What help can I get if I find out my partner was unfaithful?
By Erica Herrero-Martinez
Continuing our series of blogs to celebrate 70 years of helping couples, individuals and families.
The discovery of an affair can be an overwhelming and bewildering experience. There is no ‘right way’ to feel, but often when there has been an affair, a couple can feel like their world has flipped on its head. They might be struggling with anger, resentment, grief, shame, guilt, feelings of inadequacy and even numbness.
An affair is not just about someone having a relationship with someone else ― it is different from an open relationship where both partners agree that each can have sexual relationships with other people. An affair is a breach of trust and if this trust is going to be rebuilt, it is going to take time, and this time is likely to be difficult and painful.
Affairs can also be a very isolating experience for both parties. People often say they feel too ashamed to turn to their usual sources of support such as friends or family. A couple’s sex life, and feelings of desire and attractiveness can also be undermined.
With all of these emotions and issues in the mix, it is not surprising that communicating can become very difficult. It is common for couples where there has been an affair to find that things quickly escalate into an argument, or perhaps that they aren’t able to talk at all. The atmosphere may be too charged, and feelings too raw for a couple to open up or listen to what the other is saying.
This is where therapy can help. Couple therapists create an atmosphere where painful or difficult feelings can be explored. A couple often need support dealing with the immediate aftermath of the affair, but the work is also about exploring what led up to the affair. Finding out the context of an affair is not to excuse it, but it can help people understand and accept what has happened. Some of the work might involve talking about experiences within the couple before the affair, the couple’s sex life, external factors such as jobs or children and experiences in their past. Therapists explore reasons for people’s behaviour that are both conscious, that is to say that they are already aware of, and unconscious, in other words that they perhaps do not understand or are not aware of.
It is also important to note that while therapy might be difficult, exploring positive and joyful experiences and feelings is also encouraged and that talking about the strength and fun in a relationship is often a core part of the work.
Couple therapists do not have an investment in necessarily keeping a couple together. But for couples who openly work through the difficulties an affair brings, it can help them build a stronger relationship, as it encourages them to face up to the weaknesses and failures of their relationship and provide them with an opportunity to fix them.
Other couples may decide to end a relationship, and in this situation therapy can also be helpful for example if a couple need to continue to parent together or to help a couple communicate ahead of what is often a complicated process of separation or divorce.
Affairs can ruin relationships and ideally couples would work through their problems openly and honestly before one takes place. However for couples where there has been an affair, therapy can help people better understand both the affair and their relationship so that they can make informed, reasoned and honest decisions about their future ― whether that is as a couple or not.