Ask a marriage guidance counsellor to list the questions they most often hear and somewhere near the top will be “can our relationship survive his (or her) affair?” Of course, there is no simple answer to this. Some relationships do survive, just. Others limp along for years in an atmosphere of bitterness and shame. For many, the pain is too great and they separate immediately. Often, even those who make an effort find that the trust, bond and intimacy have gone forever. Saddest of all is the couple who still love one another but separate because they just cannot stand the thought of their partner in the arms of another man or woman. And yet many relationships can and do survive an affair. Some couples even go on to thrive. As with so much in life, context is everything.
People have affairs for all sorts of reasons. Sometimes they are motivated by simple lust. More often, there are complex psychological and emotional reasons which have nothing to do with their partner. Self-sabotage is a common example. A 27-year-old woman named Emily comes to her therapist in tears and explains that she loves her husband, that he is kind and loving and that she is happy. Yet, when her husband went away for the weekend, she slept with a man from work, a man she neither liked nor respected. Now her marriage is ruined. At first glance, this behavior makes no sense. The therapist delves a little deeper and discovers that Emily felt unwanted and unloved as a child. She was bullied at school and then abused by her first boyfriend, shattering what little confidence she had. When she met her current partner, she was astonished by the love and kindness he showed her. For the first time she was happy – and it scared her. She had grown both used to, and comfortable with, misery and self-loathing. Happiness made her feel vulnerable and exposed. Her affair could thus be explained as an attempt at self-sabotage. At a subconscious level, she was trying to return things to the way they were.
Then there are people who wish to prove they are still young and attractive. This is especially common when the milestone birthdays are passed, especially 40 and 50. The balding, middle-aged boss who has an affair with his secretary, or falls in love with one of his students, is more often a tragic than a comic figure.
Some are driven into the arms of a stranger by ghosts from their past. Another hypothetical example may be helpful. Sarah was constantly told by her mother that “the women in our family are hopeless at marriage.” This then became an ingrained, core belief, shaping her attitudes and behavior. When Sarah meets her husband, she is expecting herself to fail. Since her husband refuses to engage in the arguments she provokes, she has an affair instead – thus confirming her deep-seated beliefs. Or imagine a 37-year-old man named Steve whose misogynistic father repeatedly cheated on his mother before walking out on the family altogether. In later life, Steve marries a woman he deeply loves and respects. And yet he cheats on her. In doing so, he was trying to prove himself the equal of his dreadful, alpha-male father. Indeed, at a subconscious level, he was hoping to impress him and persuade him to return to the family.
The famous saying ‘to know all is to forgive all’ could be re-phrased as ‘to understand all is to forgive all.’ Once their partner fully understands the other’s motives, forgiveness becomes possible.
In her book The Monogamy Myth: A Personal Handbook for Recovering from Affairs, Peggy Vaughan argues that you will heal once you can talk about the affair without a stab of pain. And that will only happen if both parties are prepared to be honest. Think of it as like cleaning an infected wound. No battlefield medic would bandage up a wound that had swollen with pus and turned fiery red. He would first dig out the shrapnel or bullet, wash and sterilize the wound, then wait. The one who has cheated must be open and honest. They must also be prepared to answer strange, unexpected questions, to answer the same ones over and over again, and to do all this without sighing or hesitating. Never say “can’t we just forget it and move on?” It isn’t up to the one who cheated to decide when to move on. The hurt party should ask every question that passes through his or her mind – even if they fear the answer. Above all, there must be no more secrets! Many couples survive an affair then, three or four years later, the victim discovers something that was kept back and feels betrayed all over again. Honesty will help rebuild trust.
Both partners also need to be honest about how they feel as well as honest about what was done. Obviously, the victim should tell the other person how angry, upset, betrayed, and frightened they feel. They should also be wary of saying they forgive their partner when they do not. But the guilty party should also be honest. If they are trying to make the relationship work, they presumably still love their partner. And if they still love them, they almost certainly felt immense shame, guilt, and self-disgust as they pursued the affair.
Those shattered by infidelity will be sick of hearing it, but time is the greatest healer. The raw, savage pain and anger must first be unleashed. And the person who has cheated must be willing to stand and take the tears and hatred directed their way. But so long as they are honest and their partner is able to understand why they did what they did, these emotions will expend themselves. Of course, there are no guarantees, but an affair reduces things to a sort of ‘ground zero.’
People often despair and say “things can never go back to the way they were.” And this may be true. But things can move on to something just as good. Your relationship may never be the same, but given enough time a new kind of relationship will emerge from the wreckage of the old. Though some find it hard to believe, affairs can even make a relationship stronger. Tensions and resentments have been brought to a head. Once the affair is revealed, there is an explosion of yelling, shouting, and tears and things are said that would have remained unspoken. After things settle back down, the couple find that their relationship is now based on something more solid and real than it was before. Both love and trust have been shaken, but so long as they have not been entirely destroyed they can be gently nurtured and restored.