With so much in the news about infidelity due to the Ashley Madison social media leak it seems timely to explore the topic from a counselling perspective.
On my Twitter and Facebook I have posted the Ted Talk by Esther Perel given March 2015 in Vancouver. She does an excellent job looking at the multiple realities of infidelity in our age. We place so much value and expectation on our long-term relationship partners that this type of violation can be very traumatic, as our very sense of oneself and the meaning of this relationship is seriously challenged.
Janis Spring has written two books about infidelity that I recommend – After the Affair, and How Can I Forgive You. I am always touched by her statement that forgiveness is “a hard-won transaction, an intimate dance between two people bound together by an interpersonal violation”. Forgiveness gives a voice to injustice and helps us make peace with the person who hurt us and with ourselves.
Both the person who had the affair and the person they have impacted have important roles to play. The affair partner must show genuine remorse and recognition of the hurt to his/her partner. The hurt party has to understand the context and needs of both of them.
A major effect of an affair is loss of trust. Both parties have the task of earning and granting trust again – but only when there is commitment to changed behaviour and created safety.
When an affair is discovered all our attachment alarm bells go wild. This part of our brain is not connected to reason: when there is a perceived and actual relationship threat we go into a stress response that is beyond our conscious control. The hurt party can oscillate between distancing and fighting (flight or fight) and can sometimes feel so overwhelmed they shut down (freeze). The person who had the affair is often confused by this and wants the hurt party to “get over it, I said I’m sorry so let’s move on.” Regretfully recovery takes time and can look really messy.
The alarm bells can’t stop ringing if the danger is still present. Ending the affair is the only way to preserve the original relationship – a house cannot be divided if it is to be whole again. . Some injured partners want to be part of that process to be reassured of this act of restitution. Most find it helpful to be told if the other affair partner attempts to contact after and what was done to reaffirm no contact.
As many affairs start at work ensuring no contact can be complicated. Changing schedules, offices or departments when possible is helpful. When friends or neighbours are involved an ethic of care for the other family members is important – but not at too high a price for the hurt party. Thoughtful planning together helps chart a navigable route through these landmines.
So how can couples recover together? First, honour the full sweep of emotions and grieving for what has been lost for both parties. Second, seek to understand the meaning of the discovery to the hurt partner and the personal struggles of the affair seeker that led to the affair. These counsellor guided conversations take time and repetition until safety and trust can be re-established. With time and effort a new, possibly better relationship is created or an unworkable one dissolves.
In a future blog I will write about emotional infidelity – which can also damage a relationship.