The disclosure of an affair can be one of the most devastating events affecting a committed and intimate relationship. The faithful partner’s pain when faced with such betrayal and breach of trust is often too great for the relationship to survive. However, if the couple can weather the initial storm of rage, recrimination, hurt and guilt, in order to develop a perspective that views the affair as a mutual creation with joint but not equal responsibility, it is possible for them to reach a conciliatory understanding that can lead to forgiveness and a stronger, more loving union.
This process is very precarious, especially during the early stages, and requires the assistance of an experienced therapist who can skillfully manage the intensity of the heated emotions and the volatility of the potentially explosive circumstances. Additionally, the therapist must be familiar with the stages and steps of this particular process to maximize the chances for optimum healing.
If the primary relationship hasn’t already ended with the disclosure of the affair, there are some very basic considerations that determine whether rebuilding will be possible. If the history of the relationship was mostly satisfying and generally expressive of mutual care and concern, this bodes well for successful reconciliation. The reservoir of positive feelings can counterbalance the intense disappointment and demoralization that the couple might be feeling. Perhaps the most important factor is the presence of a genuine expression of remorse on the part of the unfaithful partner. Remorse must be distinguished from guilt, which sounds similar to remorse when offered as an apology. In fact, remorse originates from a very different place and is therefore received differently by the partner. Remorse connotes: “I am truly sorry for what I did and the pain that my actions caused you.” The concern is for the other person, rather than for oneself. Guilt implies “I am such a bad person for doing what I did to you.” The concern is self-referential. It is more about the discomfort that the guilty person is feeling and the apology is made in order to relieve it. Purely guilt-based apologies are never truly satisfying, yet they are the type most often expressed in the early stages of therapy.
Even if the prospect of rebuilding the relationship seems promising, some affairs are much more difficult to reconcile than others. Long-term alliances and love affairs involve a deeper level of emotional attachment and are much more difficult to recover from than brief flings and predominately sexual liaisons. If the third party was known to both partners, for instance a friend or relative, the consequences become exponentially more serious, for the disclosure affects not only the primary couple, but also their mutual friends and extended family members. Additionally the betrayal of the faithful partner becomes two-fold, both by the partner and the third party. Rebuilding the sense of trust in these situations, if at all, is pain-staking and faltering. Workplace liaisons— especially those involving bosses, supervisors, or mentors—can also be very complicated, since ending them can result in financial and legal consequences that adversely affect the primary couple’s recovery. Engaging in affairs with individuals in trusted professional relationships, such as doctors, teachers, professors, religious figures, or therapists is also highly problematic: the complex constellation of factors regarding trust and the violation of boundaries makes reconciliation especially difficult. With a competent therapist and a sincerely motivated couple, however, positive outcomes can still be achieved.
If the couple decides to try to rebuild their relationship through the course of therapy, they first must address the aftermath of the disclosure of the affair. Usually the affair is not revealed voluntarily: in most cases, the unfaithful partner is somehow caught. This causes the faithful partner to doubt if their partner would have ever willingly ended the affair. This exacerbates the original pain of the betrayal and perpetuates the sense of distrust and disregard.
Sometimes the reaction to the disclosure of the affair is shock and emotional shutdown by the injured partner. In this case, the therapist must revive the suppressed feelings of hurt and anger and facilitate their expression so that an active and productive conversation between the partners can take place. More often, this is the most volatile and explosive stage of the healing process, in which guilt and outrage are rampant. Typically, the injured partner alternates between feeling devastated and enraged. He or she demands excessive apologies and may ask for explicit details of the affair, which only produce more pain that then breeds more resentment and the need for further declarations of contrition. The unfaithful partner busily fends off the outbursts of hostility or anguish with guilty apologies or with defensive rage of his or her own. By engaging in the emotional drama, the unfaithful partner rarely can contact his or her true sorrow necessary for a genuine apology. Nor can the faithful partner express his or her genuine feelings of grief or anger that are displaced by the outbursts of self-righteous indignation.
