DEALING WITH AN AFFAIR
By Glenn A. Peters, Ph.D.
"Within a single love relationship there are many endings"
-Clarissa Pinkola Estes, Ph.D.
Women Who Run with the Wolves
Many couples experience the painful and shattering impact of dealing with an affair. Some of the latest statistics show that even with the most conservative estimates, in the United States, 1 in every 2.7 couples, some 20 million is touched by infidelity. Based on this information, as to how widespread infidelity really is, it is important to find ways that can be used as a guide in helping one navigate and make decisions in relation to very troubling and difficult circumstances. This article is simply meant as a guide in presenting some ideas that may be helpful in dealing with an affair.
It is worthwhile to mention that many therapists think that trying to work on your relationship, (as used in this article, relationship stands for any committed relationship, such as marriage) while continuing to have an affair is likely to be unsuccessful. You are bound to experience significant intimacy problems in your committed relationship if you attempt to solve problems in your committed relationship while continuing to have an affair. However, decisions concerning whether or not you should tell your partner about a previous affair is a different matter. In the section called psychbytes, a part of the IPN website, their will be a list of questions concerning the advantages and disadvantages of telling your partner about an affair.
In her book, After the Affair, Healing the Pain and Rebuilding Trust When a Partner Has Been Unfaithful, Janis Abraham Spring, mentions that there are three stages that occur in the recovery from an affair. This article will focus on the first two stages; the last stage concerns the rebuilding of a relationship, which may be discussed in future articles. The first stage centers around normalizing your feelings, both the hurt partner, i.e., the partner hurt by the infidelity of the other partner, and the unfaithful partner. Both the hurt partner and the unfaithful partner have very strong emotional responses concerning the affair. The second stage concerns whether to recommit or quit the committed relationship.
For the hurt partner, the first stage is filled with overwhelming emotional experiences of misery, grief, rage and devastation. It is not unusual for many hurt partners to question their sanity and to evaluate themselves in a very harsh and punitive manner. For example, the hurt partner may think ãWhatâs wrong with me, Iâm not good enoughä. For the hurt partner, the violation of a relationship that had been held sacrosanct is a traumatizing experience. This violation can have very significant psychological consequences ranging from severe anxiety, obsessive worrying, hypervigilance and depression. It is important to recognize this stage for what it is. It is a time of crisis, filled with overwhelming emotions, which are normal and understandable based on the traumatizing experience that you have gone through. As Janis Abrahams Spring points out it is not a time to make a major decision, i.e. to break up your relationship, marriage, or family, based on overwhelming emotions, but rather a time to seek support, perhaps go to therapy, and allow yourself to accept and process through your emotional reactions to this violation.
The unfaithful partner has a different set of emotional reactions. The unfaithful partner often has a wide range of mixed feelings, including relief, that the affair is out in the open, i.e., no more lying, guilt, or even absence of guilt, i.e. feeling justified for the affair. There can be anger at the partner, i.e., for a host of different experiences of mistreatment, including, lack of attention, affection, etc. Similar, to the hurt partner the unfaithful partner also needs to accept and work through these emotions without making a major decision based on emotion. As, Janis Abraham Singer puts it, ãAt this stage of your odyssey, both of you need to leave yourselves open to many warring emotions, without hastily drawing conclusions about the futureä. Yet, it is important, to point out that the experiences of the unfaithful partner, no matter how bad the experiences may be, are rarely going to be as shattering, disorienting or devastating as the hurt partnerâs emotional responses. If the unfaithful partner is interested in rebuilding the relationship than it is important for the unfaithful partner to recognize and empathize with the intensity of the pain that the hurt partner is going through. As Dave Carder, in Torn Asunder: Recovering from Extramarital Affairs, points out, hurt partners often feel anger as intense as the infidelâs infatuation, anguish as intense as the infidelâs joy, retaliation as intense as the infidelâs deceit.
The second stage is filled with questions about whether to quit or recommit to the relationship. An affair often throws into question the very foundation of your relationship. It is a time to reevaluate whether this relationship is right for you. It is important not only to examine your relationship but it is also an important time to examine yourself. As Janis Abraham Singer, mentions, it is difficult to gauge how much of your unhappiness may be due to unrealistic expectations (in which case you need to change) and how much may be due to your partnerâs inability to satisfy your very basic needs (in which case your partner needs to change). Some of the unrealistic expectations include:
These unrealistic expectations are connected to the phase of a relationship known as Romantic or Ideal love. This is a phase where the partner does everything right. Your partner appears to be your perfect soul mate. It is a phase of a relationship that many people go through, but it is not a phase that lasts forever, nor is it a phase that leads to a lasting relationship. A later stage in long-lasting relationships, called mature love, occurs when an individual becomes aware not only of their strengths and weaknesses but also becomes aware of and accepts their partnerâs strengths, weaknesses and limitations. In mature love an individual starts to learn how his or her own difficulties impact on difficulties in his or her relationship. In mature love an individual is willing to consciously work on developing their relationship. Each partner consciously works on making their relationship interesting and fulfilling. In mature love an individual recognizes that their relationship will be supportive and that there will be many opportunities to experience enjoyment with their partner. However they also recognize that their relationship will have problems and conflicts and that the conflicts can be seen and used as opportunities for growth and development.
I have found that many individuals who get involved in an affair have not been able to go beyond the romantic ideal. They have an affair, with the romantic ideal, but find that they eventually only repeat the difficulties that they had in their previous relationship or relationships. Thus, it is very important to seriously consider whether giving up a long-term committed relationship, after an affair, is really in the service of oneâs deeper more profound interests. As Janis Abraham Singer points out, ãLobsters have to shed their shells to develop. Forests have to burn to stimulate new growth. And you may have needed the transformative disruption and trauma of infidelity to break out of a stale, unrewarding relationship and begin again.ä An affair can be a signal, a crisis, which makes you vulnerable and can lead you toward the potential for positive change.
No one can really answer your question, as to whether you should recommit or quit your relationship. This is really a personal matter that is unique to each one of you. However, this second stage is a time to objectively evaluate your relationship, without letting your emotions control your behavior. Yet, the emotions you feel such as anger can prompt you to become aware of the weaknesses or deficits in your relationship. Anger can also become destructive and make everything look hopeless and bleak even when it might not be worthwhile to throw in the towel. A number of couples that I see in therapy use their anger to justify themselves in blaming their partner. These individuals are often unhappy and blame their partner for their unhappiness, communicating with phrases such as ãyou did this, you did that, without really examining their own contribution and responsibility for their problems. Each partner can throw around blame, but blame will only cause damage and not help the relationship to move in a positive or constructive direction. Of course, the hurt partner is not responsible for the actions of the unfaithful partner. No one can make someone choose to have an affair, yet it is important to recognize how the difficulties in the relationship, the lack of intimacy, the blocks to closer communication may have established fertile ground where an affair can take hold. Perhaps if each one of you are willing to examine your part in contributing to these difficulties and are willing to make some changes in your attitude, expectations, and communication style than a stronger more lasting relationship can develop.
Finally, it has been my experience that it often takes more than you and your partner to recover from an affair. Hurt and unfaithful partners may be too subjectively imprisoned within each of their own viewpoints to recognize a road that leads to change and recovery. Therapy can be useful, as a therapist can be an objective, professionally trained third person, who can act as a guide or facilitator along the path of significant change and recovery.