What happens when you discover your partner is having an affair? Does how you find out have an impact on how you deal with it? Or do you want to know all the intricate details of who, when, where and how often?
The main question I see time again in my clinic practice is – why?
Let’s start from when you first make a commitment to your partner to be exclusive. Regardless of whether that happens on your second date or when you’re well into the relationship, there’s a point, spoken or otherwise, when you both make a choice to commit to one another. With many couples this is a topic rarely discussed. Instead you slip into an unconscious, unspoken assumption that neither of you will seek love, sex nor any other form of physical or emotional comfort from another person in an intimate way. Trust is a given.
There’s nothing more devastating to a relationship (other than death of a partner) then when trust is broken.
Once trust between two people is ruptured, regardless of how long you’ve been together or if you’re married or co-habiting, it takes a long time and effort to rebuild, and in some cases it’s irreversible.
What happens in the immediate aftermath of discovering an affair or being discovered is critical to the outcome of the relationship. Those who cheat experience shame and guilt at being found out; they often lie to ease the pain of their shame. Some avoid the topic and revert to childlike behaviour in the hope of quick forgiveness; others become aggressive and blame their partner to deflect the seriousness of their own actions.
The injured partner feels betrayed, wants revenge amidst a cocktail of anger, rage, hurt, pain, deceit and shattered dreams. They want to know why, how, where, when and with whom; sometimes their anger spills out towards their partner’s lover, often feeling a strong desire to confront them. Most of all, they want to know the truth.
The lover may initially feel relief that the affair is out in the open, quickly followed by fear and uncertainty of the future of their relationship. Some dread they’ll be exposed to their own spouse or partner, whilst others may feel anxious that they may be expected to make a commitment.
The emotions that ensue when infidelity is unveiled are similar to going through a grieving process. How each party handles the situation will have an impact on whether the couple are able to move on and rebuild their connection, stay together under a cloud of anger, animosity and revenge or separate. And it’s not always doom and gloom.
- Julia called me after a couple’s counselling session to say she was relieved it had happened, she wanted out – her husband’s infidelity was her ticket to freedom. She’d had years of mental abuse, of being controlled and manipulated by her insecure husband who behaved like a tantrum teenager whenever she attended a work conference or went out with friends.
- Peter and Sally decided to separate after Peter had an affair with a work colleague; they came for couple’s counselling because they wanted to manage the process as best they could for the sake of their children. By the end of the first appointment, they realised they’d been neglecting their own relationship and wanted to work at fixing it rather than going ahead with divorce.
Infidelity is a catalyst for change – it can destroy relationships, rejuvenate them or create new ones – whichever way, you can be certain that your relationship will not be the same again.
Why do affairs happen?
There’s a common belief that men have affairs (extra-marital liaisons, flings, cheat or stray) because of a lack of sex at home, an addiction to sex or fear of commitment; and women have affairs out of loneliness or a longing for attention and intimacy. There’s some truth in this and it’s not always the case.
To help us understand why some people struggle to commit to one person and stay in a monogamous relationship; how we react when we find out that our trusted partner has cheated; and why some people are attracted to unavailable lovers, I like to go back in time and look at how we got to be who we are within a relationship.
The journey to adultery starts with our childhood relationships.
Our early childhood attachment to our parents or primary caregivers can be either secure, anxious or avoidant. This early programming is imprinted in our system. It drives the way we think and feel about ourselves and others, and shapes our behaviour in our adult relationships, especially when we’re stressed, anxious or angry.
A child that grows up in a secure loving environment, feeling supported, encouraged and accepted for whom they are, appreciated and respected for what they do, forms a secure attachment with their parents. They’ll grow up learning to trust others; they’ll have good self-esteem and form lasting healthy relationships with clear boundaries.
They are less likely to stray and those that do, is usually as a result of a friendship (often a work colleague) that evolves and unexpectedly crosses the boundary. The fling tends to be short lived and quickly exposed. They’re usually remorseful and understanding of their partner or spouse’s emotions. They’re able to take responsibility for their actions, explore their issues objectively, and will do their utmost to mend the relationship.
A child that grows up in an anxious, inconsistent, chaotic or abusive environment believes they’re flawed. They worry they’re not good enough and will only be loved if they are perfect. They long for closeness and intimacy but struggle to trust they are loved. They become needy, insecure and fear rejection in relationships.
They are usually attracted to other Anxious types, often forming co-dependent relationships that trigger each other’s insecurities. In some cases they form toxic relationships with Avoidant types, perpetuating their belief they are not good enough and rejection patterns.
Those that cheat will go to great lengths to hide their illicit liaisons and when they’re found out, they’ll lie or deny their wrong doings. They’ll often slip into tantrum-teenage-like behaviour and treat their partner or spouse more as a parent. If the injured partner wants to know the full story they will have to work hard at extrapolating the truth.
These affairs can be repaired providing the couple are willing to seek help from a therapist and work at repairing their early childhood trauma. It’s not an easy ride or a quick fix for either party.
A child that grows up with parents who are distant, unresponsive and strict, will be insular and loners. They develop an internal fantasy world to feel safe and accepted. They grow up fearing intimacy, commitment and of being controlled and suffocated, preferring instead to remain independent. They’re usually perfectionists with high expectations of themselves and others, often to the point of being critical of both. They show little emotion in love relationships, preferring to remain detached and recovering quickly from a break-up.
They’re more likely to have several affairs, often with needy or unavailable lovers, moving from one to another with great ease especially if their lover starts to form attachments. If the affair is exposed, they will probably retaliate with anger or rage. Years of repressed emotions from early childhood will surface and will be downloaded onto their partner or spouse.
Attempts to repair the relationship are superficial and will never be long lasting. Someone with an Avoidant imprint will need inner-child therapeutic work before they can begin to address their role in adult relationships.
The above is a brief summary of how our early childhood attachments to parents or main caregivers impact and manifests in our adult relationships when the road to happiness isn’t smooth.
If you relate to what you’ve read and would like help, contact Carla Devereux on 0121 745 9044 to book an appointment.
NEXT TIME: Repair and recover from an affair