After an Affair: 4 Lessons for Any Couple

Don't throw it away until you ask the hard questions and listen for the answers.

Posted Nov 09, 2015

Source: klublu/Shutterstock

The details of affairs vary—where and when they start, whether or how they stop, what was “it” that pulled each person in. Most affairs eventually end, because the affair is discovered and shut down; because it dissolves on its own as it moves beyond the oxytocin-fueled chemistry of the early stage and begins to seem more and more like the relationship they are both trying to escape from; or because one person feels tremendous guilt or fears a divorce and losing custody of a child. Whatever the initial cause or the outcome, there's mental and emotional sorting out to do on both sides: What has really happened and why did this happen at all?

There are several interrelated lessons embedded in affairs. Here are the Top 4:

1. Discovering what’s broken.

No brainer here. What you complain about to your new lover can give you a hint about what is broken in your primary relationship—that you are bored, that there is not enough affection or sex, that you are lonely, that you need to be heard and not criticized or micromanaged. Through and/or in spite of the chemistry you get a clear sense of what’s not working or missing in your relationship. Unfortunately, you only fully realize it until you get a taste of it elsewhere.

2. Realizing what you need. 

The idea here is that it is all ultimately not about the relationship and what the new person gives you that your primary partner other does not, but a realization, once outside your normal roles and routines, about what you deeply need. Here the relationship is a medium or a metaphor of what you need to make your life more fulfilled or organic—a life that represents more fully who you are.

3. Acknowledging what you're fed up with.

At some level, those who engage in affairs feel that they deserve to have the affair. The feelings here are strong: It’s not simply "we haven’t had sex in two weeks," or, "you leave hair in the bathroom drain," it’s about an unfairness, a fed-up feeling about how much you do that you don’t feel is appreciated or reciprocated, or that is dismissed or criticized. The anger about the bathroom drain is often the tip of the iceberg of one's emotions. The feelings are also old and deep and often have to do with old childhood wounds. I’ve been dealing with this treatment all my life, your little kid brain says, and now I’m done.

4. Understanding what’s important.

Somewhere in the middle of all this, you hopefully get to a decision point about what is really important to you. This is about values—what you truly believe is important in life, rather than adopting the values of others to please them—and about vision—your view of your ideal life, your priorities as you sort through work, relationship, family, faith, etc.

What You Can Take Away

If you can allow yourself to get beyond the initial "I'm sorry; let's move on" stage and take the time to truly reflect, deeper questions and ideas should begin to creep out of the shadows.

If the affair showed you what is broken, what you need, and what you're fed up with, then what is the moral of that story, the integration of this experience? What do you want to build your life around, what do you need to change now to make your life represent who you are? What does the affair tell you what you struggle to do in intimate relationships and need to do to not have more affairs? Even if it is a moving target, what is your vision of the future and do you have the courage to present that to your partner knowing that there is a risk that his or her vision may be totally different?

So how to do mentally mop up after an affair? You ask yourself the hard questions, and then you quietly wait and listen for the answers. Don’t throw away this opportunity to learn what’s important.