The Affair: Marriage’s weapon of mass destruction
By Michael Ceo
Infidelity strikes at the jugular vein of a marriage, violating the fundamental trust that a couple holds sacred. The psychological and emotional impact of an affair can be devastating.
In my experience as a marital therapist, an affair can either drive a stake through the heart of a marriage or lead to a growth crisis that can ultimately strengthen the union between two people. Whichever way it goes, an affair thrusts a couple on a risky and unpredictable white-water rafting trip driven by dangerous emotional crosscurrents.
When a partner cheats, the sense of loss can be overwhelming. Searching questions about our own self value, inadequacies and the meaning of our lives can cascade into a whirlpool of doubt. Even one’s health can be profoundly effected.
Affairs in marriage happen with disturbing frequency. While reported statistics about the frequency of affairs are suspect, one reputable study suggests that 37 percent of husbands and 20 percent of wives have been unfaithful. In the U.S., one in every 2.7 couples, a total of 20 million couples have experienced infidelity.
Given the prevalence of affairs and their potential destructiveness to families, it makes sense to learn what makes both individuals and couples vulnerable to infidelity. It is also prudent to educate yourself regarding how people react to infidelity and navigate the healing process. Sadly, chances are you will one day find yourself in the role of “first responder” to a friend or family member struggling to make sense of life after the affair.
It is important to clarify that an affair does not necessarily have to involve sexual behavior. Any betrayal of trust or violation of what someone expects of their partner can have the same consequences. Bringing to someone else what belongs in the relationship can be an affair. Confiding in someone else or treating someone else as “special” may take on the aura of an affair. Couples have a way of staking out their own boundaries, evolving a private understanding of what behavior is expected of one another. Violating this boundary leads to betrayal.
In a landmark book entitled, “After the Affair,” author Janis Abrahms Spring suggests that men and women react differently to a partner's affair. Women tend to try and save the relationship, while men are more likely to bail out and find a replacement. Women get depressed and men get angry. Women feel inadequate as caregivers, while men feel inadequate as lovers.
What I find most curious in my work as a therapist with couples attempting to rehabilitate a relationship is that people are motivated to have an affair for reasons that have a lot less to do with sex as with many other needs.
Relationships that have an imbalance of power, where one person feels one down on the other for whatever reason tend to be vulnerable to infidelity. The affair then becomes an attempt to even the stakes. From this viewpoint, an affair represents a symptom of what is missing in a relationship. A wife asked me recently how she could be sure that her husband would not cheat again. Assurances aside, I told her that when your husband can stand up to you and tell you what he needs from you, you’ll know the marriage is on solid ground.
People are vulnerable to affairs who have difficulty trusting or putting all their emotional eggs into their partner’s basket. Love and risk go together. For many of us depending on someone else is scary. So one attempted solution is to split off and bring emotional needs to different people. Real love is about becoming whole with someone, allowing another to know even the parts of us we don’t like.
Women or men may be open to an affair who don’t get the message from their partner that they are “special.” Also, people with low self worth may harbor exaggerated needs to be puffed up or worshiped by another. Affairs, with their whirlwind of secrecy and drama, can hold the illusion that we are seen as special, powerful or valuable. Another marital behavior pattern vulnerable to an affair is what I call the “Ma and Pa” syndrome. Married lovers frequently get lost in the flurry and stress of running a household, maintaining careers and raising a family. We start looking at our partner as Ma and Pa and not as the person we were really hot on some short time ago. Through the fog of our frenetic and disconnected home lives, the office secretary or handyman starts looking good.
The decision to rebuild a marriage after an affair sometimes involves a process of growing up. The romantic love that brings people together in marriage is prone to the “pedestal effect,” seeing our partner as the one who would never betray us, who will always see us as special no matter what. Yet, mature love recognizes that people are human and we all have a dark side. Most of us are ill- prepared for the wholeness, honesty and self-understanding that intimacy requires. Mistakes are human.
An affair ends the contract between two people. The premises and beliefs on which the relationship was built become invalid. If a new contract is to be negotiated, a process needs to be undertaken that involves each party assuming responsibility for their role in the affair. Both husband and wife need to initiate a process of soul searching to examine individually and together what made their relationship vulnerable to infidelity.
Marriage counseling is the setting where a couple can build resources to strengthen their relationship and explore where their lives are going together. I often tell couples that marriage counseling is insurance against the loss of a divorce, both the emotional loss as well as the financial loss. Heaven knows we spend our money buying insurance for every other risk in our lives, why not marriage insurance?
How can a couple rebuild when it seems like so much has been lost? I’ll leave you with the eloquent words of Dr. Abrahms Spring from her book.
“Trust is not a gift. It must be earned, and not with verbal reassurances alone, but with specific changes in behavior. You, the unfaithful partner, need to demonstrate to your partner through bold, concrete actions that 'I am committed to you. You are safe with me.’ You, the hurt partner, need to open yourself to the possibility of trusting again. You can’t punish forever, you can’t be cold and distant forever or your partner will give up trying to reconnect. You need to spell out exactly what your partner can do for you and give this person a road map back into your life.”