My guess is that if you spoke to one hundred people, at least fifty would have been touched by infidelity. And it’s not just spouses who suffer. Speak to the children of a marriage fallen apart or the parents of a married child who has met someone new, to hear of the pain and strain put on families when someone has an affair. It’s common knowledge that it is not only men that stray and play, but more and more women are reaching outside of their marriages in search of change. When I encounter unhappily married, but faithful people in my practice, who talk of wanting excitement, passion or a change, I commend them for not having strayed prior to either working on their marriage or for ending it respectfully. Only too often do I see individuals or couples after the affair.
Sadly, I believe that trust will never be completely restored in their relationship. There will always be a hint of suspicion after feeling betrayed. A phone call advising of a late business meeting or unexpected trip will trigger the memory of previous such calls that were never questioned. Often, this hypervigilance leads to a host of other conflicts in a relationship after an affair, but it is difficult for the hurt partner not to be suspicious, often to the point of acting as sleuth.
So why do partners stray? There is no simple answer. From what I have heard in my practice, many partners talk of looking for excitement, for passion, a new lease in life. Many refer to this as a mid-life crisis. Call it what you wish. The bottom line is that one partner is often bored, uninspired or looking for something fresh. Many times, affairs happen somewhat spontaneously – office colleagues turn into lovers, friends into something more. Many, sometimes unconsciously, go in search of something new. One client shared that she attended bars with friends, mostly married, every Thursday evening. She swore that she wanted nothing more than a night out. I encouraged her to consider what else she might be exposing herself too. She ultimately came to realize that if it was an evening with friends was what she really wanted, a movie might do. What she really wanted was the attention of other men. Having recently lost weight and tired of her husband’s long hours at work, she loved the looks and gestures of affection showered upon her. In time, she began seeing someone more frequently and ultimately ended her 10 year marriage. Temptation island in the form of clubs or chat lines on the internet generally lead down a path of no return.
For some, affairs are not the result of an unhappy marriage. Over the past thirteen years, I have met several clients who have maintained many sexually intimate relationships whilst being married. These clients usually need to work individually on unresolved issues around intimacy that have nothing to do with their spouses. Even for those hurt partners who accept some responsibility for an unhappy marriage and decide to make some personal changes, it is important to keep in mind that they did not cause their spouses to stray. That was personal choice.
For many, an affair is a wake up call. The unfaithful partner sometimes comes to realize why he strayed and together with his spouse, build a better relationship. Once an affair is out in the open, spouses have a choice whether to end their relationship or not. Through communication, the hurt partner should try to understand her spouses underlying attitude. If her husband, for example, shows a great deal of remorse and promises to leave his lover and to work hard on their relationship, there is a better prognosis. If on the other hand, the unfaithful partner tells her husband that she cannot be totally responsible for her actions as she has no impulse control or that she believes that people were not to be monogamous, but she will try to be, this should be a red flag.
It is completely normal, after an affair, to feel ambivalence about rebuilding what once was. The reality is that it will never be quite the same. To forgive is much easier than to forget. In fact, neither partner will ever completely forget. Forgiveness doesn’t have to happen all at once. You may decide to forgive your partner a little at first, and to let time take care of the rest. If you decide to wait until you are completely forgiving and somewhat forgetting before moving on again, you will wait forever. If you decide to move on, you will need to act as if you are totally committed, even when you are not. I am not suggesting that you pretend to be something that you are not, but that as a team, you decide to act one hundred percent committed until such time as you really are or until you decide that the damage is irreparable.
The bottom line is rebuilding trust. If you decide to work through the pain, you need to take baby steps towards restoring this. Over a period of time, as your spouse proves to be trustworthy and intimacy grows between you, you will trust more. There are no quick fixes. No magic words. Healing takes time.