The single most destructive threat to a committed relationship is when one of the partners engages in an intimate relationship with another person. This is not an uncommon event. Conservative estimates suggest that about a quarter of women, and a third of men, have violated their marital commitment to their partners. About 65 percent of marriages struck by infidelity end in divorce.
The impact on the lives of those involved with infidelity is enormous. It violates the integrity, trust, and commitment upon which marriage is based. When two people enter into a committed relationship, they make a promise to love and honor each other. This involves making a heart-felt promise to work through the problems that are sure to arise within the relationship. To break that promise means dishonoring the trust of the person who has agreed to live with you and build a life together.
When an extramarital affair is discovered, a crisis ensues. Now the question is – can this relationship continue? In more than half the cases, the relationship does end – but, depending on how this crisis is dealt with by both partners, the relationship does have a chance to continue. In some cases, this relationship crisis serves as a watershed event that opens the door to self-examination and honest communication that may put the relationship on stronger ground.
Whether infidelity leads to dissolution of the relationship or, at the other extreme, a more positive outcome with a stronger commitment and better communication depends on many factors. One important variable is whether the partner who is unfaithful came from a family with infidelity.
People with parents who were unfaithful are at higher risk for infidelity within their own relationships – although this is certainly not always the case, and many people from these families are determined never to repeat their parent’s mistake. Yet we learn many things in our families of origin, and one of those is to copy the behavior of our parents – and sometimes to act out our unresolved issues.
Emotional Significance of the Affair
Another factor that may determine whether a relationship can survive infidelity is the emotional significance of the affair. Some affairs lack any emotional commitment, while others involve a deeper level of intimacy and connection than is found within the primary relationship.
The “serial affair” for example, involves many one-night stands or a series of affairs. This type of affair lacks emotional commitment and intimacy, and the motive is often sexual excitement. These affairs usually occur out of town or away from areas where friends might find out about them. A sex addiction might be present in serial affairs.
Although a person who engages in serial affairs is not interested in establishing an emotional investment with his or her partners, there is also a lack of attention paid to the vow of fidelity within the primary relationship – and this is a serious issue that must be addressed if the relationship is to continue. The relationship may survive the serial affair provided the underlying issues are brought out into the open and worked through.
The “romantic long-term affair” has a higher degree of emotional significance and is a more formidable threat to a primary relationship. In this case, there is an emotional commitment to an outside partner, and some of these affairs can last for several years. A great deal of hard work and behavioral change would have to occur if the relationship is to have any chance of surviving a romantic affair.
First, the affair should come to an end. Otherwise the straying partner would likely not have the emotional energy or motivation to repair the damage done to the main relationship. Some partners, however, allow the affair to go on and pretend not to know about it because they don’t want to end their primary relationship – but the price they pay is a high one.
Types of Affairs
There are many types of affairs, and couples should consider this information before making a decision to dissolve a marriage or other committed relationship.
Relationships go through stages involving loss and then gain – and each of these transitions is accompanied by anxiety. The birth of a child, career demands, middle age, and retirement are typical life transitions that have an impact on each partner and on the relationship itself. When we enter into a committed relationship, we bring with us various idealized images of what our lives will be like and how we will relate with our partner.
When these ideals are disrupted by a life transition, we experience anxiety – and sometimes one of the partners will handle the anxiety by finding a different partner, just so the ideal can be maintained. Rather than facing the anxiety, making the adjustment to the life transition, and giving up old ideals in order to make room for the new realities, a person may find a new love interest, all in a futile attempt to avoid making necessary changes.
Our parents’ marriage serves as our role model for what we expect to find, or to avoid, in our own marriage. Our partners, similarly, bring their own set of expectations into the marriage – and often the two different expectations come into conflict. This conflict may not be apparent initially, but over time it becomes a major focus of the relationship. It is at this point that we may try to change the behavior of our partner so that it conforms to our own expectations.
Trying to change our partner’s way of living, of course, is wrongheaded and usually only brings more conflict into the relationship. The better option is to examine our own expectations and to make adjustments in our own behavior. But this may be difficult – and some people opt to go outside of the relationship in order to find someone who meets their own expectations.
The Cry for Help
Some people have no intention of leaving their relationship, but they find themselves blocked in dealing with an unbearable aspect of the relationship. They may feel that they have exhausted all other options in trying to correct the problem, and they finally play their strongest card, which is to have an affair.
They let their partner know about the affair – as if to say, “See, I’ve been trying to tell you all along how much I hurt. Now do you hear me?” Rather than place the relationship in jeopardy through the acting out of frustrations, the better option is to work with a professional therapist to learn how to deal with frustration in a more productive way.
Breakdown in Communication
During the course of a relationship there are often times when the two partners stop communicating with the depth and intensity that characterized their earlier years. This could be because one partner feels that he or she has outgrown the other in terms of social activities, career advancement, emotional growth, or intellectual pursuits.
Or it could be because one of the partners is geographically removed, ill, or otherwise unavailable. Or there might be a sexual dysfunction, which could be due to a physical problem or lack of communication. Rather than working on ways to enhance communication or correct the problem, one of the partners may turn outside the relationship to find another partner.
The Exit Strategy
Some people have made a decision to leave their relationship and having an affair is their strategy for making the break. They have an affair in order to make their partner angry enough to initiate the breakup. Or some may see the affair as a way of getting into therapy so that the therapist can ease the transition into the dissolution of the relationship. And some may have an affair so that they have a source of support from their new partner as they go through the leave-taking.
Life After the Affair
Although many marriages are unable to survive infidelity, some do – and many of the surviving marriages emerge stronger after the crisis of infidelity. The first course of action when you learn about your partner’s infidelity is to find a professional therapist who can be with you as you try to cope with the emotional turmoil that accompanies this crisis. During couples therapy or individual counseling your therapist can help you to make rational decisions in a tumultuous time.
And depending on whether your decision is to end the relationship or to salvage it, your therapist will help you to go through the stages of the decision-making process in a supportive and confidential way. Many of us have no experience in how to rebuild our lives after devastation occurs, and therapeutic support is an invaluable part of the process.
We need to examine why the affair occurred and then to make a decision about whether we feel we can remain in the relationship or not. We also need to examine our partner’s motive for engaging in infidelity. We need to see how the affair is going to affect the relationship in the future, and whether we can live with that.
We also need to decide whether communication can be enhanced, or not, in the event that we decide to repair the problems. We need to examine both the positive and negative aspects of a divorce (in general, divorce is a profoundly painful experience for most people, including children).
Consider the following – If you are mature enough to love, you should be mature enough to live up to the demands of your commitment to your partner. Life is never perfect.
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