The Taconic Counseling Group

Elisha S. Fisch, Ph.D.

Before The Affair or After The Affair?

 

      There is an excellent book, After the Affair by  Janis Abrahms Spring, Ph.D., that I strongly recommend.  The following  attempts to present, through excerpts and paraphrases, a very reduced distillation of the first half of the book, and I urge you to read the full version.  Since the excerpting is almost total,  I will leave out the awkward use of quotation marks. The first half of this book deals eloquently and compassionately with the impact of an affair on partners in a relationship and the requirements for healing, the second half of the book, with its sections on "How do we rebuild our life together?" speaks to the essential ingredients needed  for a mutual and trusting relationship, and can be used to prevent an affair- or strengthen a marriage.

 

      It is conservatively estimated, and likely underestimated, that 20% of married women and 37% of married men have had an extramarital affair involving intercourse.  There are also other forms of extramarital relationships that are experienced by at least one partner as unfaithful and hurtful.  Affairs are principally about secrecy and violations of trust, not about sex.

 

      When such a violation of trust happens, the 'hurt partner' experiences  profound and sweeping losses leading to physiological and emotional changes.  Your mind and body are likely to be in shock.  Gone is your fundamental sense of order and justice in the world.  Gone, too, are your sense of control over your life, your self-respect, your very concept of who you are. You may feel abandoned by everyone- family, friends, God.  A stranger to yourself, you may swing wildly from one extreme to another, determined and confident one momment, humiliated and needy the next.  Battered by feelings so intense, you may start to wonder, 'am, I going crazy?'.  'Hurt partners' experience many different types of losses, all variations of a basic loss of self.

 

      It is so very hard to feel normal at these times, yet these reactions are exceedingly normal.  They are the normal adaptive responses to trauma.  Yet 'hurt partners' are often afraid and ashamed to reveal how badly they are feeling and doing. 

 

      There are certain global gender tendencies in the way women and men are likely to respond as the 'hurt partner' to the revelation of an affair, although most 'hurt partners' feel all of these feelings to some degree.   Women often try to preserve the relationship, hoping to work it out. This may involve silencing themselves or hiding their feelings.  Men often react by wanting to leave the relationship, coping with their injury be erasing the source of pain.  

 

·       Women tend to get depressed, feeling that they have failed at the relationship.  Men tend to get angry at the one who has injured them, warding off feelings of shame and doubt. 

 

·       Women tend to be more disturbed by their husband's emotional involvement with the other woman, feeling not good enough as a person and companion.  Men tend to be more disturbed by their wives' sexual involvement with the other man, feeling themselves to be sexually unsatisfying.  

 

·       Women tend to obsess, dwelling on the deception to the exclusion of everything else, intensifying their embitterment and mistrust, keeping the hurt and insecurity alive.  Men tend to spend less time ruminating about the betrayal, engage in activities that help them feel masterful and competent, compartmentalize their pain and move on- often to another partner.

 

      The 'unfaithful partner' is often in a completely different position, frequently feeling enhanced and validated by the affair.  Often the lover has felt like a good friend, opening the 'unfaithful partner' to feelings long lost or never known.  No matter how bad or guilty the 'unfaithful partner' feels, it is rarely as shattering, disorienting, or profound as it is for the deceived partner.  While 'unfaithful partners' are frequently caught in a tornado of conflicting feelings constituting their own version of hell, the 'hurt partner' is in no position to hear or be responsive to this.  These conflicting feelings express issues the 'unfaithful partner' needs to grapple with alone.  To expect sympathy or understanding from the 'hurt partner' will only cause further alienation.

 

      There are certain other feelings that 'unfaithful partners' may experience.  

 

·       Relief that the truth is out and that lying and deceit are no longer necessary.  

 

·       A feeling of impatience toward the 'hurt partner' who continues to be hurt and angry, summarized by the sentiment "I've left my lover, told you everything, apologized a thousand times; what more do you want from me?". 

 

·       Sometimes, there is an absence of guilt about the affair, stemming from anger at the 'hurt partner' that may predate the affair, or from feelings of happiness or euphoria that the affair has intoxicatingly provided, or from some core assumptions that allow the 'unfaithful partner' to feel that an affair is justified under certain circumstances, or because the relationship has been written off and the affair is being used to expedite an exit.  

