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Affairs – The elephant in the room

An affair is a damaging crisis for many relationships.

Understanding the often unvoiced problems the relationship was facing in the months or years prior can be important in rebuilding, or moving on from, a damaged relationship.

There are a range of expectations that could be considered normal in a close relationship. Among these are that there is safety, that your partner will be there for you when you need them, that you can show a degree of vulnerability and be accepted, and that you can trust them. These will vary in degree with each particular couple.

When one partner makes the choice to have an affair [or expresses an attraction for another person] those expectations of safety and certainty are threatened.

An affair could be seen as a dramatic, although often damaging, attempt to shake up the status quo of the relationship. Feelings of betrayal, hurt, rejection, anger, confusion, shame, depression, and anxiety are normal.

Acknowledging and working through these feelings can be an important part of the healing process for both parties in the relationship. In moving on from an affair it can be important to understand that in many cases an affair is a symptom of a relationship that had not been working well in some important areas.

There are perhaps 3 types of response to the relationship crisis:

  1. In the long term, perhaps the least helpful solution is to sweep the issue under the carpet as if nothing has happened. Whilst tempting in an attempt to get back to ‘normal’, the risk is that none of the underlying issues have been addressed and they are likely to continue to simmer beneath the surface. The relationship is unlikely to grow to its full potential.
  2. The person having the affair has already ‘left’ the relationship. Attempts at repair may be fruitless. However, an important process can be entered into between you and your partner in the hope that some understanding of each other’s views and feelings can be acknowledged and a reasonable ‘finishing’ to the relationship achieved.
  3. If this process is carried out successfully, then each of you will have been able to make some progress in acknowledging and working through feelings such as grief, sadness, regret, guilt, and anger. This will enable you both to have more understanding of yourselves, as an individual and in relationship, and to be more informed in the future choices you make.

  4. In the 3rd scenario, despite the affair, there remains a level of commitment between you both, and however faint, there is a degree of hope for the future.

With this underlying commitment and using the positive aspects of your shared history you can, perhaps together and/or individually, explore with honesty the wide range of thoughts and feelings you both have.

This is not an easy path, and could be likened to ‘peeling back the layers’ of each others fear and vulnerability. If this is managed with care, and if some generosity of spirit can be found, this can lead to a reworking of aspects of the relationship and to increased levels of honesty and intimacy.

Making use of a skilled therapist or couple counsellor can be invaluable. They will be neutral and ‘outside the loop’ and can attend carefully to all the thoughts and feelings expressed. The intention is not to return to the ‘old’ relationship but to be able to move forward with increased awareness and understanding, and optimism for the future.

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