In my therapy practice I treat couples who come to me with a wide variety of relationship and marital challenges stemming from an affair. In this article, I’d like to focus on some of the root causes of these challenges and talk a little bit about how therapy for affairs, cheating, infidelity, betrayal can begin to address problems in the relationship.
What Is An Affair?
An affair has often been defined as a violation of trust in a marriage or committed relationship, which frequently does great damage to the relationship when found out.
Does An Affair Mean My Relationship Is Bad?
Research has shown that it is a myth to think that affairs only happen in marriages where there is something fundamentally wrong. Affairs do happen in marriages that are good and healthy as well. Repair often takes time, patience, prolonged behaviors that promote loyalty and trust. Couples therapy is beneficial in helping facilitate the healing process.
Why Do Affairs Happen?
Some possible causes of affairs include:
- Schemas developed from early childhood.
- Negative family of origin role models, and values that breed infidelity.
- Losses such as death, job/career, financial that cause stress and loss of self identity and self esteem.
- Prolonged loss of intimacy, connectedness, romance, and support.
- Chronic disrespect from a partner in the forms of: criticism, contempt, and detachment which causes a longing to feel wanted, appreciated, and attractive.
- High discrepancy in sexual drives where one partner feels continually frustrated, angry, and unsatisfied.
- Weak impulse control.
- Difficulties in keeping clear boundaries.
- Sexual addiction.
How Do Affairs Happen?
Some possible ways that affairs happen include:
- A friendship that over time, becomes increasingly more confidential and personal
- A work associate or friend who makes one consistently feel more wanted, attractive, smart, and appreciated in comparison to a partner who often attacks, criticizes, belittles, and takes one for granted
- Frequently visiting pornographic internet sites and chat rooms
- Contact with a high school sweetheart through Facebook
- Vulnerable work situations such as traveling or working after hours or long hours with colleague of the opposite sex
- Confiding with someone of the opposite sex about problems in your marriage
- Fantasizing of having sex often with a work colleague or friend
What Happens During Disclosure Of An Affair?
When the unfaithful spouse discloses, there is typically a sense of relief. Strong feelings of anger, entitlement, shame, guilt, remorse, disgust, rejection, isolation and loneliness can follow.
The betrayed spouse usually will have feelings of anger, hurt, betrayal, disbelief, and shock. While some partners have a strong need to know all the details, some don’t. What works best is up to each individual. Often, the betrayed partner gets the urge to repeatedly ask for the details, over and over to help relieve anxiety and to find out if there is more to the story than told.
What Strategies Can Be Helpful After Disclosure?
It is helpful to mourn and accept the loss of innocence and recognize that the marriage has entered a new phase as there are many stages along the marriage journey.
For the betrayed, acknowledge and accept that this is a grieving process with its own trajectory, and feelings and thoughts can come up out of nowhere and be overwhelming, similar to post traumatic stress syndrome.
Try keeping discussions contained to appropriate times, when the time is right for you and your partner, so that it does not permeate every facet of the your day.
The Tasks for the Unfaithful Partner
This is an opportunity to move forward while becoming more aware of situations that lead to a weakening of boundaries with a person of the opposite sex such as going out for drinks, traveling, long hours working together where inappropriate conversations about one’s personal life may develop.
It may or may not be essential that the unfaithful partner share the details, depending if the betrayed partner wants to hear them or not. It may be incredibly difficult and painful to share due to fear of rejection and the enormous amounts of shame and anger. Keep in mind that minimizing, lying, and denial is more painful than the actual disclosure for the betrayed spouse.
Behaviors that can promote trust and reassurance include:
- For the betrayer to write down their schedule everyday for their spouse.
- Call often from land lines.
- Make all social media including: emails and text messaging transparent.
- Spend lots of time together. If possible, take time off from work. Most importantly though, to increase time for connection.
- Examine the reasons how and why the affair occurred.
- Identify areas of the marriage that need improvement.
- Seek therapist support. Feelings of guilt and unworthiness may continue for a while. It is important to recognize the need to forgive oneself and to understand why the events happened and to realize that we are human and it is an opportunity to rebuild the relationship on a more positive note. Through therapy, one can restore a sense of dignity by focusing on one’s qualities of courage, integrity, and willingness to recommit to the marriage. A good marriage counselor can support an unfaithful spouse on what to say to the affair partner and when and how to overcome the various hurdles.
- It is also important to address all residual feelings and grief towards letting go of the affair partner.
- Once this has all been worked out and the changes have taken hold, it often helps to do something such as a ritual – renewing vows, and/or writing letters to each other.
- Motivate unfaithful partner to be patient, kind, loving, spend more time in connecting.
- Validate the difficulty of being together. Introduce balance – time to talk about the affair and times not to.
- Important to set boundaries around this so that even when the other person is triggered they don’t impulsively act out in a moment of intimacy.
- Don’t throw in the towel. If one gets discouraged, “How did you get things back on track before? What do you need to do to get it back on track now? Keep moving forward.
- Encourage expressions of anger, hurt, rage, and fear. But, don’t allow abusive behavior. Always remember, “What are you trying to accomplish?”
- If you are a practicing Catholic or Christian, seek God’s mercy through the practice of confession. Make full restitution with God and seek God’s guidance, mercy and strength. Ask for deliverance if you are undergoing difficulties with temptation. Frequently attend confession and receive the Eucharist and Daily Mass, if possible. With sincere effort, it will eventually release its hold.
The Role of Forgiveness
For trust to be rebuilt, it often takes consistent, loyal, positive behaviors over a long period of time that reinforces that one is trustworthy, repentant and has changed for the better. Therapy can greatly help in facilitating this process. Once trust is reestablished, forgiveness is a conscious decision and is a gift we give ourselves. It is also a process that takes time. When trust and forgiveness take place, we can now fully accept our partner once again. In forgiving, we need to ask ourselves, “What does my partner need to say or do that will make me feel that they really understand what I am feeling?” It is essential that the unfaithful partner consistently show empathy and patience to the partner who was betrayed over the course of this process. The betrayer at times may become impatient and resentful with the process of healing, feeling that their partner should have gotten over it and moved on. Unfortunately, this has its own trajectory that has its own time, depending upon the level of remorse, empathy, and trust that is being established and until there is full resolution.
With time, hard work and commitment from both parties involved, it is possible to have many more years as a couple, with a new, more healthy relationship, one based on trust and good communication.
Spring, Janis A. (2013-01-22). After the Affair, Updated Second Edition: Healing the Pain and Rebuilding Trust When a Partner Has Been Unfaithful HarperCollins.
Glass, Shirley (2007-11-01). NOT “Just Friends”: Rebuilding Trust and Recovering Your Sanity After Infidelity (p. 42). Free Press. Kindle Edition.
Beall, Cindy (2011-08-01). Healing Your Marriage When Trust is Broken (p. 12). Harvest House Publishers. Kindle Edition.