How couples can survive, even thrive, after one partner’s affair
Not all relationships can be salvaged, but if both partners are prepared to examine why trust was breached and work at rebuilding it, forgiving and forgetting can lead to stronger bonds, experts say
If a spouse or partner were unfaithful, would you leave? The answer for many couples is not clear-cut, according to relationship experts.
“I would have done once but I’ve changed my views,” says a friend, Sam. “It depends on how intimate things were between the cheater and other party. It also depends on whether there was alcohol involved.”
Abbie agrees. “Years ago I would have said leave, immediately. However, things are not that simple. There are many different types of infidelity and many reasons for it.”
Jane is in the same camp. “It depends on so many things, desires, happiness. Nobody wants to be unhappy in a relationship.”
Carrie says the length of any infidelity would have to be considered. “Was it a single night? Did it last a month? More?” But Nat is certain: “I don’t think I could stay, even if I wanted to. I could probably forgive but would be incapable of trusting my partner again, and in the end the lack of trust would lead to the toxic end to the relationship.”
Hong Kong relationship counsellor Nikki Green says it’s difficult to assess the percentage of marriages or relationships that fail after an affair.
“I think it’s very high. That shouldn’t, however, be an indicator of whether it’s possible to repair a relationship afterwards. I think there’s an enormous chance for both reparation and even improvement, but due to the complexities of relationships in general, and the trauma caused by the destruction of trust, the research shows that without help the odds are pretty low,” Green says.
Firstly, she says, it’s imperative to identify what constitutes an affair.
“For most couples, especially the ‘affairer’, the misguided definition is that a sexual transgression must have occurred for it to be classified as an affair. But the widely accepted definition among researchers and therapists is, if you can’t go back to your partner and comfortably and honestly describe what you did or said, or how you were being with a third party, you can assume you are violating the implicit sense of trust that forms their relationship,” Green says.
Carla’s husband, for example, had virtual relationships. “Because the affairs were online, with women that he didn’t develop a close bond with, they were easier to accept than a conventional affair – meeting for sex in real life,” she says. That didn’t mean it was easy: Carla describes the effects as “earth-shattering”.
Once the seeds of doubt are sown and trust broken, a relationship is cracked on a very fundamental level, compromising its foundation and making it so unsafe and unstable that “nothing good can be grown on it”, Green says.
Repair a relationship post-affair requires painful rebuilding. This can be especially hard when one party believed the relationship was on track, that they were doing everything they could to ensure it was a good relationship.
Carla took her marriage seriously from the start. “Doing it by the book, I listened to and read from relationship experts, and put a lot of effort into growing and maintaining a positive relationship,” she says.
This made her husband’s transgressions much harder: “How could he do this to me when I worked so hard, not only on myself in general, but within the context of the relationship?”
Although Carla worked positively to maintain a relationship – something her husband recognised after the fact and, in therapy, “is working very hard at rebuilding her trust and taking steps to grow himself in the areas that led to the affair” – some partners have a very different attitude to “safeguarding” their relationships.
Jeremy says his wife “always threatened she’d leave and I’d never see the children if I had an affair. She used this as a way to feel safe about constantly treating me badly and not having sex”. Jeremy’s solution was to address his physical needs outside of the marriage – something not uncommon when sex is unhappy or withheld. “I went to prostitutes as a way to at least get some sex but not fall in love with someone else, so I could be there for my kids,” he says.
In Western societies, says Green, where women enjoy equal rights, staying with your man after he’s cheated has almost become as stigmatised as divorce was 50 years ago.
“How can any self-respecting woman stay with a man who has cheated? The answer lies in recognising that while he may have been guilty for pulling the actual trigger and transgressing, she, in most cases, will have been equally responsible for the relationship getting to that stage.”
New York psychotherapist Esther Perel, whose first book, Mating in Captivity: Unlocking Erotic Intelligence, was followed last year by The State of Affairs: Rethinking Infidelity, makes one thing clear: while she does not advocate affairs – she acknowledges that betrayal runs deep – she agrees with Green that where divorce was once stigmatised, now “staying is the new shame”. Your girlfriends will champion you to leave him, she says, but it’s not always the right thing to do.
Green believes that an affair is “a passive-aggressive act of violence by the ‘affairer’ and until both partners understand why it happened, they can neither heal it or ensure it doesn’t happen again. The one thing that all the ‘affairers’ who’ve fixed their relationships have in common”, she says, “is they’re willing to do whatever it takes to fix it, for however long that takes.”
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American clinical psychologist and author Janis Abrahms Spring, who wrote After the Affair: Healing the Pain and Rebuilding Trust When a Partner Has Been Unfaithful, agrees that while the offender must “bear witness” to the pain they’ve created rather than try to deflect or minimise it, the “affairee” must resist punishing the “affairer” relentlessly – something she refers to as “angry forgiveness”, which isn’t forgiveness at all.
Of course the betrayed party will feel angry, the guilty party will want to urge them to forgive, forget, and move on, but, says Green, “choosing to just forgive and forget instead of doing the difficult healing and forgiveness work” is never going to repair or sustain a relationship.
And don’t, as Perel says, keep digging for sordid details. If you keep excavating the pain, you’ll never heal. Remember, she says, that sexual infidelity is only one way to harm a marriage.
“In the 20 years I’ve been working with couples, a pattern has emerged and it has nothing to do with how bad the transgression was or how long it had lasted,” Green says. “The couples who are successful at getting over an infidelity are the ones who are willing to take a good hard look at and change themselves. They do the reading and the homework. They deal with difficult emotions like anger and shame in constructive ways.”
Abrahms Spring agrees: “Both partners must be willing and able to hear the other’s hurts; to try them on as if they were their own. Unfaithful partners must have a funeral for the affair-person in no uncertain terms. They must offer a meaningful apology, demonstrate caring and trust-building behaviours, and seek to understand why they strayed.
“Hurt partners need to take a fair share of responsibility for the offender’s grievances in the relationship, and work to make their partner feel appreciated and cherished.”
Dealing with the fallout after an affair, Green says, is not easy, and will change you. The good news though, she adds, is that “if both partners are signed up for it, they can completely redesign their relationship and co-create something truly remarkable”.
Perel agrees that an affair can prompt a regeneration. “Indifference can be cured; fear of loss will rekindle desire,” she says.
Some affairs, Green says, kill a relationship, and some just end a terrible relationship – like Jeremy’s perhaps, a relationship without sound foundations. Carla’s had strength at its base.
“Each case is different, but in most cases I would advocate trying to make it work. It’s an amazing opportunity to learn things about yourself that you need to know regardless of whether or not the relationship can be salvaged,” Green says.
Remember, says Perel, affairs happen in good marriages, but good marriages can – and do – survive.