The Affair as a Catalyst for Positive Change

The discovery of an affair can spark a crisis that can lead to a break in a pattern of negative interactions, such as exiting behaviors. There may be other negative coping strategies that you and your partner have used to avoid talking about uncomfortable subjects. Some couples avoid conflict by exiting, and others avoid the real issues they want to discuss by camouflaging them with other things. They may talk about the children or work, for instance, when they really want to talk about the marriage. Or they may talk about money when they really want to talk about sex. What ways do you avoid the conflict in your relationship? An affair may be a way to break you out of some of these old coping strategies.

Couples who have experienced affairs are forced into new discussions about former unmet needs that lead to new and creative ways of moving forward and staying together. Changing the old methods of communication can lead to communication about how to make monogamy and commitment work in a new erotic and emotional relationship. When couples focus on how they can learn from experiencing an affair, sometimes each partner grows as an individual.

Talking about the Affair

The first step in creating your new monogamy will be to commit yourself to fully understanding what happened and why your partner cheated. This process will mean having a series of conversations with each other. These conversations must be — first and foremost — honest, empathetic, and kind.

If you or your partner is still in the crisis phase of affair recovery and so overwhelmed by difficult emotions such as anger, defensiveness, guilt, or resentment that you can’t communicate with openness and kindness using these tools, then you may choose to post- pone these dialogues until you can find a little more distance from the pain of the affair. You may even choose to see a therapist or other counselor, either separately or together, to process some of the most painful feelings.

In fact, it may be easier to work with a therapist as you have these conversations. The most important thing to remember is that you both need to be willing to hear difficult truths about yourself and your relationship, and you must be willing to let go, at least for the length of the conversation, of damaging emotional expressions or behaviors that don’t encourage truthful communication.

Damaging emotional expressions include name-calling and what I call “garbage-canning.” Name-calling is anything that includes a derogatory and personalized insult to your partner. It also can include statements that begin with globalizing, which is saying things that start with “You always” or “You never.” No one “always” or “never” does anything, so keep your conversation clear of globalized blame, accusations, and name-calling in order to have a clear discussion of your feelings.

The aftershocks of the affair have probably not yet fully worn off. You may still be feeling angry, hurt, triggered, defensive, sad, betrayed, and very lonely. Yet by picking up this book, you’ve made the decision to work on your relationship. One of the things you’ll need to do to help initiate the healing process is to look at why the affair happened and even what it may have to teach you. As hard as it may be to contemplate right now, the affair may actually point directly to the parts of yourself that you will need to work on to grow as an individual, as well as the parts of the relationship that weren’t working before the affair began.

What You Had Together Led You Here

Hundreds of couples have told me that an affair was the best thing that ever happened to them. This realization comes after the initial crisis has passed, when you begin to have insight into what led to the affair. It may be difficult to think about it this way, but for the couples I’ve worked with, healing began when they realized that the relationship could only have led to infidelity. Looking back, it seems that the affair, or a real marital crisis, was inevitable.

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The partners realize then that their original monogamy agreement needs to be reexamined. Many couples find that the affair is a wake-up call to create a new and more vital partnership, one where excitement and intrigue are an inside job.

How and Why Did the Affair Happen?

Often, when we discover that a partner has been cheating, the first question is an anguished “Why?” This often-unanswerable question is what drives us to ruminate on what happened, and we may force our partners to talk about the details over and over again, hoping to find the answers we are searching for. If we felt that our relationships seemed fine before we found out about the affair, the “why” can plague us, make us lose sleep, and keep us from being able to focus on other tasks.

One of the first things you will need to do to heal from the affair is to explore this question of why it happened and to be open to hearing the real, honest truth. Most people want to blame the cheating partner. And the cheating partner does have to take responsibility for pursuing the outside relationship. But no affair happens in a vacuum. So, part of asking “why” will most likely include the betrayed partner hearing things about her own behaviors that she may not want to hear, such as ways that she exited the relationship prior to the affair, perhaps without even realizing it.

Affairs as Exits

An exit can be any behavior that a partner uses to avoid being truly present in the relationship, whether emotionally, psychologically, sexually, or even physically. Harville Hendrix (2008), author of the best-selling self-help book Getting the Love You Want: A Guide for Couples, says smaller exits can include anything that helps you to avoid dealing with conflict or intimacy, including over focusing on the children, being on the computer, checking e-mails, texting, cleaning the house, staying late at work, or even playing golf. Any behavior that is used to avoid ways to engage with your partner is considered an exit. Bigger exits include things like gambling, drinking, and taking drugs. An affair is considered one of the biggest exits and is called “an invisible divorce” (ibid.).

Affairs are only one way to exit from the relationship, but they can be a powerful and damaging way to avoid the intimacy of a monogamous partnership. However, whenever the person who is exiting traces her behavior back to the moment she exited, it often becomes clear that at that time, her partner was exiting as well. If the cheating partner can trace her behavior back to the point where the indiscretion began, it may become clear that the affair was an attempt to deal with the feelings of a partner who “exited” the relationship first.


Adapted from Tammy Nelson’s, The New Monogamy

Copyright © 2012 Tammy Nelson, PhD. Published by New Harbinger Publications. Used with Permission.