What lies ahead? Eventually people determine where to go next, whether separately or together. Every affair will redesign the relationship, and every relationship will define what the affair meant. The story of the affair may be written by one person, but the story of the relationship is written by both people. It’s important for both people to feel and exercise power and authorship—and for others to recognize this as well.
“The story of the affair may be written by one person, but the story of the relationship is written by both people.”
Why is it so important that the person who had the affair shift from shame to guilt?
Affairs involve entitlement: It’s something I give myself permission to do. They are often committed by people with a strong sense of narcissism—I deserve this—but not always, as noted earlier. In any case, people rationalize and justify the affair in their own ways to make it acceptable to themselves. They close themselves off to the pain of their partners. When a partner finds out about an affair, we feel a sense of shame. I’m a terrible person—how could I do something like this? We are busy with self-absorption. Guilt is more empathic. It’s a relational response inspired by hurt you have caused.
“If you feel bad about yourself, that’s just more self-involvement, and you can’t feel bad about what you did to the other person.”
We know from studying trauma that healing begins when you relate to another. You have to give your partner time and space to heal. If you feel bad about yourself, that’s just more self-involvement, and you can’t feel bad about what you did to the other person. You have to feel bad about making your partner feel bad. Grief involves taking responsibility for your actions.
What do you say to partners seeking justice after infidelity?
We all feel a need for justice. What helps is to distinguish the difference between retributive justice (only seeking punishment) and restorative justice (which works through repair). In other words: Do you want to punish and hurt your partner, or do you want him/her to make right by you? Do you want them to suffer, or do you want to see acts of accountability and repair?
Vengeance can eat you up alive, because it keeps you focused on the other person. One patient of mine said they wanted no other form of vengeance than to feel happy again—to let it go: “I realized there was no stronger way than to love and trust again with someone else.”
For couples who stay together after an affair, how do you go about rebuilding trust, and ultimately a stronger relationship?
When you have been betrayed, you’ve been devalued. You’ve been told that you don’t hold interest in your partner’s mind. One of the ways for people who have had affairs to rebuild trust is to show their partners that they matter and that they value them. Show them that you honor them, that you want to be with them, and help them reclaim their sense of value.
Trust isn’t just about proving that you aren’t going to do it again. A patient said to me, “I trust that he won’t do it again, but I’m not sure I trust that he wants to be with me. I need to know that he isn’t thinking about her. So what if he doesn’t call her? What I need to trust is that he truly has chosen me again.”
I’m working with one couple right now—the man has been unfaithful his entire marriage (and in his previous marriage). He told me, “I’ve lied and cheated, but I’m not a liar or a cheater.”
I said, “You’re going to have to explain that to her, show you know how much it hurt her, and prove that none of this has been about her.” For starters, he wrote a letter by hand that was both a letter of accountability and a love letter, acknowledging that he needed to examine the affair and himself, and affirming her value. He flew across the country to deliver it by hand.
“The assumption is that the person who had the affair is the only person who was missing something in the relationship, but this isn’t typically the case.”
Some other things people can do: Have new experiences together that affirm your connection. It’s like cells that need to regenerate. You need new experiences to regenerate. Add novelty to the relationship—take a trip to a new place, do something adventurous together, plan a breakfast rendezvous after dropping the kids off at school. An affair can sometimes be (among many things) a powerful alarm system that ends up shaking people out of complacency to save their marriages.
Affairs light up the score cards of relationships—all the agreements, disagreements, compromises, hurts, and so on. The assumption is that the person who had the affair is the only person who was missing something in the relationship, but this isn’t typically the case. The other partner may say, “You think you were the only person who wasn’t happy but the relationship wasn’t working for me either. Going forward, I’m going to need different things from you.” So it isn’t solely about rebuilding trust, but the potential to change the relationship in a way that is better for both partners.
For people who decide to end their relationship, what’s important?
It’s important that we, as a society, stop judging an entire marriage (or relationship) by its end. It’s terrible to lose your partner, to see someone else chosen instead of you. That doesn’t have to mean, though, that the entire twenty-seven years that preceded the separation were a failure. We don’t let people feel that the relationship and the time they spent together had value and merit. It’s unfair to the institution of marriage and to the couples to dismiss the time they did spend together—the children they may have given birth to, family members they buried, jobs they’ve supported one another through, homes they built and lived in, communities they were a part of. Infidelity, divorce, and break-ups are hurtful and lonely—but they don’t equate to failure.
“It’s important that we, as a society, stop judging an entire marriage (or relationship) by its end.”
Marriages should be allowed to end with dignity and grace. As we have marriage ceremonies to celebrate the start of unions, we should have rituals to mark their end. I often have couples I work with write goodbye letters to each other about what they’ll miss, cherish, and wish for one another, but other couples may choose another form of closure.
What about ending an affair?
Any relationship should be ended with integrity. Remember that there is a person on the other side. If you’ve been having a long-term affair, this partner will be experiencing a sense of loss. The third person is often lied to as well. Have a level of accountability to this person—apologize and show remorse. Tell the person that he or she has been important, beautiful, and matters. But if you’ve made your decision to stay with your spouse, also be very clear about this. Don’t make the other person wait or leave the relationship lingering.
“What people often fear losing, though, when they end an affair is not really the lover, but the thing the affair awakened in themselves.”
Know that this is a relationship that will need to be mourned but of course don’t look toward your spouse who you are returning to for help doing so.
What people often fear losing, though, when they end an affair is not really the lover, but the thing the affair awakened in themselves. We go elsewhere to connect with lost parts of ourselves, but we ultimately need to see that they belong to us, and can come back with us.
Can you talk about the potential appeal, and also cost of being “the other woman”?
Both men and women have affairs, but long-terms lovers who I encounter are almost exclusively women. We don’t have a phrase for the other man. Men have not historically accepted living in the shadow of women. (I’m reminded of the classic movie, Back Street, where a man—John Gavin—rents his lover—Susan Heyward—an apartment in a back alley, and that’s where she lives, in shadow.)
The other woman may face a lack of security, lack of commitment, and fear being labeled a home-wrecker. There may be ultimatums that are never honored. For six years, I’ve seen a man promise his lover that he would leave his wife—when this happens and when that happens, when the kids go to school—buying her presents and making grand gestures along the way to keep the lover, who is always left waiting.
“We don’t have a phrase for the other man. Men have not historically accepted living in the shadow of women.”
The appeal is feeling adored. Some women I speak to tell me that they get out of the affair what was denied them in their own previous marriages: a deep, intimate sexual relationship; romance; connection; joy. As one woman put it: “I value all of these things more than what his wife gets (loyalty, financial support, holidays, and so on). So maybe I get the best of him. Maybe his wife feels exactly the same.” (Of course, the wife hasn’t been allowed to weigh in.)