Often, when we discover that a partner has been cheating, the first question is an anguished "Why?" This often-unanswerable question is what drives us to ruminate on what happened, and we may force our partners to talk about the details over and over again, hoping to find the answers we are searching for.
One of the first things you will need to do to heal from an affair is to explore this question of why it happened and to be open to hearing the real, honest truth. Most people want to blame the cheating partner. And the cheating partner does have to take responsibility for pursuing the outside relationship. But no affair happens in a vacuum.
Collusion in the Affair
Collusion means "secret cooperation." The dictionary says that collusion is "secret cooperation between two people in order to do something underhanded or undesirable." Many couples, if they are honest with themselves, may find that the partner who was cheated on colluded with the infidelity even if he or she didn't participate directly in the affair. That means that on some level, there was some type of cooperation, even if unconscious, to make the affair happen.
This secret cooperation may mean the betrayed partner is doing something in the relationship to collude with his or her partner's behavior, even if he or she doesn't realize it. To be unconsciously aware means that on some level, the betrayed partner had an idea that their spouse was cheating.
In a 1995 study, two groups of practicing therapists described extramarital affairs they treated or were themselves involved in. They reported that 89% of betrayed spouses in the study were consciously aware of the infidelity or, even if they did not acknowledge it, really did know about the affair. The majority of the betrayed spouses behaved as if they were in collusion with their cheating partners, even when they said they were opposed to the affairs.
Maria and Frank had been stuck in conflict over Maria's affair for over a year. Maria had cheated on Frank with a neighbor, Joe, someone they saw weekly for card games and occasional barbeques. When Frank found out that Maria had cheated with Joe, he became incensed and almost left her.
As time progressed and Maria and Frank discussed the affair, Maria shared her confusion with her husband: "I always felt that you approved of my relationship with Joe. You saw how he flirted with me, and you even encouraged me to go over there when his wife was out of town. You used to say that Joe was probably lonely and that maybe I should go over and have a drink with him. Now you are so mad at me! There's some kind of mixed message here."
Frank was furious with Maria for insinuating that he pushed her into the affair: "I never told you to cheat with him. Did I ever say, 'Go sleep with Joe; he and his wife aren't having any?"
As Frank's feelings calmed down, he tried to see things from Maria's point of view, to find some empathy for her experience: "I guess it makes sense that she would move toward Joe. Maybe I was hoping that they would cheat so I would have an excuse to leave."
Maria said, "This is not your fault. I definitely made the move to step over the line." Frank realized he had unconsciously colluded with her about the affair.
Affairs as Exits
An exit can be any behavior that a partner uses to avoid being truly present in the relationship, whether emotionally, psychologically, sexually, or even physically. Harville Hendrix, author of the best-selling self-help book Getting the Love You Want: A Guide for Couples, says smaller exits can include anything that helps you to avoid dealing with conflict or intimacy, including being on the computer, checking e-mails, texting, or staying late at work. Any behavior that is used to avoid ways to engage with your partner is considered an exit. Bigger exits include things like gambling, drinking, and taking drugs. An affair is considered one of the biggest exits and is what Hendrix called "an invisible divorce."
Affairs are only one way to exit from the relationship, but they can be a powerful and damaging way to avoid the intimacy of a monogamous partnership. However, whenever the person who is exiting traces his or her behavior back to the moment he or she exited, it often becomes clear that at that time, his or her partner was exiting as well. If the cheating partner can trace his or her behavior back to the point where the indiscretion began, it may become clear that the affair was an attempt to deal with the feelings of a partner who "exited" the relationship first.
Mike and Sheila came to therapy after Mike had an affair with a woman he met on the Internet. Every time he tried to talk to Sheila about his loneliness and feelings of disconnection, she would get defensive and accuse Mike of trying to shut down her needs professionally.
Mike said, "I never wanted her to stop working. I wanted her to be home with me. Eventually I started a relationship with this woman who advertised on adult websites. She never let me down, and whenever I was lonely, she was there for me."
Often, one or both partners may see an affair as a way to avoid conflict or intimacy, and eventually may see it as an exit from the relationship. In exploring why your partner pursued an affair, you may discover that he perceived that you exited the relationship first. This can be a difficult thing to accept, especially amid the fresh pain of a newly discovered affair.
Sometimes the "why" of an affair is not as important as what happens after, if you can create a new monogamy, together.
For more information on creating your new monogamy and a new relationship together, click here.