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An Affair To Remember: What Happens In Couples After Someone Cheats? Part Three

Posted: 11/10/10 12:07 PM ET

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This is the third installment in a three-part blog series. The article originally appeared in the
Psychotherapy Networker in September 2010. Read Part One here and Part Two here.

We've already looked at two types of couples that remain together after affairs, for better or for worse, but for some partners, the affair becomes a transformational experience and catalyst for renewal and change. This outcome illustrates that therapy has the potential to help couples reinvent their marriage by mining the resilience and resourcefulness each partner brings to the table.

The Explorers

"The affair was a shock that forced us to get unstuck," was Julian's unequivocal response in an interview five years after I'd seen him and his wife, Claire, in couples therapy. "I agree that our relationship is now much better than it ever was," said Claire as she turned to Julian and added, "but I still think that you acted like a jerk. You didn't need to cheat on me to make the point that our marriage was in trouble." While they still disagree on the way Julian delivered his "message," they agree his affair transformed their marriage.

Julian had first set eyes on Claire standing in front of him at the Student Coop 15 years earlier, and he made sure to get her phone number before she reached the cashier. With her beguiling smile and the mysterious way she hesitated ever-so-slightly before giving her name and number, she hooked him. In those first moments, they began to take on the roles that would continue into their marriage. Julian would be the initiator--of social life, of sex, of decisions about vacations--and Claire's protector from the world. Claire would be the graceful, albeit somewhat tremulous, helpmate, always following his lead, reassured that, with his firm and reliable hand on the helm, she never needed to worry. What came as a surprise for Julian through the years, however, was the volume of worries he was expected to assuage: almost anything could be fodder for Claire's anxiety. She could never arrive early enough at the airport; her trepidation about hosting a dinner began days in advance; and for her to feel comfortable about having sex, conditions needed to be perfect--which they rarely were. Over the years, he grew tired of the veto power she was imposing on their lives: "You want to go out?" he'd ask. "NO," she'd respond. "Let's get together with some friends." "NO." "I want to make love to you." "NO."

With so many noes ringing in his ears, Julian welcomed the resounding yes from Emma, whom he met on a business trip and continued to sleep with for a year and a half. It wasn't just that he wanted more sex: he wanted to recapture the feeling of playfulness and freedom that sex used to allow him. The affair with Emma brought with it a sense of vitality that he'd been missing. With her, he threw off the growing lethargy that had smothered his life. He once again experienced the excitement, attention to preliminaries, sense of timelessness that fills lovers' hearts.

Claire found out about Julian's affair through accidentally discovering e-mail messages. Deeply jolted, she sought individual therapy and reached out to her friends. But along with giving her support, they asked her to see that, while Julian had betrayed her trust, she herself had--as she later put it--"betrayed my vows." Knowing that Claire didn't want to lose the man she loved, her friends encouraged her to fight for him. So she reached out to him, and they talked with each other as they hadn't done in years, sharing feelings and thoughts that had long been tucked away. As the conversations evolved and they began to narrow the distance between them, they felt awakened into a new experience of connection, in which they felt both great pain and excitement, as they never had before.

When couples like Julian and Claire begin to find their way back to each other, there's often a combustive rekindling of desire, a mix of anxiety and lust, which many couples are shy to admit. In this emotional maelstrom, couples swing between starkly opposing feelings: one minute it's "Fuck you"; the next minute it's "Fuck me." Then it's "Get out of here!" Followed by "Don't ever leave me!" Throughout this drama, Claire and Julian managed to sustain these swings without either one marching off to a divorce lawyer. Being able to express and accept such a wide range of feelings without demanding a premature "closure" made them good candidates for a positive resolution. Tolerance for ambiguity and uncertainty is vital to discovering a space from which a more creative and robust relationship can emerge.

