Ralph and Susan had been married for 13 years with two adorable children. Their suburban life was packed with work, school, and the kids’ extra-curricular activities. Neither made their marriage a priority, but overall they felt their relationship was good.
Susan withheld her suspicion when she noticed that Ralph was on his phone more than usual. At times she couldn’t help but ask “What’s going on?” only to receive “Nothing. Just checking the news,” or “There’s a lot of drama at the office that I need to take care of.” She trusted him.
When Susan discovered that Ralph had been texting another woman, she was devastated. Her world came crashing down. In her mind, Ralph was not the kind of person to ever have an affair.
Ralph lied about it at first. He felt like he needed to protect Susan from the ugly truth. But as more evidence came out, he couldn’t lie anymore. He was having an affair.
He didn’t know how he had got involved so deeply with someone else. It just happened. He and a co-worker had become close friends over time. It felt good to have someone to talk to who listened and made him feel special. He hadn’t had that in a long time with Susan.
During the affair he had to convince himself that Susan didn’t care. He felt she wasn’t interested in him sexually anymore. They were more like roommates than soulmates.
As a Certified Gottman Therapist, I have heard many versions of this story in my couples therapy practice over the last 15 years. An affair, whether emotional or sexual, is devastating. Both partners suffer tremendous pain. But an affair does not have to mean the end.
The PTSD of an Affair
The betrayed partner experiences a tidal wave of emotion. The pain, hurt, anger, humiliation, and despair are overwhelming. After the traumatic moment the affair is realized, they become fearful, anxious, and hypervigilant, wondering where or when the next blow is going to come – not unlike symptoms of PTSD felt by military veterans.
Their mind races with thoughts of What don’t they know? What’s the whole story? Scenes of their partner with someone else appear in their mind when awake and when asleep, making life a living nightmare.
The Guilt of Betrayal
The betrayer also experiences a great deal of emotion. The hopeless feeling of witnessing your partner in pain and knowing you can do nothing to alleviate their suffering is a horrible experience. The feelings of guilt, shame, and humiliation are almost unbearable.
So, what causes an affair? Why do partners choose to cheat? The answers are complicated and may take months to unravel.
Recovering From an Affair
Is it possible to recover from an affair? The answer for most couples is yes.
Many couples I’ve worked with have actually created a stronger, more emotionally connected, and richer relationship from the ashes of an affair. However, it’s not quick or easy. As with any serious injury, it takes time to heal. And it usually takes therapy.
It’s tempting to think that it will automatically get better with time. The problem with “sweeping it under the rug” is that the anxiety, fear, anger, and guilt felt early on by the betrayed person often give way to resentment – a slow seething anger that leads to total contempt for the betrayer. Dr. John Gottman’s research has shown that contempt is deadly in relationships and very difficult to recover from.
Couples therapy can help partners explore and understand what happened. The betrayed partner needs to have their questions answered, such as:
- When did you meet?
- Where did you meet?
- How long did the affair last?
The betrayed partner attempts to understand how it happened and how they can prevent it from happening again. They also seek consistency in the stories from one telling to the next. Do I know everything? Are you lying to me now? These questions are best asked and answered in the emotionally safe environment of a therapist’s office.
It is best not to ask questions about the specifics of the sexual nature of the affair. Those questions usually do more bad than good in that they conjure up images that might haunt the betrayed partner’s thoughts.
When the betrayed partner feels that they have all the answers they need, the couple can begin to work on rebuilding trust. Couples like Susan and Ralph have turned away from each other in many small ways over time, which compounds into the feelings that ultimately led Ralph astray. They neglected the relationship.
Once couples process what happened, they need to begin to tune back into each other. Susan and Ralph found that they avoided each other to avoid conflict. Tuning back in requires dialoguing about problems – both ongoing perpetual problems and past issues that might have caused some injury to the relationship.
Recognize That Conflict is Inevitable
Conflict is a natural part of your happily ever after. Every relationship has conflict due to different values, beliefs, and philosophies of life. When these differences are discussed safely, and when honored and respected, the couple will experience greater intimacy. At times this can feel uncomfortable and take some push and pull. Communication skills provided by a therapist can help the navigation of these discussions go more smoothly.
Once the couple has tuned back into each other, it will be helpful to create some meaningful rituals to stay connected. Couples can be creative about ways to do that which are special and unique to them. One couple I worked with decided to have morning coffee together for 30 minutes. They would discuss the events of the day, check in with each other emotionally, and take the time to really listen to each other’s hearts.
Another couple developed a ritual of a bubble bath after the kids were in bed. They said they did their best talking in their big round Jacuzzi tub.
Sexual and emotional betrayals are a hefty blow to a relationship, but an affair does not have to be the end. Couples who have the emotional fortitude to reach out and seek the help they need can create a much more meaningful and intimate relationship in the aftermath of infidelity.
Has your relationship experienced a sexual or emotional affair? The Gottman Institute is currently seeking couples for an international study on affair recovery. For more information, click here.