Affairs are often the source of a good story – Hollywood romanticises them, the media publicises them, and communities gossip about them. But affairs can have a long lasting and ultimately devastating affect on a relationship, as well the individuals involved.
So how do we define what an affair actually is?
In a nutshell – an affair is the breaking of a couple’s understanding and agreement on their emotional and sexual exclusivity.
Where the topic becomes murky lies in the differing opinion each partner may have about what constitutes acceptable behaviour within the relationship.
Couples often do not discuss what “cheating” means to them and assume their partner has the same level of understanding, but this isn’t always the case.
The three most common types of affairs that I see in therapy include:
- Sexual – viewed by many as the only type of affair, it is characterised by sexual intimacy with someone outside of the primary relationship and conducted in secret.
- Emotional – this relationship mimics the closeness of an intimate couple without any of the sexual or physical intimacy of the primary relationship, but it can be just as devastating for the betrayed partner as a sexual affair.
- Online – an online affair involves intimate chat sessions and sexually stimulating conversation with someone outside of the primary relationship. In some cases, it can also be considered an emotional affair.
The precise moment an affair begins is often not clear-cut.
Aside from “accidental encounters” where one person in the relationship may take advantage of a “safe” proposition (think massage parlour, business trip or office party), affairs usually happen over time, as the boundaries of appropriate behaviour are slowly crossed.
The best way to know when the affair began is to look back at the beginning of the deceptive behaviour, when the person having the affair started hiding, lying or omitting the truth.
The reasons people have affairs are many and varied.
Some of the more common motivators include:
- The inability to develop intimacy in the relationship
- Problems committing
- Lack of passion
- Inability to resolve conflict
- Changes in life cycles
- Valuing excitement and pleasure over faithfulness, loyalty and trust.
No matter the reason for the affair, it is important for the betrayed partner to understand that it is not their fault. Issues in the relationship may have contributed to the unfaithful partner’s decision to stray, but they must be held solely accountable for their own actions.
When all is said and done, it is the relationship that suffers the most. Trust is weakened and the solidarity or “we-ness” of the relationship is de-stabilised. The betrayed partner’s faith in loyalty and love is shattered, often permanently.
But as world-renowned relationship expert Esther Perel puts it, “It isn’t always our partner that we are turning away from, but the person that we have ourselves become. And it isn’t so much that we’re looking for another person, as much as we are looking for another self.”
Working through infidelity can be an extremely difficult process for both parties, but it is possible to get through it with the relationship not only intact, but even stronger than before.
Accountability is key when working towards forgiveness, as the couple focuses on rebuilding trust, humility and eventually, hope.