In my joint work with Julian and Claire, I did something that some therapists might consider risky: I suggested she invite Julian to talk about his experience with Emma. Paradoxically, I've found that this type of openness about one's affair, rather than being destructive and painful, can be a deeply affecting demonstration of loyalty to the spouse. Telling one's partner, "Okay, I'll show you who I am. This is what happened, and this is how I felt about it" can be a way of saying "I love you and never really wanted to leave you; I want to tell you this because you're so important to me." Indeed, Claire found that having Julian talk about his intimacy with another woman was itself an expression of intimacy with her--increasing their bond with each other.
Sometimes the crisis of infidelity helps couples make a crucial distinction, one between a relationship based on exclusiveness and one grounded in the uniqueness of their connection. Exclusivity depends on establishing rigid boundaries: the emphasis is on "not permitting," "restricting," "not sharing with others." Before the affair, Claire and Julian had increasingly based their relationship on this kind of external framework to set them apart as a couple. In contrast, through our work together, they learned to value what was distinctive about the meaning they held for each other, with the emphasis on why they "chose to be with each other" rather than what was "forbidden with someone else." Ultimately, this enhanced sense of "us" is the most powerful analgesic for relationships at the edge, soothing the pain and promising a prospect of renewal.

Couples like Julian and Claire manage to turn the turmoil of an affair into an enlarging emotional journey. Each one takes appropriate responsibility for the deterioration of the relationship, focusing not only on mending the breach produced by the affair, but on rebuilding the emotional foundation of the marriage. Such couples tend to identify the affair as one event--but not the definitive event--in their history together. Rather than seeing the affair purely as an act of failure and betrayal, they transform it into a catalyst for change, an inspiration for a rebirth of connection.

All kinds of unexpected discoveries can come out of the crisis of infidelity. Claire, having had to reconnect with her own resources to weather the storm with Julian, experienced a new sense of self-reliance and a new willingness to take the initiative. As she learned how to express her sexual yearnings, Julian was surprised to find a partner with a strength and enthusiasm he'd never encountered before. At the same time, no longer the lone decision-maker in the marriage, he found himself missing the ability to make decisions for the two of them. While richer and more interesting, the relationship felt less secure to both of them. "I'm not sure at all where this is going to take us, but dull it certainly isn't," Julian said.

Reinventing the Self

Couples who can successfully recover from an infidelity often display a significant shift in language: From "you" and "me" to "our," from "when you did this to me" to "this was an event in our life." They talk about "When we had our crisis," recounting a shared experience. Now they're joint scriptwriters, sharing credit for the grand production of their life together.
Couples who think in absolutes are less able to integrate the infidelity into the new substance of their marriage and likelier to get stuck in the past. For them, the affair is entirely bad and destructive, a transgression against commitment and morality. Complete remorse, followed by dramatic confession, unqualified promises of "never again," unconditional forgiveness, and categorical absolution are the only acceptable outcomes. But things are more fluid for those who see an affair as an event that, no matter how painful, may contain the seeds of something positive. Such couples understand that forgiveness doesn't happen all at once, and they feel OK with partial forgiveness. To be sure, after betrayal, trust isn't likely to be total. When declarations like "How can I ever trust you again?" are made by such couples, I often interject, "Well it depends. Trust for what?"

Above all, what sets apart couples who use therapy to turn an infidelity into a transformative experience is that they come to recognize that it doesn't provide clear-cut answers, but a nonjudgmental forum in which to discuss their ideas of betrayal, both sexual and emotional. They discover that such discussions can became the basis for their new relationship. While by no means giving up on the idea of commitment, they learn to redefine it in a way that will prevent the recurrence of secret affairs and betrayals. For them, monogamy means mutual emotional loyalty, fidelity, and commitment in a primary relationship, even if, for some, it doesn't necessarily mean sexual exclusiveness.

They find out that infidelity doesn't necessarily point to flaws in the relationship. Such partners see the affair as less a statement about the marriage than a statement about themselves. When we seek the gaze of another, it isn't always our partner we're turning away from, but the person we ourselves have become. We're seeking not another partner, but another self. Couples who reinvent themselves can bring this other self into their existing relationship.
People stray for many reasons--tainted love, revenge, unfulfilled longings, and plain old lust. At times, an affair is a quest for intensity, a rebellion against the confines of matrimony. An illicit liaison can be catastrophic, but it can also be liberating, a source of strength, a healing. And frequently it's all these things at once. Some affairs are acts of resistance; others happen when we offer no resistance at all. Straying can sound an alarm for the marriage, signaling an urgent need to pay attention to what ails it. Or it can be the death knell that follows a relationship's last gasping breath. I tell my patients that most of us in the West today will have two or three marriages or committed relationships in our lifetime. For those daring enough to try, they may find themselves having all of them with the same person. An affair may spell the end of a first marriage, as well as the beginning of a new one.