“The affair” “Cheating” “Adultery”. Theses are just a few of the names given to the devastating and life changing experience of discovering that your partner has been emotionally and or sexually involved with a third party. While affairs are complex, and each one has its own personality, cause and outcome, they all share at least one common theme: from beginning, to disclosure, and through marriage counselling and recovery, it’s a heart wrenching experience that leaves a devastating emotional wake for everyone involved.
The fact about Affairs
Actually there is more that’s known about affairs, and some of it is quite startling. We live in a society that, in general tends to be disapproving of third party sexual liaisons. As a result, it’s tough to get people to admit they are, or have been guilty of said crime, even when they are asked in private therapy. But the most reliable surveys indicate that about 45% of all married men and 22% of all married women will have at least one extra-marital sexual experience. Are you shocked yet? Here’s another surprising statistic: 80% of married people who found themselves embroiled in an affair said they were committed to being faithful to their spouse before the affair occurred (Shirley Glass, 2003). It’s as if our culture has a split personality. We are convinced that we shouldn’t, but we do anyway.
These statistics suggest some important insights. First, most people who get involved in affairs aren’t looking for them. They are often just as surprised at what has unfolded as the betrayed partner. What begins as an innocent friendship, or purely professional relationship, transforms into something more and illicit. Often times it’s difficult to clearly determine at just what point a line was crossed.
Most of us are unsure of how to lower our risk and “affair proof” our relationship. There are a lot of myths that couples have adhered to, only to be devastated by a painful discovery of lies and betrayal. Probably the most common myth is if I “keep the home fires burning” we will be safe. It’s commonly believed that by keeping your partner sexually happy, he or she will have no reason to look elsewhere. But the truth is, many relationships that suffer affairs report having had an active and satisfying sex life. This understandably deepens the sense of confusion and betrayal.
A second common myth is that a good marriage with good communication will prevent an affair. Indeed, often the first question a betrayed partner asks is “Why? Was I not enough for you? Did I let you down in some way?” The reality is that people who have affairs are often very much in love with their spouse, and may be just as bewildered by their own behaviour as the betrayed partner. This often leads to an added difficulty in the marriage counselling and recovery process because when the betrayed partner asks “why” but only hears “I don’t know”, they feel as though they are being deceived all over again.
Navigating the fallout of an affair
By now you may be wondering if a relationship can be safe from affairs at all. While life comes with precious few guarantee’s, there are ways to substantially reduce your risk. I will talk about those steps in next months column. For now, let me finish with a word to those of you have suffered the grief of an affair. Many couples who experience this devastating fallout wish to repair their relationship and find a way to move forward. This path is definitely possible to navigate, but it’s tricky and wrought with many unforeseen dangers. It comes with questions like “Should we talk about the affair or leave it in the past and never bring it up again? If you have been unfaithful but your partner doesn’t know, should you tell them? How do we handle our relationship with the affair partner, especially if they are not easily removed from our lives? How do we handle this cascade of emotions?” The list goes on. Navigating this process can feel a lot like rebuilding from an earthquake while the aftershocks are still coming.
Very few couples are able achieve this without professional support in marriage counselling. Find a therapist who specializes in, and is experienced in recovery from affairs. Educate yourself. An excellent read is “Not Just Friends” by Shirley Glass. For starters, check out this article at http://www.smartmarriages.com/infidelity.html. And most importantly, remember that you don’t have to walk through this alone. Whether you are guilty of the affair or are the betrayed partner, you will benefit greatly by surrounding yourself with a sympathetic and caring support system, and a qualified marriage counsellor.