At this point in the therapy it is crucial that the therapist help each partner express his or her powerful feelings in a genuine responsible manner that evokes the least defensive reaction possible. Blaming statements beginning with the word ”You” that evoke defensiveness and counterattack are discouraged in favor of ‘I’ statements that express one’s “inarguable truth.” Inarguable truths are descriptions of actual sensations or feelings that can’t be challenged or refuted, unlike speculations about another’s experience or character that can only be assumed. Compare the statement “Since I’ve known of your affair, it’s obvious that you never really loved me.” to the utterance “Since I’ve known of your affair, I feel a deep pain in my heart and feel very hurt and unloved.” In the first instance, the conclusion reached can only be based on supposition. The speaker can’t possibly know what the other’s actual feelings were. And there is no conclusive evidence that if a person had an affair, it meant that he never did or still doesn’t love his primary partner. Much valuable time can be wasted arguing over unverifiable statements, which delays the process of uncovering the actual underlying causes that gave rise to the affair. In the second case there is a clear expression of one’s sorrow. It describes what the person is actually feeling and sensing and is not open to questioning. Furthermore, it can be accepted more easily and may even evoke a supportive response.
Another important tactic to deepen the therapy beneath the shame-blame level is to explain the affair as a joint collaboration that may have unwittingly involved the faithful partner. The therapist must present a cogent argument that names the faithful partner as a co-conspirator in the creation of the affair. The therapist interprets the affair to the couple as a misguided attempt to resolve certain frustrations in the relationship that have not been satisfactorily alleviated. Whether unable to address these issues due to his or her own inhibitions or timidity, or being strongly resisted by the partner’s rigidity or defensiveness, or simply failing to agree on a solution, the soon-to-be unfaithful partner concluded that no mitigation was possible in the relationship.
The idea of an affair as a solution began to formulate in his or her mind as it offered the promise of some form of personal relief or gratification, while also preserving the primary relationship. Although the affair temporarily relieved some of the acute immediate frustrations, it also resulted in a loss of a vibrant connection the primary partner. The resultant flatness and stultification in the couple assured that the relationship would remain unfulfilling, which further justified the continuation of the affair.
Even though the faithful partner is implicated in creating the conditions for the affair, his or her shortcomings or failings should never be viewed as the cause of the infidelity. They are important aspects of the relational disharmony, but should never be seen as justifying or condoning the unfaithful partner’s transgression. Nor must the admission of partial responsibility invalidate the faithful partner’s deep pain as a result of the betrayal. This frustration and disappointment could have been managed many other ways: by expressing one’s frustration, anger, or sadness openly and repeatedly; by insisting on counseling, threatening to leave the relationship if the problematic issues aren’t addressed; and, even more drastically, by actually leaving. Infidelity was the path that the unfaithful partner took based on the specific resolution of various factors and forces, only one of which was the attitude and behavior of his partner. Though clearly the fault does not lie with the faithful partner, his or her complicity must be acknowledged and analyzed for the successful treatment of the couple.
If the therapist is successful in conveying the idea of joint responsibility for the creation of the affair, the couple can proceed to the heart of the therapy, which entails thoroughly examining the factors that created the conditions for the affair to take place. The therapy focuses on three areas that represent typical places of conflict and vulnerability: 1. Internal difficulties or conflicts in the relationship. 2. Unresolved personal issues of each partner. 3. External circumstances that put undue stress or pressure on either member of the couple or on the couple itself.
An example of an internal conflict in the relationship category is the issue of distance or closeness relating to time spent together or apart. Differences in the need for emotional or sexual contact can be very problematic. Differing communication styles can also produce inequalities of expression that often lead to chronic frustration and misunderstanding. One of the most common sources of conflict in relationship involves the balance of power and control: often, there partners struggle with the issues of who gets to make the decisions and whose needs get met first and most often. Without some parity between partners, the relationship can become filled with open or covert hostility.
