Coping With the Residual Effects of an Affair
Why forgiving and forgetting is so hard.
Posted Feb 27, 2020
Most of my work as a couple’s therapist is consumed with couples struggling to cope with relational indiscretions. Sexting, communicating via a chat room, or having a physical relationship with someone outside the primary relationship are all considered by most as some form of cheating.
The experience of being victimized by an affair is somewhat subjective. Individual reactions vary depending upon the perceived significance of the indiscretion. One female client claimed she would have been more upset if her husband had formed an emotional bond with his affairee. Another woman said that she was enraged because her husband had the audacity to conduct an affair with a mutual friend. And a male client was less distraught because his wife’s affair was not physically consummated.
Amato and Previti (2003) found that when individuals were asked the reason for their divorce, most cited infidelity (21.6%). Recent research indicates that approximately 17% of divorces in the United States are the result of an affair (Divorce Statistics, 2020). You might think these rates would be higher, but infidelity must compete with a lack of commitment, high conflict or fighting, financial problems, and intimacy issues, to name a few.
But make no mistake, an affair is still a trauma having an immediate and long-term impact. I liken it to a bomb going off in a couple’s home—replete with shrapnel. If the partner who has cheated has a strong desire to save the relationship, he or she might pressure the nonaffair partner to forgive and forget. This tactic is employed primarily to spare the affair partner guilt and shame. The nonaffair partner is usually dazed and confused; often expressing a strong need to process the infidelity. This will most likely include the infliction of as much humiliation on the affair partner as possible. I believe that some form of punishment is appropriate. But if the nonaffair partner takes it too far and long, it may be an indication of the nonaffair partner’s inability to take any responsibility for the breakdown of the relational system. This needs to be addressed carefully to avoid alienating the nonaffair partner.
Once the immediate processing of the affair levels out, the couple that survives must then move on with a looming sense of uncertainty. Nearly all those victimized by an affair feel betrayed, and rebuilding trust can range from challenging to impossible.
The affair partner must push on knowing full well there will be erratic eruptions at the hands of the nonaffair partner. These upheavals could be set off by as little as a movie that depicts infidelity, or a song reminiscent of seemingly idyllic or virtuous times. One couple reported that they experience discomfort every Valentine’s Day in part because it reminds them of their romantic pre-affair days. Another couple said that they find themselves engaged in verbal battle every Christmas because the affair was discovered on a Christmas morning.
The 2018 Vault Office Survey (Vault Careers, 2018)—an annual survey of workers about consensual romantic relationships between colleagues—revealed that the #MeToo movement has had some impact, particularly on men’s attitudes. Approximately 31% of men questioned were now more likely to find a workplace romance unacceptable.
Other data suggests that approximately 36% of all affairs are committed with a co-worker (Divorce Statistics, 2020). If the affair partner continues to work with or near the affairee, the nonaffair partner’s anxiety level will have little chance of subsiding and the eruptions could be more frequent. If either the affair partner or affairee leaves the area, the eruptions may dissipate sooner. If the affair was with a family member such as a brother- or sister-in-law, the relationship will be much harder to salvage because the betrayal and shame will be tenfold.
The partner that has committed the affair may feel a pull to return to the affairee’s arms. This is often harder than most affair partners will admit. On numerous occasions, I have told my students that an affair can be like a zombie movie: You turn your back towards the zombie thinking that you have killed it only for it to pop up again. I believe this is especially true if the affair was physically consummated. For most, having sexual intercourse serves as a bond. Only those particularly adept at compartmentalizing can easily break away. Unless the primary relationship closes ranks and increases intimacy, the attraction to commiserate with an ex-lover may remain a palatable alternative.
There is a saying: “Once a cheater always a cheater.” I don’t usually abide by this, but the cheating behavior may be anchored in an affair partner’s past. As a child, the affair partner may have experienced one or both parents cheating. This experience may hold the following consequences: 1. The affair partner does not learn how to communicate directly and resorts to the underhanded tactics learned in the family of origin; 2. The affair partner’s internalized rage for the cheating parent is taken out on his or her partner; 3. By cheating, the affair partner expresses unconscious anger towards his or her weaker parent for enabling the cheating parent; and 4. Fearful of becoming a victim, the affair partner projects onto the nonaffair partner and cheats before being cheated upon. Unless insight and communication skills improve, the probability of replication could be quite high.
The affair partner must understand the generational and interactional reasons for the affair and face perhaps the hardest question of all: “Am I in love with my partner enough to get through this process or was my cheating a sign that I really do not want to be in this relationship?” The affair partner must not rationalize or deny unhappiness. He or she must not sacrifice personal happiness out of a need for external or emotional dependency. A realistic perspective is needed, or the affair partner will remain unhappy and possibly commit even more affairs. Simply put, affairs are often for people who can’t make up their minds… and the affair partner must make up his or her mind.
The nonaffair partner must also gain insight. He or she may have experienced cheating in the family of origin. If this is the case, the nonaffair partner may have overidentified with the parent or victim of the affair. Perhaps he or she then unconsciously chose a partner who would treat them in kind. The nonaffair partner should acknowledge a pattern or record of being cheated upon. This realization may help to choose his or her partners more wisely.
The nonaffair partner must understand that there is a risk involved in staying in the relationship. If he or she expects the affair partner to accept full responsibility for the relational issues, bigger problems await them both. I liken this to an investment: The nonaffair partner can never predict how things will turn out if the affair partner is given another chance. But if the decision to invest is made, the nonaffair partner must make a valiant attempt to improve the relationship. Nothing can fully make up for an affair and this should not be expected of affair partners. They should, however, be evaluated on their current behavior: levels of presence and affection; desire for sexual intimacy; feelings of empathy and remorse; ability to take responsibility for their behavior; and the desire to remain in the relationship.
The residual effects of an affair are usually palpable. The fallout may reverberate beyond one’s family into the community and workplace. While the impact of an affair on the nonaffair partner is widely acknowledged, studies have shown that affair partners also suffer (Shrout & Weigel, 2017). The stress of being discovered is stressful enough but if the lover exerts pressure on the affair partner to make a greater commitment the stress will be that much greater. It is not unusual for a male affair partner to suffer sexual dysfunction with an affairee. Other affair partners downplay the personal impact of the trauma once the affair is exposed. But the beating they often take when discovered might be a well-earned, yet masochistic experience. It has been said that an affair may be forgiven but never forgotten. Even if that is true, it may be a long time coming.
Amato, P.R., & Previti, D. (2003). People’s reasons for divorcing: Gender, social class, the life course, and adjustment. Journal of Family Issues. doi.org/10.1177/0192513X03254507.
Divorce Statistics (2020). Latest infidelity statistics of USA. Retrieved from www.divorcestatistics.info/latest-infidelity-statistics-of-usa-html.
Shrout, M.R., & Weigel, D.J. (2017). Should I stay or should I go? Understanding the noninvolved partner’s decision-making process following infidelity. Journal of Social and Personal Relationships. doi. org/10.1177/026540751773335.
Vault Careers (2018). The 2018 vault romance office survey results. Retrieved from www.vault.com/blogs/workplace-issues/2018-vault-office-romance-survey-results.