An affair is an involvement, emotional and/or sexual, which threatens the integrity of an existing committed relationship. To sustain an affair involves a level of secrecy which inevitably leads to lies and, when all comes out, it is the lies and the accompanying loss of trust that is often reported to be the hardest thing to deal with. Partners often say ‘will I ever be able to trust him/her again?’
It’s fair to say nothing rocks a relationship as much as an affair. The pain, outrage and sense of betrayal in the aggrieved party is palpable. The couple bond itself is confronted as partners face the loss of exclusivity and trust the bond had been based on. It won’t be the same again, and the emotion experienced has many of the hallmarks of deep grief – shock, anger and sadness.
A couple facing an affair will benefit if they are able to work through several processes. Coming to counselling after an affair is exposed, they are inevitably in crisis: managing this crisis is the first stage of the work. Every couple has its own complicating circumstances which are hard to manage at this painful time. For example, partners may be at very different stages regarding the affair. For one, it may have been over for a while. They are relieved it is now out and they want to get over it and on with life as quickly as possible. For the other partner, however, this revelation has completely rocked his/her world. They are in the earliest stage of their grief and their emotion is extreme. They may want to know every detail and harangue repeatedly with more and more questions. This will add to the conflict and distress. Aggrieved partners can also be incredulous when they find themselves fighting for the relationship when they had always believed an affair would mean the end. This is a confusing, highly charged emotional time and couples can benefit from counselling support as they make their way through it. One additional point needs to be made: this is not the time to be making decisions about the long term future of the relationship.
Even in the midst of this emotional turmoil, couples often want to understand ‘How did this happen?’. This is the next phase of the work. If couples can explore what was going on in their lives and relationship at the time, it may help them understand the affair in the context of life in a time frame and this can help contain it. When couples reflect on their relationship, it is often clear it was being neglected, perhaps they weren’t communicating well and intimacy was suffering. Each had a part to play in allowing this develop and continue. Other factors may have been at play in an individual partner’s life or family backgrounds which made them vulnerable to this as a course of action. Couples can benefit greatly if they are able to come together in an atmosphere of honesty and vulnerability and do this work. This is not to excuse the perpetrator of the affair. He/she must take ultimate responsibility for it. However, with understanding, hopefully emotions can soften and the couple can begin to heal and rebuild.
This is the next and final phase of the couples’ work – to rebuild their relationship differently. This may entail making some life changes and developing new skills. The best safeguard against an affair is a loving couple bond. That is, a relationship where the partners are able to talk things through, manage their differences, and give their relationship some priority which includes an active sex life.
Not all couples can survive an affair. It may be a symptom of major relationship breakdown. However, many couples find their relationship is “bigger than the affair”. They are able to work through it, address their issues, and rebuild their relationship stronger and more resilient than before.
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