While marital therapists rarely take an extramarital affair lightly, two things about this type of transgression are particularly important for both clients and clinicians to recognize: First, an affair is a trauma. I know they’re as common as daytime television, but the shock and subsequent emotional devastation that an affair can cause may dramatically lower a victimized partner’s self-esteem. It may also shift the balance of relational power with blinding speed. The long-lasting aftereffects are next to impossible to completely erase, leaving the victim with a legacy of anger, hurt, and gnawing distrust. The offender is oftentimes left to grapple with shame, retribution from friends and family members, and the finality of the relationship.
Second, affairs are a lot harder to stop than most people care to admit. One would like to think that following exposure the philanderer shamefully ends the affair and returns home. While this does happen, most often the affair—especially if it’s close to home, as most are (e.g., with a boss, colleague, friend, or neighbor)—pops up time and again like one of those hard-to-kill monsters from a horror film. This is truer if the affair was elevated to a physical status, and the primary relationship fails to improve rapidly following exposure of the transgression. A victimized client of mine sarcastically called an affair “the gift that keeps on giving.”
A lot has been written about affairs in both the professional and popular literature. The works of Emily Brown and the late Shirley Glass and Frank Pittman are perhaps the most notable on the subject. But because affairs seem to be a fixture in our society, they continue to merit our attention. In this vain, the following eleven reparative steps are offered to help rebuild a couple’s fractured post-affair relationship:
1. Uncover the cause of the affair. Barring sexual addiction or individual pathology, affairs tend to be symptomatic of a relational problem. It is therefore essential to uncover the underlying problem as quickly as possible in order to de-escalate relational strife—which exacerbates the offender’s need to take solace in a lover’s arms.
2. Consider your history. Affairs runs in families. If, for example, one of your parents had an affair you may model this behavior in real time in an effort to get your needs met. Learning to be assertive and express your desires directly can be helpful in breaking this generational transmission process.
3. The offender must take responsibility for having the affair. If the offending partner fails to show remorse, the probability for reparation is slim. The same can be said if the offender refuses to apologize. The expression of anger alone provides less opportunity for healing.
4. The non-offending spouse must accept responsibility for making a contribution to the system that produced the affair. Because an affair is often symptomatic of a dysfunctional relationship dynamic both parties probably have—in some way—contributed to the dynamic. A refusal on the victim’s part to take responsibility may only serve to fuel the offender’s anger, and justify the act of betrayal in the offender’s mind. Unfortunately, too many victims view this systemic concept as “blaming the victim.”
5. Each partner should have a chance to vent. Most offending mates want to repress discussion of the affair. However, the victimized partner should be allowed an appropriate amount of time to vent feelings, including anger. Time is up, however, if venting is used primarily as a battering ram to humiliate and torture the offender. The offending partner should be allowed to register complaints against the mate and the marital system.
6. Empathize with one another. Because it usually takes two to produce an affair, it might be more helpful to openly recognize and acknowledge the pain each of you are experiencing.
7. Don’t retaliate in kind against the offending spouse. Some couples turn an affair into a power struggle. If your partner has cheated try not to respond in kind; this may only put the so-called “nail in the coffin” of your relationship. If you’re ego-dystonic with cheating, you may only shame yourself by your retribution.
8. Remember the good times. Try not to forget the pleasant experiences you shared with your partner. Waxing nostalgic sometimes encourages a greater effort to save a relationship.
9. The offending spouse should stop all contact with the lover. The offending partner must cease all contact with the lover. This is essential to rebuilding trust in the primary relationship. If the offender has dabbled in the workplace, quitting or transferring to another department might be a welcomed sign of marital loyalty, if economically feasible of course.
10. The victimized spouse should never pursue the partner’s lover. The idea is to de-triangulate the lover not bring the lover deeper into your relationship. The problem lies between the two spouses and should be kept there. Besides, confronting your partner’s lover might prove to be dangerous.
11. Keep the lines of communication open. Because our society seems to hold a certain fascination with affairs, it’ll be hard to escape the past. Television, movies, music, and even some random gossip will serve as reminders of your trauma. It’s important for each partner to remain patient and empathic, and to continue to allow for productive discussion on the topic as the need arises. Repression may enable a festering of the problem.
If you and your partner can successfully negotiate these eleven steps perhaps each of you will forgive yourselves and one another for the trauma of the affair. It won’t be easy—it’ll take a maximum effort on both sides to save the relationship—and only the two of you can decide whether it’s worth the effort.