Affairs, cheating, adultery - no matter what you call it, when couples have to face the aftermath of a partner's infidelity, their whole world shatters.
For the hurt partner, it's as if all the love, good times, sex, and intimacy have somehow been a lie. The person they have built their life around now seems like a stranger.
For the straying partner, guilt at seeing their partner's heartache, fear about what the future will bring, and the potential loss of the other person hang overhead like an anvil.
For both partners, the sense of their relationship as a secure, safe haven is lost. It becomes clear that there are hard times and difficult choices ahead. As harsh reality sinks in, many turn to marriage counseling for help.
Who Has Affairs?
People of all ages and from all walks of life have affairs. Research suggests that affairs occur in about a quarter of all committed relationships, and as many as half of all marriages. Researchers quibble about the exact numbers, but agree that more relationships are affected by affairs than in past decades.
One explanation for the apparent increase in affairs could be that people are more open about them. But it also could be that as a culture, our views of marriage have changed. Web sites offer easy ways to find people who are "married but looking." Friends and acquaintances show off secret relationships and seem to get away with it. Celebrity affairs seem commonplace and glamorous, like a part of the good life. Perhaps people tell themselves "If everybody does it, so can I."
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The reality of affairs is anything but glamorous. About 25 percent of people who have had an affair, and 60 percent of their partners, have emotional problems for months - problems so serious they have been compared with post-traumatic stress disorder, which typically results from assaults, catastrophes, and war.
Reactions to an affair vary depending on whether the person was hurt by the affair, or engaged in it.
Hurt Partner Reactions
- Anger, rage and disgust at the partner
- Sudden angry outbursts and urges to break or throw away sentimental items
- Grief, melancholy, and frequent sobbing
- Problems going to sleep or staying asleep
- Difficulty eating
- Disturbing thoughts and images that pop up and are hard to push away
- Mistrust and suspiciousness
- Thoughts about revenge, confronting the other person, or "making a scene" to punish the partner
- Impulses to leave the relationship or force the partner to leave
Straying Partner Reactions
- Shock at the crisis the discovery has caused
- Guilt about the partner's distress and the effects of the crisis on the family
- Dread of painful conversations that feel like interrogations
- Confusion about how much to tell and how much to withhold
- Feelings of being exposed as the partner rifles through personal email, phone, and financial records
- Fear about consequences if the partner tells family, friends, and coworkers, or confronts the other person
- Sadness at losing the "affair partner" if the relationship ended abruptly upon discovery
- Mourning the loss of the “old” primary relationship (feeling shut out by the hurt partner)
- Fear about the partner leaving (the primary relationship ending)
What Exactly Is an Affair?
Partners frequently disagree about what constitutes an affair and how to label what occurred. Is a one-night-stand an affair or an indiscretion? What about a secret relationship that lasts for years? Or an online relationship that is sexual in nature, with no physical contact?
Part of the confusion about defining affairs is that every relationship includes assumptions about exclusivity. When expectations are not discussed openly, partners operate under different rules.
All affairs drain resources - time, money, energy, emotional intimacy, sexual fulfillment - from the committed relationship. Affairs can involve sexual contact without emotional intimacy, emotional intimacy without sexual contact, or a combination of both. They can be with colleagues, friends, anonymous people picked up at bars, or fantasy partners known only online. They can last moments or decades.
In general, women think an affair has occurred when their partner was more emotionally close, romantic, or attentive to another person than to them. They find a partner's brief sexual encounter less troubling. Men, on the other hand, define affairs in sexual terms. For them, if there was no sexual contact, it was not really an affair. That their partner has been sexual with someone else is the ultimate betrayal.
For both men and women, the most painful part of an affair is the breach of trust. Since all committed relationships are built on trust, infidelity strikes a relationship at its core.
Every affair says something about the committed relationship and about each partner. While an explanation is not the same as an excuse, deciphering the what the affair is saying allows partners to see patterns that may have paved the way for the affair.
For example, the underlying problem could be that:
- The straying partner is unhappy in the relationship but does not talk about it for fear it will come across as criticism or threaten the relationship. Over time, as emotional or sexual needs are not met, the person is vulnerable when someone comes along willing to meet them.
- The straying partner wants to leave the relationship but doesn’t feel strong enough to end it, or is afraid of being alone. Having a person waiting in the wings makes it easier to leave, by offering a new beginning, or providing encouragement.
- The straying partner feels stifled because of rejection or disapproval of aspects of their personality or lifestyle. It’s tempting to get into a relationship where these aspects can be expressed and validated.
Online sexual encounters, which in general affect hurt partners the way an affair would, pose a special threat to relationships. Often, the person using the internet this way wants sexual variety, or to do things sexually they would not do in bed. Online partners are available 24/7, always look just right, and are always ready and willing.
The Healing Process
Recovery from affairs involves learning what the affair is trying to teach both partners about themselves and their relationship, and deciding whether to use the information to grow toward, or away from, each other.
Couples typically move through various stages or phases of healing.
- Discovery phase. At first, life is a roller-coaster, as intense emotions and buried conflicts surface, subside, and surface again.
- Moratorium phase. After the shock of discovery has subsided, decisions about the relationship are put on hold while partners figure out what happened and why.
- Decision-Making phase. After partners gain more clarity and perspective and have a sense of the potential for rebuilding, they face the decision of whether to stay together or move on.
- Rebuilding phase. If the partners decide to stay together, they enter the rebuilding phase. Rebuilding includes accepting accountability for each person's role in the couple's problems, consolidating what was learned into new patterns and a stronger relationship, and choosing to trust again.
- Exiting phase. If partners choose to end the relationship, they start the decoupling process in which they try to maintain the channels of communication and use discipline to avoid conflict and negativity while they prepare for separation.
Couples counseling can be a forum in which couples move through the stages of healing in ways that facilitate personal growth and preserve self-respect. If one or both partners is uncertain about staying in the relationship, couples counseling can help determine what, if anything, can make it possible for that person to rebuild the relationship and restore trust.
Paradoxically, many couples who stay together say their relationship is better than it was before the affair. Gridlocked problems are discussed and handled. Barriers to communication are broken down. Buried emotional and sexual needs are responded to with love and care. The emotional energy that was drained away by the affair now revitalizes it.
Regardless of the circumstances, recovery after an affair takes considerable time. Rushing the process so things go back to normal quickly is a set-up for failure. When they are unexamined, emotional wounds don't heal, they fester, making true reunion impossible.
If your talks about the affair are getting nowhere or you think counseling might help you sort out your feelings, feel free to contact us for assistance and a free telephone consultation.
If you are thinking about harming yourself, feel unsafe because of threats by your partner of the other person, or want to do something that could put someone else in danger,
get help immediately.
You can find more information on the hurt partner
and straying partner pages.
We also have a AAMFT brochure about online infidelity available: