Marriage vs. Long-Term Affair: What If You Love Them Both?
The choice isn't always as easy as it seems.
Posted Aug 07, 2015
In Flagrante Delicto
You’ve been caught in a long-term affair, and your spouse has given you an ultimatum: “It’s him/her or me, so make up your mind.” What now? Do you stay in the marriage? Do you run off with your affair partner? Or do you try to somehow keep both relationships intact?
When faced with such an ultimatum, most cheaters have one of three reactions:
- They realize how much they value their spouse, and it is clear that the affair must end for the sake of the marriage and all that goes with it.
- They realize that their marriage is unhappy to the point that it is not worth fighting for, and they should probably walk away from it.
- They realize they care deeply for both their spouse and their affair partner, and they experience feelings of ambiguity and indecision as a result.
If you’re wondering which reaction is most common, it’s the one that doesn’t involve immediate clarity. That’s because a person who’s had a long-term affair behind his or her spouse’s back is usually emotionally attached to both individuals. For the cheater, the spouse provides stability, a home life, children, history, security, family, community, etc. Meanwhile, the affair partner offers excitement, emotional escape, sexual intensity, and maybe even a newfound raison d’être. As such, it is unsurprising that cheaters would often prefer (in their dreams) to maintain the status quo, hoping that both their spouse and their affair partner will make sacrifices to keep them happy. (By the way, if you think this sort of “having your cake and eating it too” scenario is a reasonable possibility, then there’s a lovely bridge in Brooklyn that I’d like to sell you.)
Of note: In this article, I am talking about extramarital affairs with an emotional component rather than casual sexual encounters and other non-emotionally intimate forms of infidelity. People who have ongoing issues with non-intimate cheating may have a problem with sex or love. If so, help can found in treatment and in 12-step recovery groups like SLAA, SAA, SCA, and SA.
For cheaters who’ve been given an ultimatum, a choice must be made—the marriage or the affair. This seems like such a simple thing, yet most cheaters find themselves waffling between the two options. One minute they are desperate to save their marriage; the next minute they wonder how they could possibly live without the passion of their affair. Strangely, the cheaters who are tasked with making this decision often don’t understand that they’re the lucky ones because they actually have a say in the outcome, while their spouse and their affair partner are left dangling. So whenever my cheating clients start to feel like a victim I gently remind them that they are in a mess of their own making. They chose to get married, and then they chose to cheat. They have nobody to blame but themselves.
Needless to say, this decision can be difficult to make in the best of circumstances—and the added pressure of trying to be fully married and/or fully engaged in an affair can be debilitating. As such, I often recommend that cheaters take a timeout from both the marriage and the affair. For many cheaters, temporarily moving in with a family member or a friend while staying away from both the spouse and the affair partner creates the space that is needed for effective self-exploration. (That said, kids need to be seen, and the business aspects of the marriage must still be addressed.) I also recommend that cheaters discuss their thoughts and feelings with neutral people—therapists, clergy, and the like—in addition to family members and friends (who are much more likely to take sides).
Ultimately, the goal is to make the best long-term choice for everyone involved rather than a choice made simply to calm things down, or to make the nearest person feel better, or to control potential consequences, or whatever. And no, I am not going to say that staying in the marriage is always the right decision because that is not, in fact, the case. In truth, there are likely to be numerous pros and cons with both relationships, and these should be carefully and fully examined before moving forward.
Evaluating a Marriage
There is no straightforward formula for deciding if a marriage is worth fighting for. That said, honest answers to the following questions will nearly always provide a degree of clarity.
- Do you enjoy spending time together? One of the primary reasons for being in a marriage is that it’s fun and enjoyable at least some of the time. Spouses should be counted as a best friend. So, do you enjoy each other’s company?
- Do you play well together? Good marriages are built on shared interests. No, you don’t have to enjoy all of your spouse’s pastimes and hobbies or vice versa, but you do need to have a few important things that you both enjoy. And yes, raising kids together counts.
- Do you trust your spouse? Trust is an essential element in healthy relationships. If two people trust each other, if they know they have each other’s backs no matter what, that’s a solid relationship foundation. Admittedly, your spouse’s trust in you is probably shattered right now, and rightfully so. So the real question here is whether you still implicitly trust your spouse.
- Do you share core values? It is not necessary to agree on every little thing, but healthy couples do need at least a bit of common ground regarding things like religion, politics, finances, education, kids, and the like.
- Are you able to disagree without blowing up? In any relationship, conflict is inevitable. When a marriage is healthy, disagreements offer a growth opportunity—a chance to learn about one another and grow closer as a result. When a marriage is not so healthy, even the smallest issue can become a smoldering resentment and a roadblock to intimacy.
- Do you respect one another? Do you feel free to be your own person, and do you value your spouse’s right to the same? Are you and your spouse able to respectfully (maybe even enjoyably) have separate opinions, activities, friendships, and the like?
- Do you support one another? Are you and your spouse there for each other when the going gets tough? Do you each feel happy when the other succeeds and/or grows as a person? If one of you wants to try something new and different (other than sexual infidelity, of course), is that decision encouraged and supported?
- Do you still turn each other on? Even the best marriages are not hot and heavy forever. The honeymoon phase always passes. That said, if you’re thinking about staying together, you probably want and need at least a spark of physical attraction.
- Are you both invested in the marriage? If you’ve cheated on your spouse, you need to accept that the damage you’ve done may be more than he or she is willing to accept. If so, there is nothing you can do about that. In regard to your own decision, you must ask yourself if you entered into the affair because you were trying to find a way out of your marriage, or if you started cheating more on impulse without thinking too much about your spouse and marriage.
Cheaters who answer yes to the majority of these questions probably have a solid marital foundation upon which to build. That process is never easy, of course, and cheaters should understand from the start that they’ll never fully regain what they once had. In this respect, marriage is like a fragile teacup. If you drop it and it shatters, you can glue it back together, but the cracks will always show. However, those cracks do not mean the teacup is not still beautiful and worthwhile. (I will discuss the process of rebuilding a marriage, post-infidelity, in a future article.)
Evaluating an Affair
If, after evaluating the marriage, a cheater’s decision is still not clear, then he or she should also evaluate the affair, comparing and contrasting in an effort to find some resolution. For starters, the cheater will need to ask the same questions as with the marriage. However, he or she should do this looking at both the present and the potential future. The fact that cheaters and affair partners enjoy spending time together right now (doing mostly romantic and/or sexual things) does not mean they will enjoy spending time together 24/7/365 until the end of time. As such, cheaters need to ask the following:
- Can you picture yourself in a long-term relationship (perhaps a marriage) with this person? Again, you need to think about not just the immediate future, but down the road, remembering that affairs are typically built on the excitement of illicit romance without the hassles of a deeper relationship – home, kids, errands, chores, finances, etc. Honestly, when is the last time you did yard work with your affair partner? Do you want this sort of deeper yet hassle-filled relationship with your affair partner? And, if so, is that desire reciprocated?
If a cheater thinks that he or she would rather be with the affair partner long-term than with the spouse, that is his or her right. But cheaters who make this decision should proceed with caution, knowing that second marriages are more likely to end in divorce than first marriages.
Making the Decision
Once again, there are no hard-and-fast rules for determining which relationship is the right relationship. For the most part, instincts and honest answers to the above questions will serve as an effective guide. That said, it is possible to still be torn, with powerful feelings for both the spouse and the affair partner. If so, there is one final question to ask:
- Who do you want to be with when you are old? Aging is an inevitability, and most of us have no interest in doing it by ourselves. So when you are old and gray and your sexual parts no longer work the way they did when you were young, who do you want to spend your days and nights with? With whom do you have the most history, the most shared interests, the most shared values? Which person do you have the most fun with when you’re just sitting around? Who is the easiest person to talk to? Who do you trust with your fears and your ailments and your aging process?
If the above analysis doesn’t lead to a clear decision, then the cheater is going to need to ask his or her spouse (and maybe the affair partner) for more time. It is perfectly reasonable to do this, even if it makes the other person angry. After all, this is a decision that will affect both individuals, and perhaps others (kids, for instance), for a very long time. So if the cheater is unsure, the choice should not be made in haste. That said, cheaters must absolutely be honest about this, telling the spouse that they know they need to make a decision but they have strong feelings both ways and need more time to sort things out. And then they need to let the spouse react to that statement however he or she wishes, respecting whatever it is that the spouse may be feeling.
If cheaters are worried that telling their spouse and/or their affair partner that they are struggling to decide who is more important will damage their relationship moving forward, I can only say that it might. However, I can also say that honesty is the cornerstone of healthy intimacy, and the sooner a cheater starts with this, the better. If a cheater ultimately decides to stay in the marriage, being honest now about his or her current ambivalence is a jump-start on the process of re-earning trust. Plus, the spouse will almost certainly appreciate that the ultimate decision was made after careful consideration rather than in the heat of the moment. The same is true if a cheater decides to leave the marriage and pursue a deeper relationship with the affair partner. Either way, if the cheater wants a healthier and happier relationship moving forward, he or she is going to have to live differently, and that starts with honesty and integrity—the sooner the better.