September 26 2015, 1:01am,
In most situations, affairs are not about getting out of a relationship, they are about what is wrong with the one we are in
There are many reasons why couples cheat, says Janet Reibstein, a visiting professor of psychology at the University of Exeter: boredom, opportunity, growing apart. But in most situations, affairs are not about getting out of a relationship, they are about what is wrong with the one we are in.
“People usually have affairs to cope with a marriage rather than end it,” says Reibstein, the author of one of the few academic studies into infidelity. “They feel disappointed by a marriage and have become estranged from the person they wanted to love and honour.” The massive expectations we put on modern relationships — that they should deliver a soulmate, a great lover, intimacy and companionship, piles on the pressure and risks dissatisfaction, she says. Add the day-to-day mundaneness of raising children — and suddenly the colleague, the fellow parent at the gate, the stranger on Facebook, seems like a welcome escape.
So can couples recover from an affair? If they want to, says Reibstein, but it isn’t easy: “Affairs are devastating to relationships. The betrayal of trust is a major wound and healing will take a long time and usually require outside professional help — together.”
First, she says, if you have been the unfaithful one, you need to convince your partner that the affair has ended. You must lose all contact with your other partner and the temptation they represent. Second, you have to be prepared for how long it will take your partner to heal. “This isn’t going to be a short recovery — you just saying: ‘I’m sorry’. You have to show you understand the injury you have caused and that you are prepared to really appreciate how your partner feels.”
The veteran couples’ counsellor Phillip Hodson says that the majority of couples who come to him after an affair do stay together, but only if they are fully prepared to acknowledge the emotional damage.
“If they try to sweep it under the carpet, it won’t work.” After an affair, couples have to start from scratch and acknowledge they have a new kind of relationship, he says. The person who has cheated will have to constantly demonstrate their respect and loyalty to their partner. “The way I put it is this: you have nothing in the bank, you have to start making deposits all over again.”
Recovery can be a very long process says Jean-Claude Chalmet, a family counsellor and psychotherapist: “It may take two or three years to regain trust. This can be very hard on the partner who has committed the affair because they are under lot of scrutiny.”
That healing process will also be affected by how the affair was discovered, he says. “There may be marginally less pain if someone confesses to an affair than if they are found out. It demonstrates a degree of honesty. But there is a big difference between confessing while the affair is still going on because you have been found out by a third party, and confessing afterwards because you want to be honest.”
The circumstances of the affair may affect that reconciliation, too, he says. “All affairs are breaches of trust and betrayal, but for a lot of women it can be much easier to forgive a shag at a Christmas party than a long-standing affair. For men it more often seems to make little difference. In general men find it harder to get over the idea that their partner has had sex with someone else.”
Chalmet says men and women also interpret the meaning of an affair differently. “If a man has an affair and he is found out he may say that it didn’t mean anything. It was just a bit of fun, it was just sex. But, for women, the act of sex tends to be coupled with emotional intimacy. So they know the affair has had longer-term implications that they will need to address if the relationship is to survive.”
Men and women also have different approaches to reconciliation. “Women tend to be more threatened by the break-up and destabilisation of a family unit, whereas for many men I see, an affair will be about how it has affected their ego. Either they will want to fight to get their woman back or they will simply want to move away. Women tend to be more open to discussing and working out how to find a way through it,” says Chalmet.
Indeed, if a marriage is to survive in the long term after an affair, couples not only have to re-establish trust but go back to fix what caused the affair, says Reibstein. In many cases she says this is because couples stopped spending quality time together: “My research found that happy couples are the ones who make a huge effort to make time for each other. They always have a night when they go out, just the two of them. They talk and listen to each other every day. They close the doors at night and keep their kids out of the bedroom.”
Another common reason people have affairs is when they and their partner become unable to resolve conflicts. “Finding a way to listen to each other and resolve conflicts is vital for the longevity of a relationship,” says Reibstein.
Couples who do manage to get past an affair may find their relationship stronger. Chalmet says: “If you have made it through an affair there can be a greater understanding and a greater connection. The more that people are able to understand and meet the expectations of their partner the more likely they will be to stay together.”