 

·       There is sometimes grief over the loss of the lover who made one feel so special, and guilt over abandoning the lover.    Guilt and worry over the effect the affair is having on the children and on their feelings toward you.   

 

·       A sense of isolation, as friends and family may judge you harshly and cut you off from your usual sources of emotional support.   

 

·       A feeling of hopelessness, that while you have decided to stay in the marriage - fear of being alone, guilt, the children, financial security, a sense of moral responsibility - it can never be good, love is gone forever, and your partner is incapable of ever meeting your needs.    

 

·       A sense of paralysis, an inability to decide which way to go.    Self disgust and feelings of deep shame for violating religious, family, or personal values.

 

      Once the affair is out in the open, one needs to decide whether to work on rebuilding the relationship or ending it.  This choice should be made deliberately, and not on raw feelings alone.  Feelings, no matter how intense, are based on assumptions that are highly subjective and may prove to be unrealistic, unuseful, or untrue.  Before feelings influence such an important decision they should be examined, understood, and determined to be of an enduring nature.  What feels right to you now you may later regret as an impulsive and unprocessed response that can't be easily reversed.

 

      In deciding what to do, two of the options are dead-end ones.  

 

·       The first is to stay together and never address why the affair happened or work to assure that it won't happen again.  This is likely to lead to desperation.   

 

·       The second is to stay together with at least one continuing to be unfaithful, while the other fights back desperation or rage.  Ongoing affairs do nothing but undermine a couple's efforts to seriously address the intimacy deficits in their relationship.

 

     There are two viable alternatives.   

 

·       One is to throw in your lot with your partner and work to improve the marriage.  The danger here for the 'hurt partner' is to be drawn blindly to keep the marriage intact, no matter what.  One needs to be clear one is not involved in an intense, but unwarranted attachment to a partner who is unloving, or who treats you shoddily, and that nothing you do will change this.   

 

·       The other alternative is to say goodby and begin building separate lives.  The danger here for the 'unfaithful partner' is to be drawn blindly to a lover, insisting on being with this person no matter what.  One needs to be clear one is not mistaking the high chemistry of romantic exhilaration for a workable love relationship, and throwing away a potentially salvageable, rewarding, lifelong relationship with your partner. 

 

      Exploring these alternatives involves examining your ideas about love and honestly exploring your doubts and fears.  Among the many common fears people struggle with after an affair are: 

 

·       Once there has been so much damage, can we ever get back together?   

 

·       Now that you've been unfaithful, how can I trust that you won't stray again?   

 

·       Can both of us change in ways that matter? 

 

·       Are we basically incompatible?   

 

·       Yes, you're making some changes to save our relationship, but are they permanent or sincere?   

 

·       Do you want me, or just want the package (financial security, an intact home, shared parenting)?   

 

·       Are my reasons for staying good enough?   

 

·       Should we stay together for the children?   

 

·       Doing what you did, you couldn't possibly love me, so what's the point of going on?   

 

·       Isn't it wrong for me to be too affectionate, to spend too much time with you, before I'm positive I want to recommit?    Won't I be able to make a better decision about my lover if we spend more time together?

 

      The decision requires a blend of considered thoughtfulness with an exploration of feelings that involves questioning the assumptions that lie behind, and help create, those feelings.  Most couples who successfully survive an affair begin the healing process with an overarching sense of ambivalence.  What matters most is the conscious choice to begin the healing.   Certain essential elements are: 

 

·       The 'unfaithful partner' must end the sexual or romantic relationship with the lover. 

 

·       The 'hurt partner' must invite the partner back into a shared life.   

 

·       Both must commit to the process of reconnecting.  This doesn't mean they have to feel certain about their future together, only that they behave as if they feel certain while they work on changing the ways they treat and perceive each other, demonstrating their commitment by engaging in trust and intimacy building strategies.  The second half of the book details these strategies and is recommended reading for all relationships, whether there has been an affair or not.

 

      What is crucial for the healing to begin is for the 'unfaithful partner' to be able to feel and show compassion for the hurt they have caused.  But this is not always forthcoming.  What is needed of the ‘unfaithful partner’ is a realization that what the 'unfaithful partner' has come to value so deeply is not necessarily the lover, but how the lover made you feel; that what you are seeking is not a replacement for your partner but an alteration of your basic sense of self; and that what you need can perhaps be found with your partner, if both of you are willing to open yourselves to change.