3 Sides of an Affair: Infidelity in Dramas and in Real Life
Shows like Betrayal and The Affair depict each party in the Infidelity triangle.
Posted Oct 30, 2019
When people have affairs they bring a third person into their primary relationship. In the current Broadway production of Betrayal by Harold Pinter, director Jamie Lloyd has all three actors on stage throughout the show. This play involves several betrayals that, like an electrical current, go back and forth between the characters in this particular triangle. The lovers Emma and Jerry are depicted in the foreground at various points of their affair, while Emma's husband Robert holds various poses while tracing the back wall slowly with his changing positions, all the while watching the other two. In other moments the audience watches the married couple Emma and Robert talking to one another or kissing in the foreground while Jerry lurks in the background like a feral cat ready to pounce.
And to finish the other line of the triangle, there are scenes of the two men, who have been supposed best friends for years, having lunch while the wife/lover is slowly gliding, or protectively sitting in the distance.
As a sex therapist and a couples counselor I have worked for several years with many couples in which one partner discovers their husband/wife/significant other has been unfaithful or cheated. I have also worked with individual clients who are or have been involved in an affair or a series of infidelities and come into therapy because they want to end their repeated cheating. They tell me they want to figure out why they kept an affair going, or compulsively hooked up with friends, strangers, or sex workers, and how they can repair their primary relationship.
As a Systemic Certified Sex Therapist I am always aware of the third person in the room, whether that is the lover, the spouse, the significant other, or a child who will be affected by an affair. Like a stone thrown into a lake, the concentric circles created are the systemic reactions following an affair or non-consensual non-monogamy behavior.
In the most recent and final season of the Showtime series The Affair, the audience sees the seismic impact of the original affair between Noah and Alison on every single character. Noah has broken the hearts and trust of all four of his children and experiences the mixed rage/sadness/love in each interaction. He has not been able to sustain any love relationship since his marriage broke up due to his arrogance, his lack of control over his anger, and his narcissistic entitlement. Helen is still looking to partners to share her love of her family while also hoping for support for her lifelong need to spread her own wings professionally.
I ask clients to look inward to find the emotional spaces or holes that weren’t fed or nurtured when they grew up and/or in their primary relationship and which they are continually trying to stuff. I also invite them to look at the time of their life when the cheating began.
We look at the meaning of that period of life and what psychological tasks were being demanded, like expressing sadness over a partner’s lack of emotional connection, trying to adjust to balancing challenges of child-rearing, work demands, and a partner’s desire for sexual playfulness. Frequently the unfaithful behavior has a compulsive repetition to it and may point to a traumatic history a client stuffed down in order to survive but has never processed or healed.
Other times, the partner who was unfaithful has fallen in love with the outside partner and questions whether they can renew an erotic or passion for their spouse/main partner.
In Betrayal the scenes begin after the affair has ended and take the audience back in time to the very beginning of the infidelity. Throughout this step-by-step down memory lane, the play depicts the way time, secrets kept and revealed, careers, children, and abuse all shift the nature of relationships among all three main characters. And in The Affair, the same scenes are shown from different characters’ perspectives, illustrating how people put their own meaning and take on the same interactions.
The infidelity recovery work for a couple in sex therapy involves deep inquiry into the present/past and choices of futures a client and/or couple have. It involves an experienced therapist who can help each partner learn about the internal emotional landscape of the other while having the partner who betrayed their partner make significant efforts to reassure, and to re-establish trust bit by bit. While most partners have a myriad of questions about the third party in the affair, I ask them to write them all down and invite them to allow me to set some of them as priorities while set others aside in the immediate crisis of discovery.
For those individuals who seek sex therapy to stop cheating on their partners, I help them see their compartmentalized patterns as part of an effort to integrate their body, mind, and spirit while living by the ethical compass to which they have always aspired. I work with clients who want to work their way back to their spouses and marriages for the sake of their vows, their commitment to their children’s stability—and because most of them still love their spouses.
In this fifth and final season of The Affair, the original deep friendship between Helen and Noah re-emerges and we see each character take stock of what they lost, sacrificed, and learned on this perilous post-affair journey.
And while the series has not ended yet (no spoilers here), there are those partners who may reunite after an affair. While recent research shows the prevalence of infidelity in American heterosexual marriages to be between 20-40%, it is not clear what the actual number is, since people who cheat are not the best reporters. But not all couples split or divorce post-infidelity. Based on a 2008 Gallup poll, 31% of heterosexual married spouses stated that they would not divorce a spouse who was unfaithful.
These are the couples and clients who come in for help to find a third way or middle path to explore what went wrong within the relationship, themselves, and, at times, their childhood histories, so that they can embark on what my friend and colleague Esther Perel calls "a second marriage" with your spouse/significant other. It is a challenging road to recovery for both the unfaithful partner, their spouse, and most likely the third party to the triangle—the lover in the background, at times in individual therapy. But there is hope in regaining trust in oneself and one's partner, and embarking on repairing and renewing erotic and emotional bonds.
Marín, Rebeca & Christensen, Andrew & Atkins, David. (2014). Infidelity and behavioral couple therapy: Relationship outcomes over 5 years following therapy.. Couple and Family Psychology: Research and Practice. 3. 1. 10.1037/cfp0000012.