After there’s been an affair, it’s not unusual for a couple to come in for counseling — as long as there is still love and commitment between the couple, when preserving the marriage is important and both want to work on recovery. Amazingly, I have seen that even with the pain present — ultimately, if both want it — an affair can be a catalyst for a new honesty and closeness between both people, and an immense opportunity for the relationship to grow. How can this be?
I have heard researchers say that affairs happen in about 30 percent of couples, and they often occur in the first two years of the relationship. They have found the affairs don’t usually have to do with sexual satisfaction or because the person was going out looking for it, but happen because an opportunity presented itself. Affairs can range from using someone else as an emotional confidante, to sex talk over the phone or Internet, to actual meetings with or without sexual consummation. Affairs can even happen in good marriages.
When a couple comes to therapy because of an affair, obviously, there is anguish on both sides: the partner who strayed is distraught for having inflicted such pain on the person he or she loves, and the betrayed partner is feeling totally devastated and doesn’t know whether the trust can ever be there again.
As the therapy begins, the partners speak of an extreme relief over not keeping secrets anymore. Because both people often don’t understand it themselves, they exhibit a willingness to figure out how something like this happened. What slowly emerges is an awareness of feelings of having unmet needs that were being kept inside (that perhaps weren’t even at a conscious level), allowing for a vulnerability and hopes of getting them filled elsewhere.
These painful feelings can be attributed to a growing emotional isolation between the partners because of demands of work, children, money, or housekeeping — real distancing issues resulting in feelings of loneliness, and not being understood or valued. As the partners talk about these feelings they were keeping secret, even from themselves, and see that the other person can listen and even be glad to be learning more about these needs, a tremendous gratitude and appreciation can begin to grow. The strayer now has a new awareness that, if he can communicate with his partner more honestly and deeply, he can work toward getting his needs met within the relationship. And this new, deeper connection will eliminate future vulnerability to temptations outside of the relationship.
The hard part, of course, is for the victim of the affair to forgive and have the courage and willingness to move on. After all, the victim was having the same painful feelings of disconnection, but didn’t stray from the relationship.
Listening to the affair experts talk, it seems to me that the painful feelings from betrayal linger for long periods of time, and the only way these feelings can become more manageable is if the couple shifts to exploring lost warmth and connection.
What enables the recovery of some of this lost closeness is a new, total openness between the couple. The betrayer must express remorse; be willing to answer any questions about the affair in a non-defensive, patient way; and must make this conversation available in a calm, caring way. He must verbally recommit to the relationship, telling his partner why he still wants to be with her, and he must be prepared to say this not just once, but on an ongoing basis. Atonement for this hurt is the betrayer’s responsibility to communicate forevermore.
Finding a way to accept the apology and begin some sort of forgiveness process is the task of the victim.
In order to move on, the goal must be to commit to honest communication about what each person is going through on a day-to-day basis. There has to be an acceptance that there are two subjective realities, and that is a tremendous relief for both people, because they will be able to express their feelings and feel that they are being heard and understood. Both have to be willing to listen to each other.
With no secrets about feelings, a closeness can develop that enables a couple to weather the storms ahead and stay connected. Keeping feelings to oneself results in turning away, distancing, and thus, the danger of giving up and looking elsewhere to feel truly understood. Having a partner who can listen to you talking about your feelings — which aren’t easy for you to discuss and that you know are even a little crazy — creates trust, and trust has been described as the basic ingredient for success in a relationship.
Affairs are probably the most painful thing that can happen in a committed relationship, but however unbelievably, if an affair does happen, there’s still hope. But both partners must be willing to work to understand what happened and to learn new ways to help the relationship grow.
Dr. Joan Emerson is a New York psychologist who specializes in couples therapy. Visit her website at www.JoanEmerson.com.