There are various potential factors that contribute to the unfaithful partner’s decision to engage in an affair. These include a strong need for affirmation of self-worth, or the need to validate his or her physical attractiveness or sexual adequacy. A deep fear of intimacy or commitment can also trigger infidelity. Additionally, many people engage in affairs as a way to indirectly express their dissatisfaction in the relationship, or as a means to avoid dealing with the frustrations and disappointments that occur in relationships. One of the most compelling situations that can lead to an affair is the awakening of previously lost or unrecognized aspect of ourselves, that are evoked by someone other than our partner, which feel vital to our deepest fulfillment. An addictive attraction occurs to the person who arouses that powerful reaction in us, without which we feel inadequate and incomplete. The mistake lies in believing that the other person is the source of those feelings of vibrancy and joy, rather than a reflection of those internal qualities and aspects that already belong to us, but which we project upon them. If the participating partner can recognize these qualities as his or her own, integrate them into his or her awareness, and cultivate their expression, the spell of the exaggerated attracted is broken and the transformed into a much more appropriate form of appreciation.
Often the participating partner’s lack of inner fulfillment and sense of emptiness is the precipitating cause for the affair, whose secretive and illicit quality creates an addictive sense of excitement. As mentioned earlier, the faithful partner is not just the innocent victim. He or she may be emotionally distant or sexually inhibited. Or perhaps the faithful partner may be needy and smothering, failing to accept the other’s need for autonomy and growth. Being either excessively critical or unduly offended are qualities that prevent any open communication and prevent recognizing and taking responsibility for his
or her part in the relational difficulties.
Finally, certain stressful or traumatic event, such as the death of a family member (especially children), can lead to an affair as a means of bypassing the resultant emotional turmoil. The birth of a child can also be a significant stress factor, as can a cataclysmic illness, loss of employment or a substantial loss of income.
Whatever the reasons for the affair, any single contributing factor or any combination of them must be explored for a comprehensive analysis and formulation of the conditions and motivations for the affair. All the relevant components must be explained explicitly to both partners and clearly comprehended by both if there is to be the possibility of forgiveness and final resolution. Needless to say, this can be a rigorous, exacting and lengthy, which will invariably be painful and prone to falter at times. This demands the utmost skill and sensitivity of the therapist.
Although not as raw and volatile as the initial stage of revelation, at this point the couple’s bond is still tenuous; various resistances and flare-ups may still erupt and impede the healing process. For instance, the unfaithful partner, still burdened by guilt or shame, may resist hearing his or her partner’s continued expression of hurt and pain. The unfaithful partner may begin to grow impatient with the slowness of recovery and begin to doubt it will ever happen. Especially at these moments the unfaithful partner’s longing for the person with whom they had the affair may resurface which can derail the recovery or even destroy it.
The faithful partner may have difficulty getting past his or her rage and resentment and may continue to blame and attack his or her partner. Or perhaps the faithful partner may find it so difficult to trust the unfaithful partner again that he or she remains very guarded and difficult to reach.
Regardless, if there was an initial bond of caring and attraction that has actualized into a willingness to persevere with the therapy despite the difficulty and pain, the couple can come to a deep understanding of the full range of issues and dynamics that affected their thoughts, feelings and behaviors. As they fully acknowledge and own their respective roles in creating the relational discontent, they can eventually stop blaming each other. And as they share their past and present struggles and difficulties, honestly revealing themselves, a sense of mutual compassion can develop which can lead to genuine forgiveness. Additionally, the therapy has hopefully taught them to process their angry and disappointing feelings in healthier ways and to communicate their needs and feelings more effectively. This type of honest and open communication both strengthens the original connection and complements it with respect and trustfulness, which are powerful incentives for fidelity.
Even with the development of compassion and forgiveness, either member of the couple may ultimately decide to separate. The consecrated connection between them has been broken and no amount of good intentions or effective therapy was able to repair it. Or perhaps the new form of the relationship no longer supports the aspirations or purposes of one or both partners that have developed over the course of therapy. In both of these cases the relationship will end, usually without rancor, often with a sense of sadness and regret.
Whether they ultimately decide to remain together or to separate, after having undergone an intense process of internal growth, both partners have become more aware and more whole. Given their newfound sensitivity and wisdom, they’re free to choose to enrich and vitalize their renewed relationship or to begin different ones, in which the chances for success and satisfaction are considerably greater.
Richard Sussman LCSW has been practicing couples and marital counseling for over thirty-five years. A specialist in rebuilding intimacy in relationships affected by infidelity, he has saved countless marriages and has also helped guide couples through the process of separating with dignity and respect.