Does an affair mean our marriage is over?
By: Risa Ganel, LCMFT Owner/Principle Therapist
Fear, shock, shame, guilt. These and many other emotions hit when an affair is revealed or discovered. How can there ever be trust again? How could this happen? How can we ever get through this? What do we do now? Does this mean our marriage is over?
It’s easy to view affairs in very black and white terms. There is a victim and a perpetrator. There is good and evil, right and wrong. However, nothing is truly that simple, particularly love and relationships. If you are struggling with the impact of an affair on your marriage, there is hope, there is healing and despite what you may be feeling right now, a marriage can survive it.
An affair must mean he/she wants out of the marriage, right?
Martin and Lisa, both in their late 50s, had a long standing marriage that both would describe as caring, kind, and filled with deep friendship. They raised two successful children and had satisfying careers. Yet the marriage lacked passion and excitement. She was more content with the status quo than he. She enjoyed their walks in the evening and quiet meals at home. He longed for more, even though he adored his wife and never wanted to end the marriage. He found himself attracted to a woman at work who engaged him in political conversations and talked about the places she longed to travel. The intellectual stimulation this friendship provided led to an affair. It is not something he sought, ever dreamed he would do, nor did he want to end his marriage. Not all affairs mean someone wants out of the marriage. Often times, it means they long for a dormant part of themselves to awaken, as was the case with Martin.
And in an even more vivid example, is Theresa, a woman who was stricken with cancer. Her husband, John, cared for her night and day, through many months of treatment and was a devoted husband and friend. This couple came to therapy because, once in recovery and remission, it was Theresa who found herself in the arms of another man. Why? How could she? John was so devoted to her!
Theresa expressed that her husbands devotion meant everything to her and she did not want to leave the marriage. When Theresa was being cared for by John, he saw her in the most raw, most vulnerable physical state. He saw her body ravaged by cancer in a way that neither of them ever imagined possible. . She no longer felt like a woman in his eyes, but rather as a child needing care. She did not feel sexy or sexual around John and could not see herself having sex with her “caretaker”. The affair was a way of reclaiming her body, her sexuality and her sense of self as a woman. The goal of couples therapy for them was to help Theresa reclaim her sexuality with her husband and renew their relationship as equals, rather than as child and caretaker.
This is not a recommendation for people to have affairs, but rather an illustration of the complexity of human relationships seen in my office daily.
My friends and family say I should leave. But I don’t want to. I’m confused.
Those who have learned their partner has been having an affair can often feel even more confused when they long to remain in the marriage. After all, you are a victim and should seek to escape the evil of the perpetrator, right? Your friends and family, though having good intentions, may be adding pressure to make the choice to leave. They also may feel hurt or betrayed by the person who had the affair, just as you do.
This black and white view is a very simplistic way of thinking and does not take into account the complexities of relationships and the human condition. In addition, friends and family have their own beliefs and judgments from their own lives that clouds their advice to you.
Your desire to remain in the marriage should not be pathologized. You are not crazy. It is normal to feel a mix of emotions. One moment you may want to cling to your spouse every second of the day, and the next moment you may cringe at the thought of him or her. All of this is normal. As Esther Perel says, “Love is about having. Desire is about wanting.” The threat of loss, the loss of the relationship, often triggers desire when an affair is revealed. It’s important to have a safe place to work through all of the confusing feelings.
Couples Therapy Can Help
Navigating the stormy waters after an affair is difficult. You are very likely in an emotional state of crisis. You can’t concentrate at work, you think about the affair all the time, you have images in your mind that won’t go away and questions about the details that haunt you. If you had the affair, you may be lost as to how to console your partner and at the same time struggling with the impact of what you have done and how to decide what to do next.
A crisis needs to be managed and calmed before moving forward. I tell all of my clients that this time of crisis is not the time to make a decision about whether your marriage will last or not. It’s time to get help. A trained Couple and Family Therapist can help you through the turmoil.
Are there any marriages that really survive an affair?
I’ve seen many couples in my practice whose relationships survive the aftermath of an affair. And I’ve seen many who do not.
Those who do remain together after an affair have several things in common:
1. They don’t make decisions about the marriage right away
2. They are willing to look back at the years they have been together and focus on the good aspects of their relationship that help them get through the bad times.
3. They stay true to their history together, rather than rewriting their past based on current hurts.
4 They are willing to look at themselves and how they can change to help improve the relationship.
5. They show remorse and take full responsibility for their actions.
6. They commit to working on the relationship, for at least a period of time, even if they are unsure of what the outcome will be.
7. They recognize it is a long process that will not take place in a few weeks or months.
8. They seek the help of a trusted professional who is specifically trained to work with Couples.
Certainly, not all marriages can survive an affair. Not all marriages should survive an affair. In cases of serial affairs, abuse, addiction, the choice to end a marriage may be best for all involved.
It is possible for marriages that have faced the devastation of an affair to be stronger, more fulfilling, more connected than before. While no one wishes an affair to occur in any relationship, take the time to seek professional help to determine what is best for you. And remember relationship issues are not black and white, friends and family may have good intentions but not such great advice, and what we read in the papers or see on movie screens about famous affairs should not be what guides you in the decisions you make for your marriage.
If you are struggling with this, please contact us. You don’t have to go one more day navigating this alone and in pain.