Conventional knowledge suggests that extramarital affairs produce irreversible damage to a marriage. But in my long experience as a marriage and family therapist, I have heard many couples express some version of gratitude for the affair -- not initially, or course, but toward the end of the therapeutic process. I know that may sound crazy. And I'm always careful when and how I say, "Sometimes an affair is the best thing that could have happened," to couples who come to see me following the discovery of an affair. But I know it's often true, having learned that from the couples I've treated.
But let me take a few steps back into my history. Since I trained in family therapy in the mid-'80s I've seen hundreds of couples, and not a small number come to see me driven by the anguish of one partner's recent affair. There are probably few things that can compare to the primal wound an affair inflicts. The injured party always experiences a profound sense of betrayal, and the secretive nature of the affair seems to hurt almost as much as the idea of the other partner's intimacy with someone else.
I first began my family therapy training in the early '80s with Dr. Salvador Minuchin, one of the seminal figures in family therapy. Sal was the Johann Sebastian Bach of family therapy -- one of the masters, concerned with family structure, clarity, rhythm -- what I think of as the family's music-making. I'll never forget the first tape I showed for supervision of a couple's session. In it, the husband was ranting at the wife, who appeared timid and passive, not responding to her husband's harangue. I was prepared to talk about this "jerk" of a guy, and how I didn't understand how the wife could put up with him, etc.
Sal's first comment was, "The husband is like a dog howling at the moon." This was my first introduction to the idea of "complementarity," or how partners (unconsciously) create each other in their ever-evolving duet. I only saw the dog, not the moon.
Since that time, I always carry with me the idea that a couple is not 1+1, but rather a single organism, elastic and alive. So when a couple comes to see me post-affair, I see this crisis as part of a dynamic process, albeit an extremely painful one. And my couples -- especially those who squeeze the juice out of the experience -- have taught me what is needed for them to survive -- and, dare I say, flourish -- as a result of this horribly-hurtful transgression. The powerful tensions and harmonies of this process are like a piece of music.
The first movement, which sets the stage for the therapy, is the apology. The apology involves, but is not limited to, the offending partner's full, honest, thorough, no-holds-barred admission of guilt. And it can't be the "you made me do it" kind of apology. It's got to be a full-throated acceptance of complete responsibility. Because, no matter how you slice it, an affair is the coward's way out. And damage is done. It's also true that couples -- especially the person on the receiving end of the betrayal -- often don't know if they want to stay together. This period of confusion means that all bets are off for the moment.
The high-quality apology also means giving the injured party (almost) carte-blanche for whatever he or she needs in order to heal. This often means talking about the details of the affair, sometimes again and again. Sometimes the betrayed person wants to confront the "enemy." I've never seen this backfire. It usually removes one more layer of deception.
Healing involves the proverbial "one step forward, two steps back" thing, because often the injured person needs to continually return to the scene of the crime, until he or she is ready to move on. In my office, about three-fourths of these post-affair couples involve a husband's adultery. Though wanting to know the details varies according to sensibilities, when the woman insists on "the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth," the couple enters a new level of honesty that works in their favor on many, many levels.
The second movement is where the affair becomes the "best thing that could have happened." The pain of the affair has a way of stripping people of their usual ways of seeing and doing things. The usual patterns are up for grabs. Sometimes people have to give up cherished illusions about themselves. It's not for the faint-hearted. But neither is marriage. I often observe it as a "death/rebirth" experience for the couple, both as a duet and as individuals. They discard the "dead" parts of the marriage, and unexpected avenues of connection come alive. It's not unlike the sense of renewed appreciation for living that people often feel after the trauma of a life-threatening illness.
The "reasons" for affairs are as varied as the couples themselves. But one theme stands out: These couples specialize in conflict avoidance. Out of the many, many couples I've seen who've been through an affair, in each and every case the couple's relationship is marked by unresolved marital tensions that get covered over in a myriad of ways. And the affair, like a bomb going off, blows the cover off these tensions and allows them to be exposed. Usually, the couple did not know how to get at these tensions any other way.
It might sound like affair recovery is long, drawn-out ordeal, but that's not necessarily true. Healing often begins as soon as the couple comes together to deal with what happened. They are propelled into this unknown world, stripped bare, nothing to lose, exposed to each other in totally new ways. As a therapist, I can't exactly say it's exhilarating, but it's often very, very impressive. I have the opportunity to guide these courageous people on a journey toward a new, more alive, more authentic partnership than either had thought possible before. And that's a privilege that I never, ever, fail to appreciate.
For more on relationships, click here.