The Dance of Connection

Rescuing women and men from the quicksand of difficult relationships.

Will Your Marriage Survive the Affair?

Don't make your partner's affair a deal-breaker.

 Nothing is more devastating than discovering that your purportedly faithful partner had—or is having--an affair. The fact that your spouse has lied to you (whether in words or in silence) adds unspeakable pain to the sexual betrayal.

If the affair was ongoing, it’s normal for the harmed party to feel enraged, depressed, crazy, disoriented, obsessed with details of the affair, and convinced that nothing will be ever be normal again.

But as catastrophic as an affair can be, don’t automatically make it a deal-breaker. If you and your partner have a significant history together, and especially if you have kids, try to work it out.

Keep in mind that an affair is not a terrible aberration that only occurs in unhappy marriages. It’s a myth that the “real reason” behind an affair is a faulty spouse or bad marriage. A sexually and emotionally distant marriage will definitely make an affair more likely, but it’s also true that affairs happen in excellent marriages as well. Affairs have many sources, and opportunity and work context are among the pre-disposing factors.

As devastating and crazy-making an affair may be, it doesn’t need to spell divorce. I’ve seen couples heal from affairs once they are out in the open, and even enhance their communication and closeness. For this positive outcome to occur, both parties need to be committed to each other, to truth-telling, to avoiding future temptations, and to walking the long, bumpy path of healing and restoring trust.

If you’ve been the unfaithful spouse, consider the excellent advice of psychologist Janis Abrahms Spring, the author of After the Affair. Her counsel: Never, ever encourage your partner to “get over it.” Instead, be available to hear your partner’s pain and take it in. Don’t wait in dread for her to bring it up again. Instead, open conversations yourself that let your partner know that you’re continuing to think about the affair and that you won’t leave her alone to carry the pain. Be totally present to hear her anger and sorrow for as long as it takes, which may feel like forever. Dr. Spring explains that if you want your partner to let go of her pain, then you have to hold it.

If you’re the harmed party, consider couples counseling before filing for divorce on the one hand, or pushing yourself to forgive on the other. Give your unfaithful partner the chance to make reparations and earn back your trust over time. Give yourself and your relationship the opportunity to heal and grow stronger. This is slow and arduous work, no question. But if both of you are committed to healing, your marriage is worth the effort.

 

 

Harriet Lerner, Ph.D., is best known for her work on marriage and family relationships and the psychology of women. Her book The Dance of Anger has recently been reissued.

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