It’s no surprise that affairs are a common reason why people come to couple therapy. In this article, I want to make some observations about the potential meanings of affairs, and rather than necessarily signalling the end of a relationship, how they can in many instances present an opportunity for a couple to rebuild and rethink.
By affairs, we often think of secret passionate sexual encounters. But for many, what is significant is not the sex, but the emotional connection, and non-physical relationships are often meeting the same needs which are missing in the primary relationship – for example recognition as a lover rather than a parent; kindness, warmth or affirmation– things that may have been long lost, perhaps since having children.
In couple therapy, an affair is sometimes still a secret at the start of sessions, and only emerges later. This can be difficult for both partners but especially the ‘aggrieved’ one, to feel that the early therapy sessions were something of a charade. But as the therapist I can often see that the early sessions still have meaning, and the revelation is a missing part of the jigsaw.
The hardest thing for the betrayed partner is also the key to understanding and rebuilding from the affair – recognising his or her role in the affair. It’s always better to see an affair as a symptom of a couple problem rather than the cause. And both partners have a role. Quite common is the pattern that one partner can’t say what’s wrong (and therefore has the affair), the other can’t seewhat’s wrong, and avoids looking for signs that all is not well. It’s common for the partner having the affair to make little effort to keep it a secret – messages pop up on phone screens; laptops left open and emails left on screen. The days of silent phone calls to home phones might be a thing of the past, but the signs are almost always there if the other partner cares to look. The discovery of the affair, painful as it is, presents the first step to rethinking and rebuilding the relationship, often after years of mutual neglect or distancing.
Recovery from an affair takes time. There isn’t a to-do list or a set of actions which will reset things; it’s more often than not about spending time in sessions reflecting on past experiences, both partners talking about what was missing for them, their attempts to connect, what did and didn’t work and what would need to change in order to repair trust and rebuild the connection which may have been missing for many years. Ultimately it’s about reaching a point where it’s no longer about blame, and both partners can recognise the undelying loss of connection is something they each had a role in.
Of course, not all couples recover from affairs. Some decide that repair is too daunting or have already moved on from the relationship. Couple therapy can still help though. It can help couples think about co-parenting together, and help them avoid similar difficulties in a new relationship further down the line. What’s hard to avoid altogether though is that in most cases, separation isn’t pain-free – someone usually gets hurt. But like other injuries in life, recovery and repair is possible.