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  • Donna McMillan

A is for Affair


Silhouette of male standing behind female who is upset

Infidelity is often seen as the ultimate betrayal. The complexities of the betrayal can vary with each couple, but there are commonalities with all of them. The shock, the hurt, the anger (sometimes rage), the disappointment, the doubt, and the fear.


How could you do this to me?
How could you do this to us?
To our family?
Who are you?
What does this mean?
Am I not enough?
How dare you?
I hate you.
You’ve broken me.

When couples go through an affair, it can feel like a rollercoaster of emotions and thoughts. One moment you’ll be okay and maybe even understanding, the next moment you may be filled with rage. And it continues like this. For some this can go on for months, for others it can be years. While the pain might feel endless, it does get better. And there’s no better way of handling infidelity, than by processing it with the help of relationship counselling. But first, let’s rewind to what our understanding of what an affair is.


What constitutes as an affair these days?


Caucasian male and female cuddling in bed

Once upon a time an affair was defined as being sexually intimate with someone (Glass, 2003). But now, an affair can be so much more. Outside of physical intimacy, emotional affairs have emerged as another form of infidelity.




Signs a friendship has turned into an emotional affair include:

  • Confiding in your friend, more than your partner.

  • Discussing negative feelings or intimate details about your relationship with your friend, but not with your partner.

  • Not being open with your partner, about the extent of your involvement with your friend.

Questions to ask yourself:

  • Would you feel comfortable if your partner heard your conversation with your friend?

  • Would you feel comfortable if your partner saw what was happening during your meetings?

  • Are you aware of any sexual tensions in this friendship?

  • Do you and your friend touch differently when you’re alone, compared to when you are in front of others?

  • Are you in love with you friend?

 

Having the conversations, before an affair can happen

African male wearing shirt with blue flowers, smiling and texting

If you are reading this and an affair has not occurred, think about having an open conversation with your partner about what you both consider to be an affair. When couples don’t have this conversation, partners can cross boundaries without realising what they are doing is inappropriate. For example, sending flirty text messages might seem harmless for one partner, while the other partner classifies this as cheating. We tend to make our own assumptions on what an affair is and isn’t, so it’s important to have these conversations as early as possible before someone gets hurt.


Trauma from the affair


Female wearing yellow jumper typing on a laptop

Trauma expert Dr Judith Herman found that when there is a betrayal within important relationships, the post traumatic reaction is exceptionally severe (Glass, 2003). These reactions can persist for days, months and sometimes years. When a partner discovers an affair, they can have an obsessive desire to hear every single detail of how things unfolded. They can become hypervigilant about monitoring their surroundings, and have a strong need to keep a watchful eye on their partner. This need comes from their fear of being hurt again. They can also experience flashbacks, when cues occur that remind them of the moment they found out about the affair. Such as being in the same place or hearing the music that was playing. As more of the story unfolds, certain triggers can arise. These include hearing the participating partners phone notifications, or seeing an affair on tv that reminds the hurt partner of their own situation.

 

What to do after the affair is revealed or discovered?


How the affair is dealt with after it has been discovered or revealed, is critical to relationship recovery. With the help of a relationship counsellor, they can help you navigate this challenging time in your relationship. Relationship expert John Gottman suggests affairs should be handled using the following 3 steps.

Phase 1: Atone The participating partner must express remorse. According to Gottman, the hurt partner can only start to feel trust again after the participating partner shows proof of trustworthiness numerous times. Atonement cannot happen if the participating partner insists the hurt partner is partly to blame. Complete honesty is crucial when discussing the affair. Even though this can be difficult, it’s an important part of showing the participating partner authenticity and vulnerability. Gottman found that when the participating partner agreed to answer questions and made full disclosures, the couple stayed together 86% of the time.

​Phase 2: Attune Once a couple has started to show signs of forgiveness, it is possible to move to this second phase. It is during this phase that the couple can restore the relationship without having the affair cloud the relationship issues. Throughout the attunement phase, the couple works on conflict management and other relationship concerns outside of the affair.

Phase 3: Attach The final phase addresses physical intimacy. For the relationship to begin again, Gottman signifies the importance of sexual intimacy that is pleasurable to both partners. Having intimate conversations can help with upholding meaningful and pleasurable sex. It’s important to remember that although physical intimacy is imperative, it can take time and patience to get to this phase.

 

Relationship 2.0


Once a couple goes through these phases successfully, they can embark on relationship version 2.0 An important part of recovery is understanding that although relationships change after an affair, it doesn’t have to mean the end. Once the hurt and anger has been processed (but certainly not forgotten) couples can come out stronger after an affair. For some couples, they can navigate this on their own. But for most couples, in order to heal from an affair in the best way possible, relationship counselling can be the key. Relationship counselling can help with the fallout of the affair, address the underlying issues a couple is experiencing and how to manage these issues. Whether you are the participating partner or the hurt partner, it’s essential to remember you don’t have to go through this alone.


South american male and caucasian female embracing on the ground in a forest.





References


Carla Barrow (2021) Three steps to survive betrayal in your relationship: Atone, attune & attach, Carla Barrow. Available at: https://theintegraltherapist.com/three-steps-to-survive-betrayal-in-your-relationship-atone-attune-attach/ (Accessed: January 7, 2023).

Gaspard, T. (2022) Learning to love again after an affair, The Gottman Institute. https://www.gottman.com Is it possible to rebuild trust after your partner has been unfaithful? Available at: https://www.gottman.com/blog/learning-to-love-again-after-an-affair/ (Accessed: January 4, 2023).

Glass, S.P. and Staeheli, J.C. (2003) Not "just friends": Protect your relationship from infidelity and heal the trauma of betrayal. New York: Free Press.

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