the agreement and acted to threaten the wellbeing of the other. With a secret affair the deceived partner feels a profound shift in the balance of the relationship. They suddenly feel scarily adrift and the ground disappears from under their feet. They feel disempowered, without agency and choice. They feel a painful loss when they realise a special and significant emotional element has been taken and shared with someone else. For one partner, then, there has been a relationship violation and they are all at sea.
The therapists in Coupleworks work with couples who are disorientated by the revelations that have rocked their world and who are questioning every assumption they held about life, the relationship, and about themselves. They come with a rollercoaster of raw emotions: distress, vulnerability, fury, high anxiety, shame, depression, as well as full of grief at the thought of the potential loss of all that they hold dear.
Therapy can offer the space and time to start on the essential work of dealing with the profound emotional disturbance. If they are to survive this initial crisis it is urgent they are supported in managing the overwhelm of difficult feelings. Only then will it be possible for the couple to commit to the task of dissecting, unravelling, explaining and understanding the recent seismic events. Eventually they will begin to find a way through and begin to envisage an ‘afterwards’.
Many couples will not survive together and will need support in separating in the best way they can.
However, many couples will create a road map to reconciliation, find ways of accommodating what happened, and build a new trusting loving relationship.
It is common for them to hear terms like ‘moving on’, ‘starting afresh’, ‘letting go’, ‘forgiveness’, ‘putting it all behind’ – but they will be meaningless until what is needed for healing the trauma has first been addressed.
Then, when they are ready, counselling will help the couple to take a broader perspective and explore the factors that perhaps have increased a vulnerability to an affair.
- What were the differences and conflicts that never found resolution?
- What were the disappointments and frustrations that could not be acknowledged?
- When did paying attention and showing concern fade away and stop?
- When was closeness lost along the way and why were feelings of disconnection and loneliness never bridged?
However, as Esther Perel explains, sometimes it is not that the partner is not wanted or that there is a rejection of the relationship itself. Sometimes it is just one partner who is in existential crisis, who has an insatiable longing for more, and needs to understand their inner tumult. There is not a turning away from the long-term partner per se but a turning towards a vitality that nourishes a part of the self that felt deprived or neglected or underdeveloped.
Sometimes there is a sense of entitlement about deserving more, and a belief that it is not possible for one person satisfy every need. Sometimes there is a fear that time is running out and dreams may no longer be achieved or experienced.
An affair can mean an awakening of desire, with a quickening of excitement and feeling alive so that the intoxicating highs of a secret liaison are used to ward off depression, quell fears about mortality and feelings of deadness.
There is a great deal to explore, and it is emotionally challenging, but a couple may get to the point that they decide that they wish to embark on the work of repair. When they do, the book, ’Getting Past the Affair’, suggests they work within a structure of seven R’s:
- RECOGNITION: creating a clear understanding of the impact and the consequences of the affair
- RESPONSIBILITY: authentically owning responsibility for the decisions and choices made
- REMORSE: expressing genuine feelings of sadness and pain for the hurt
- RESTITUTION: becoming the protector of the boundaries and taking the steps necessary to reassure that there is a renewed commitment to the relationship
- REFORM: addressing the attitudes, choices, conditions and triggers that contributed to the affair and committing to, and providing evidence of, change
- RELEASE: explicitly working to soothe the hurt and heal the emotional wounds while taking every step to avoid reactivating anxieties
- RECONCILIATION: a committing to looking inwards, not outside, and rebuilding a caring and trusting relationship from the base up
It is not easy, but it is possible for the crisis to become a generative experience: a time of growth and self-discovery. The couple can determine the legacy of the affair, choose how to rewrite the script, and begin on a new path to the future.