Around one in three couples will be affected by an affair. With less than 40% of relationships surviving the hammer-blow of adultery, how can couples see beyond an affair and into the future? A key element in solving this problem is looking at why people cheat.
Why do people have affairs?
It’s easy to declare an affair happened because he/she is a selfish idiot. But that sort of one-swipe blame never leads to resolution or healing.
Affairs don’t happen out of nowhere, they are cumulative and complicated. It’s very rare that a person who once loved purposely set out to hurt you in the way only an affair can. Unpicking why the affair took place in your relationship can be painful, but it can also help you forgive and move on.
Some of the reasons affairs happen are:
- A need for excitement
- Dissatisfaction with another area of life
- Regret at not having enough life experiences
- Using relationships for personal validation
- Sabotage – not feeling worthy of their partner so unconsciously ruining things
- Low self-esteem; if they feel less attractive than their partner they may be trying to ‘prove’ they are desirable
- Revenge; if someone suspects an affair, even if its not based on any fact, they might go out and have one themselves to ‘even the score’
- Repeating a childhood pattern (one of their parents had an affair)
Just because I can see why my partner had an affair, do I have to forgive them?
It’s unrealistic and unhelpful to think you can just forgive someone for an affair, or for them, alternately, to think they should just have to say sorry and be forgiven. Affairs are a betrayal of trust. When someone does something that questions our ability to trust, we can feel like our entire idea of what the world is, and what is and isn’t safe, is now on the chopping board.
And because trust is such a primal instinct (from the moment we are born we instantly look to trust our caregiver), when it is challenged, it can trigger old childhood pain. So then we are left not just dealing with the fallout of the affair, but a snowball of old hurts re-exposed. We might remember every partner that ever did us wrong, or even a parent betraying us.
There is no use in pretending to forgive someone if it’s not what you truly feel. It’s better to instead be honest with your partner about where you are at, and to take time to process your feelings honestly. Let them know if you want to forgive them and intend to do so with time, but don’t pretend. Otherwise your real feelings are more than likely to come out in an explosive way in the future.
Moving on from an affair
After an affair is revealed, it might seem hard to contemplate the future of the relationship. How can the hurt partner resolve their feelings? How can the relationship be salvaged? Or how can the relationship be brought to an end without losing a friendship or affecting the children?
The person who has been the victim of the affair can experience many negative emotions, including anxiety, low confidence, humiliation, jealousy and guilt. They may find it difficult to let go of the memory of the event and find themselves going round in circles with thoughts of how it happened.
Building trust can be a slow process after adultery and the injured partner may find it hard
to believe that the affair won’t happen again. They may find it hard to resist the urge to check their partner’s emails or Facebook page for reassurance and might become distressed if their partner is late home or breaks a promise.
If both partners decide that they want the relationship to continue, both will have to agree to work at rebuilding trust and establishing a fulfilling partnership together. Forgiveness takes time and small steps are what’s needed to help the relationship to survive. Bumps and emotional outbursts are bound to happen along the way, so it will require long-term vision.
How can couples counselling help after an affair?
Although an affair is a deeply personal experience for both parties, this does not mean dealing with the emotions alone. Counselling can be instrumental in helping both partners to address a number of issues both separately and together to help repair the relationship.
Is it really worth it, though? The benefits of couples counselling include but are not limited to:
- Exploring the dynamics of the relationship before the affair
- Remembering that at one point things were working
- Learning how to communicate again
- Remembering what was the relationship like before things went sour
- Identifying the real (not assumed) issues that led up to the event
- Recognising what needs and wants were not being met
It can of course be a painful process, but your counsellor can help to mediate any difficult emotions and encourage open communication.
Doesn’t a couples counsellor force you to stay together?
Not at all. A couples counsellor is there to create a safe space for you to communicate with each other and find the best solution for both of you. Sometimes that is breaking up. A therapist can make the process of ending a relationship healthier and kinder, so that there are less negative repercussions. Given how long bad breakups can go on and fester, that’s not such a bad investment!
A therapist will also never take sides. Their real client is your relationship. They are there to facilitate, not dictate. Not sure? Read an interview with a couples counsellor here.