Let me begin by stating some basic beliefs/opinions I have about affairs.
- They are virtually always exceptionally destructive – they are never good for marriages.
- There is virtually never a “good excuse” for an affair.
- I accept that while affairs are destructive – they are very common.
- No one is immune from having an affair.
- If one has had or is having an affair – it is not the end of the world or the marriage.
- I do not believe it is necessary to always tell your mate of an affair you’ve had or are having.
- If you are having an affair, you should end it immediately.
- People having affairs often believe their circumstances are unique; they’re not.
- I define “affair” pretty broadly – it includes secretive emails – sexually-charged chat-rooms – “emotional affairs” – I even consider alcoholism, compulsive gambling and other addictions as an affair. These behaviors involve deceit and take your energy away from your mate.
Often, a patient wants to know “why” they are having or have been involved in an affair. The “why” is not nearly as important as, what to do about it.
I’ve been very impressed by how much an affair resembles an addiction – and like an addiction, why someone is an addict is not nearly as important as what to do about it. Like an addiction the first thing to do is to stop the behavior. After the behavior has ceased one should begin a journey of recovery.
When considering what recovery means we might consider a dictionary definition: “The act or an instance of recovering; a regaining of something lost or stolen, a return to health, consciousness, etc., a regaining of balance, control, composure, etc, a process of attempting to change dysfunctional behavior, as by abstaining from an addictive substance: an alcoholic in recovery. I also think of physical therapy as one recovering use of a limb that was injured. In the context of recovering from an affair it might include doing whatever is necessary to repair damaged trust. Once the behavior has ended and one has made every effort to repair the damage, one can then begin to speculate about “why”.
Again, like an addiction the “why” is found in an element sometimes hard to describe. Initially I’ll express it simply but go on to define it in some of it’s various expressions.
The problem is that an import element is missing – the shorthand way to say it is, “spirituality”. Some people have a near-automatic gag reflex to hearing that word – so if you’re one of those people – stick with me for a few more minutes. Some find profound spirituality in surfing, some in music, art, poetry or wood-working. Some will find great spirituality in serving others; others will experience the numinous in nature while still others may find traditional spiritual practices important beyond words.
In a previous column, I sang the praises of Steven Pressfield and his book, “The War of Art”. In that book, he does a great job of giving a kick-start to anyone wishing to pursue their own spirituality.
Some have said to me, “I don’t know what form or shape my spirituality would be – so how do I pursue it?” If one doesn’t have an aversion to traditional spiritual practices, I’ll suggest that as a starting point. I’ll ask about dreams one may have harbored in youth. I’ll ask about one’s heroes or role models. Sometimes one’s nocturnal dreams will give a clue. “What turns you on?” (not sexually but in a more spiritual sense) Affairs and addictions are forgeries for the REAL THING. One of my patients was working in a civil service capacity but had a childhood wish to become a pilot. (Believe it or not, she is now a pilot flying cargo – and SHE LOVES IT.) If you’re not engaged in pursuing what you care about – what you love – if you’ve ignored your muse, you’re at risk for falling for a counterfeit of genuine spirituality. Addictions and affairs are attempts to achieve a spiritual state; the problem is that it’s fraudulent. Sometimes, (not always), therapy can be useful.
Now, let’s get pragmatic. What if YOU are the one having the affair? END IT! And begin the process described above.
What if your mate discovers the affair?
- Fall on you sword. Accept 100% responsibility – NEVER suggest your mate shares any blame.
- Make a genuine apology. An affair is so egregious, it may require many sincere apologies.
- I am not an advocate of unburdening yourself of the feelings of guilt and remorse by giving details. As the saying goes, “You can’t unring the bell.” Once it’s been said you can’t take it back and your mate will never get it out of their memory.
- Be ready to hear about it from your spouse for a while. (I can’t say how long – probably more than two weeks and probably less than six months.)
- Be ready to be on a very short leash for a long time.
- Despite all of your attempts to salvage the marriage; your spouse may find the damage too much to be fixed.
What if you discover your mate has had an affair?
- Initially you might be in shock – the breach of trust is enormous.
- Probably your feelings will fluctuate for weeks. Its important not to make any major decisions for a month or two.
- Take plenty of time for yourself and surround yourself with those who love you and have good judgment.
- It’s normal to “go ballistic” for a while (Maybe a couple weeks – maybe a few months.)
- If your mate is making a genuine apology and willing to go to any length to repair the damaged trust; I recommend giving it a try – remember this is very personal. For you, the damage may be too great, but in a long term relationship, there’s more to consider than just your feelings. (There’s a shared history, frequently there are children and it may sound outrageous to say it but, money is a consideration.)
- You will never “forget”, but you can forgive. Forgiving means that at some point, you decide to not bring it up any more. (With some couples, an ended affair is brought up like a trump card during every argument.)
- Therapy can help – with the right therapist.
Parting words: If you are in this terrible situation the very best book I can suggest is:
Divorce Busting: A Step-by-Step Approach to Making Your Marriage Loving Again
By Michele Weiner-Davis
Every couple – whether or not there’s an affair, should read this book.