“Kelly”* came in to see me about nine months ago, complaining about symptoms of anxiety and stress that were directly related to the consequences of her recent affair. Her husband “Jake”* had found out and the consistent chill and tension in the air at home was so intense, Kelly wondered if it was even worth trying to salvage her marriage at all. Yet she wasn’t ready to call it quits either.
Just how common is infidelity in marriage? The statistics vary widely, from 4% of women having extramarital sex to 50% of all marriages involved in infidelity. I think we can all agree the 50% statistic is a bit of a dramatic exaggeration. But this I will admit: when I decided to focus my private practice on Relationship Counseling, I was a little bit surprised at the number of clients who were dealing with issues of infidelity. The reasons seemed varied: lack of affection and/or passion in the marriage; lack of respect for a spouse; random sex with a stranger met online; an old flame that never really died out; an open marriage in which one partner became emotionally attached, and so on and so forth. The common thread with each was that no one wanted to end the marriage.
Kelly wasn’t sure where to start. She was attracted to my Psychology Today ad that read: “Should I stay or Should I go?” Jake sometimes could be a great husband. He was successful, attractive and spontaneous, and he could make her laugh like no one else could. He was also controlling and had a bad temper that was set off easily. Kelly often thought the only emotion he knew how to express was anger. When Kelly met “Greg” at work, there was an instant attraction. At first she kept things flirty but safe with invisible boundary lines in place, but the excitement, fun and passion got the best of her. The sex was equally exuberating. She was devastated when Jake found out. She hated herself for lying, betraying and hurting him. But she was growing angry and resentful at his callousness towards her. After all, Kelly thought, she wouldn’t have had the affair if Jake had been more emotionally expressive, respectful and kinder to her.
Emotionally Focused Couple Therapy reminds us that the common emotions felt by injured partners are:
- Fear of Abandonment
- Loss of personal and sexual confidence
And some of the emotions felt by the partner who had the affair:
- Relief that the lying is over
That’s a whole lot of emotions being stirred up in one household! Its truly no wonder that couples are at a loss as to where to begin the healing process. Which brings me to the first thing I suggest:
Both partners should seek professional help individually.
A good therapist can help each person navigate through the process of untangling the web of thoughts and feelings so that there can be a foundation of clarity. After several sessions of self-exploration, couples therapy can take place.
During Kelly’s sessions, I helped her understand how important it was for her to give Jake the space he needed to feel fear and to have flashbacks and negative thoughts, even when it occurred at times when they were trying to spend enjoyable time together. She also worked on forgiving and loving herself. Once Jake had worked individually with his therapist for two months, we began couples therapy. I suggested they read the book, Mating In Captivity by Esther Perel because I like her thoughts on affairs: that they hold the potential to wake a couple up, and be a “liberation, a source of strength, a healing.” No, she does not (nor do I!) advocate for infidelity, but she has been known in her Ted Talk to state that she “would no longer recommend you have an affair than I would recommend you have cancer. And yet we know from people who have been ill that their illness has yielded them a new perspective.” My second suggestion:
Watch Ester Perel’s TED talk on Rethinking Infidelity: a talk for anyone who has ever loved. It is life-changing.
As I pointed out to Kelly and Jake, an affair can be an amazing opportunity to reinvent a relationship. In their case, Kelly wanted Jake to be more tender, sensitive, share his hopes and dreams with her, and to control his temper. Kelly did not realize the cycle that she had been engaged in in which she allowed him to make all of the decisions in the household, and tended to tune him out when he was trying to engage in discussion, as well as trigger his temper sometimes purposefully. Once she was able to accept her role, she allowed Jake the space he needed to cool down and better express himself. Jake had worked both with his individual therapist as well with me to better understand where his underlying anger came from. He slowly began to experiment with going inside himself to identify his feelings and communicate them to Kelly. I encouraged Kelly to be patience with him. I also reminded them:
The process of rebuilding trust takes time and it involves risk taking.
I encouraged both of them to focus on forgiveness and recognizing that they now had the ability to better understand each other’s needs and to be grateful for the second chance they were given to never take each other for granted. Their journey is a continuous one, but the couple recently reported an increase in trust, mutual respect and decision making. They are even discussing starting a family.
Can your marriage survive an affair? The simple answer is Yes, if both of you want that and are willing to go through the process of healing together. Infidelity by itself does not end a relationship. It’s what you do with the broken trust and storm of emotions that makes or breaks it.
*Disclaimer: Client names, traits, and identities have been changed to ensure privacy and confidentiality.