Conventional wisdom suggests that extra-marital affairs produce irreversible damage to marriage. But in my long experience as a marriage and family therapist I have heard many couples express some version of gratitude for the affair–not initially, or course, but toward the end of the therapeutic process. I know that may sound crazy. And I’m always careful when and how I say “Sometimes an affair is the best thing that could have happened” to couples who come to see me following the discovery of an affair. But I know it’s often true. I’ve learned that from the couples I’ve treated.
Since my training in family therapy in the mid-80’s, I’ve seen hundreds of couples, many coming to see me driven by the anguish of one partner’s recent affair. There are probably few things that can compare to the primal wound an affair inflicts. The injured party always experiences a profound sense of betrayal, and the secretive nature of the affair seems to hurt almost as much as the idea of the other partner’s intimacy with someone else.
But in order to understand affairs, you need to know that a couple is not just made up of two individuals. A couple has its own Operating System, governed by (mostly) invisible rules. I first learned about this early in my family therapy training. I remember a couple I treated, a husband and wife in their early 30’s, where the guy would rant at his wife, who remained passive, removed, not responding to her husband’s harangue.To me this guy seemed like quite a jerk, and I couldn’t figure out why his wife put up with him. When I presented this case at our supervision class, my teacher’s first comment was, “The husband is like a dog howling at the moon.” I was momentarily started. But immediately my focus began to shift. This was my first introduction to the idea of “complementarity”, or how partners (unconsciously) create each other in their ever-evolving duet. I only saw the dog, not the moon.
Since that time, I always carry with me the idea that a couple is not 1+1, but rather a single organism, elastic and alive. So when a couple comes to see me post-affair, I see this crisis as part of a dynamic process, albeit an extremely painful one. And my couples–especially those who squeeze the juice out of the experience– have taught me what is needed for them to survive–and dare I say, flourish–as a result of this horribly hurtful transgression. The powerful tensions and harmonies of this process are like a piece of music.
The First Movement, which sets the stage for the therapy, is the Apology. The Apology involves, but is not limited to, the offending partner’s full, honest, thorough, no-holds-barred, admission of guilt. And it can’t be the “you made me do it” kind of apology. It’s got to be a full-throated acceptance of complete responsibility. Because, no matter how you slice it, an affair is the coward’s way out. And damage is done. It’s also true that couples–especially the person on the receiving end of the betrayal– often don’t know if they want to stay together. This period of confusion means that all bets are off for the moment.
The high-quality Apology also means giving the injured party (almost) carte-blanche for whatever he or she needs in order to heal. This often means talking about the details of the affair, sometimes again and again. Sometimes the betrayed person wants to confront the “enemy”, the person who invaded the marriage. I’ve never seen this backfire. It usually removes one more layer of deception.
Healing involves the proverbial “One step forward, two steps back” thing, because often the injured person needs to continually return to the scene of the crime, until he or she is ready to move on. When one parter discovers the cheating, it feels traumatic, not unlike PTSD. In my office, about three-fourths of these post-affair couples involve a husband’s adultery. Though wanting to know the details varies according to sensibilities, when the woman insists on “the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth”, the couple enters a new level of honesty that works in their favor on many, many levels.
The Second Movement is where the affair becomes the “best thing that could have happened”. The pain of the affair has a way of stripping people of their usual ways of seeing and doing things. The usual patterns are up for grabs. Sometimes people have to give up cherished illusions about themselves. It’s not for the faint-hearted. But neither is marriage. I often observe it as a “Death/Rebirth” experience for the couple, both as a duet and as individuals. As they discard the “dead” parts of the marriage, unexpected avenues of connection can come alive. It’s not unlike the sense of renewed appreciation for living that people often feel after the trauma of a life-threatening illness.
The “reasons” for affairs are as varied as the couples themselves. But one theme stands out; these couples typically specialize in conflict-avoidance. Out of the many, many couples I’ve seen who’ve been through an affair, in each and every case the couple’s relationship is marked by unresolved marital tensions that get covered over. Both people, on some level, cooperate in avoiding conflict. Then the affair, like a bomb going off, blows the cover off these tensions, exposing hurt and anger in the relationship that was simmering beneath the surface. If the couple is smart, and brave, they will use this explosion to get at what’s been hidden, not talked about or acknowledged, often for years. Usually, the couple did not know how to get at these tensions any other way.
It might sound like Affair Recovery is long, drawn-out ordeal, but that’s not necessarily true. The first steps toward healing often begins as soon as the couple comes together to deal with what happened. They are propelled into this unknown world, stripped bare, nothing to lose, exposed to each other in totally new ways. As a therapist, I can’t exactly say it’s exhilarating, but it’s often very, very impressive. I have the opportunity to guide these vulnerable people on a journey toward a new, more alive, more authentic partnership than either had thought possible before. And that’s a privilege that I never, ever, fail to appreciate.