We will feature a new article here each month written by one of our group members.
Over the past year, a number of my patients (both men and women) came in for therapy as a result of having had an affair. Some were married and others were in long-term relationships1.
For some of these patients, their CRP discovered the affair, whereas other patients had not been discovered but wanted to figure out what to do about it. In the latter group, some were struggling with whether to leave their CRP and engage fully with their AP, while others wanted to end the affair and were plagued by guilt and shame about what they had done.
Step 1 - What happened
When people have been caught in their infidelity-especially when they want to salvage the relationship with their CRP and that CRP is willing to consider reconciliation-one of the biggest hurdles to overcome is the impact of the AhP's behavior on their CRP, including feelings of hurt, anger, betrayal, distrust, and fears of being blind-sided by a possible future affair. All of these feelings must be addressed and worked through by both partners, and doing so presents significant challenges for each person in the couple.
Whatever sense of safety and security had been present between the couple-and had been a foundation of their initial decision to be in a committed relationship with each other-has now been breached, and that is a traumatic experience. A typical symptom of trauma is hyperalertness to the possibility of that event happening again, and therefore rebuilding the CRP's trust is a necessary component and extremely challenging task in the rebuilding of any post-affair relationship.
An emotional affair is frequently more difficult to recover from than a sexual affair. As was the case with my patient, Sandra2, she could forgive her husband's sexual addiction with escorts, but she was severely struggling with getting past his emotional affair though it was long over.
For the AhP, all of his3 efforts to be open, honest, and transparent are subject to suspicion and scrutiny. His best intentions are open to her doubt and mistrust. The CRP needs to express all of her normal and justified feelings, yet doing so may be extremely difficult for the AhP to hear and tolerate.One of the challenges for the CRP is that the actions of the AhP may stand as triggering events for her because those events may bring up strong reminders of similar traumatic experiences the CRP has suffered in the past and may reignite old feelings from those prior experiences. That repetition may also reinforce previously learned and extremely painful lessons about who she is and what she should expect from a partner and from life generally.
This creates the challenge that awaits the AhP who is truly trying to change his ways: he now has to disprove the lessons that he has just reinforced. Following disclosure of the affair, the AhP often wants a conflict-free relationship with his CRP, as if the affair never happened. When that happens, he feels relief from having unburdened himself of his transgressions but has difficulty tolerating her response to the burden he has dropped on her. It is often difficult for him to allow her the time necessary to deal with that burden and to work through its impact on her.
One of the other challenges for the CRP is that her difficulties in processing feelings resulting from the affair-especially anger-may lead to her presenting those feelings in ways that are verbally or emotionally abusive, difficult for the AhP partner to tolerate, and destructive to rebuilding a relationship of safety with him.
Step 2 - Why it happened
All of what I have described above addresses how the intimacy between the AhP and CRP has been severely broken and needs to be rebuilt if that relationship is to be reconciled. However, it highlights an important task that is also required yet often omitted when people try to recover from an affair, which is for each partner to engage in his/her own examination of why the affair happened.
Many AhPs explain the affair as "it just happened," "we were together all the time," or some similar empty rationalization. I have found that all affairs result from something lacking or broken in the CR. The problem may have been there from the beginning or may have developed later. In some way, the partners have not been able to be truly emotionally intimate with each other, and the affair is an expression of that impediment. For whatever reason, the AhP has reached a point of frustration where he is unsuccessful in getting his needs met within the CR, feels a sense of desperation in his efforts to do so, and encounters someone with whom he is able to fulfill those needs either in reality or in fantasy. Sometimes the fulfillment in fantasy happens because of the unique circumstances of the affair, such that it is an incomplete relationship and enables an idealization of the partner. This may happen because the AP is in a CR of her own and is therefore unavailable for a more complete and fully committed relationship or possibly because the AP lives in another city and they are physically together only intermittently and for brief and intense times creating a kind of honeymoon effect whenever they are together. Sometimes, the binding quality in the affair is a sense of safety that is felt because one or both of the ARPs is in a CR that she will not leave, thereby creating a risk-free environment between the partners in the affair.
Often there is an addictive element in an affair. What happens is that, as in any addiction, you do one thing in order to avoid the pain of doing and feeling another thing. Frequently, what is addictively acted out in an affair is a fear of conflict. In such instances, there is an addiction to conflict avoidance. This relational style may even be one of the bonding elements that initially brings people together to become a couple, yet it may surface as dysfunctional and destructive to the relationship when circumstances arise that create conflicts between the pair, especially when these conflicts are significant.
James' affair illustrates many of these issues. He and his wife Natalie were happily together for ten years and had a child. They were able to talk things out between them and disagreements were able to be managed without even verbal fighting. However, when they had their second child, he felt overwhelmed with the added work, responsibilities, and increased work/life challenges. With two children, he was unable to communicate intimately with her about his overwhelm and his deep personal distress. Their differing parenting styles became a lightning rod for acting out his suffering. His childhood experiences with his rigid and abusive father, coupled with his lack of experience in learning how to fight constructively with Natalie, created distance between them and led to his increased sense of isolation and abandonment. When he later encountered someone with whom he could commiserate about their respective troubles, he found an intimacy that he desperately wanted with his wife but no longer had and felt unable to regain. He was emotionally vulnerable, beyond his awareness or expectation, and an affair ensued.
He has since ended the affair, feels extremely guilty and ashamed about it, and struggles with how to understand why he did it, whether he should leave Natalie, how to understand and address within himself what led to the affair, and how to rebuild with Natalie the intimacy of deep emotional connection and interpersonal safety and security they once had together.
It is important to deal with Step 1 and also Step 2. Neither one by itself fully addresses the needs of resolving affairs. Like with any addiction, it is insufficient only to stop the behavior and to confront and rectify the damage done by that behavior. What led to that behavior also needs to be worked through and necessary changes need to be made (within each person and within the relationship) that will prevent a need to act out via affairs (or in other ways) from arising again in the future. In the world of alcoholics, stopping the behavior alone is often referred to as "white-knuckling," and being abstinent without the rest of Step 1 (taking responsibility and rectifying the damage) is often referred to as being a "dry drunk." Yet, without Step 2, the wounds that led to the acting out remain unhealed and vulnerable to be activated again by being a serial cheater, as in the adage, "once a cheater, always a cheater."
1For the sake of simplicity, I will refer to both of these situations as the committed relationship (CR) and to the partner in those relationships as the committed-relationship partner (CRP). In contrast, I will refer to the other person in the affair as the affair-partner (AP). I will refer to the affair-having person as AhP.
2 All names have been changed.
3 Though both men and women have affairs (as do people of all sexual orientations), I will be referring to the AhP as "he," to his CRP as "her," and the AP as "her." I do so strictly for the sake of simplicity in writing, because the English language has not yet figured out how to indicate gender-free referents, other than the very clumsy "he/she" or "(s)he." The reader should make no inferences about the actual gender of the person in any of these roles.
Copyright 2016 by Carl H. Shubs, Ph.D.
Copyright Independent Psychotherapy Network 2008-2016