Affairs and betrayals
Affairs and betrayals can severely strain any relationship. They break the bond of trust and often trigger a complex web of emotions for the individual who has been betrayed. As a result, betrayal - whether it's an affair, financial secrets, threats to leave, gambling or even drug/alcohol abuse - can greatly affect the health, well-being and overall quality of life for everyone involved.
An affair or betrayal is a relational issue and there may be many reasons as to why they occur. Often they are the symptom of longer-term problems. For example, the person who committed the betrayal may have made previous attempts to resolve underlying issues that have snowballed over time.
Although many people choose to end their relationship following the discovery of an affair or a betrayal, a great number will want to work things through. A betrayal may deeply shake the foundations of a relationship, but it can paradoxically make it stronger - especially if there is an attempt to rebuild trust and communication, and deal with the relationship problems that may have led to the betrayal.
Relationship counselling provides a framework in which individuals can work through hurt and trust issues in order to recover intimacy and goodwill. This page will explore counselling for affairs and betrayals in more depth, as well as the reasons why people betray others and the impact this can have.
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Why do affairs and betrayals happen?
The reasons why people have affairs and betray others vary, and will depend on the personal circumstances and individual needs of those involved. There does however tend to be two main reasons why people commit infidelity or betray someone close to them.
To save the relationship
Sometimes people will have an affair or betray someone close to them in the hope that it will solve a problem that for some reason could not be met in the relationship. They will look outside of the relationship to find the "missing part of the jigsaw" which allows them to function within their relationship. This may be the case if their partner is no longer able to meet their needs as a result of a personal issue. For example, some relationships may come under strain if one individual has an illness such as depression - which can take its toll on the sufferer as well as their loved ones. Thus an act of betrayal may be an unconscious attempt to get away from relationship problems that may have occurred as a result of the illness. Alternatively, the person who committed the betrayal may themselves have depression or a similar condition, which can cause people to think and behave in ways they wouldn't naturally.
Emotional dissatisfaction is another common factor, and many will betray their loved one to seek lost admiration, validation, connection and intimacy. This may be why some affairs begin around the birth of the first child or during another major life change. A betrayal can also be an attempt to regain a position of power in a relationship following an unhappy or difficult circumstance. Anger and loss can be temporarily dispersed through an affair – with little thought of the long-term consequences.
To end the relationship
Another reason why people betray others is to bring the relationship to a close. Problems that have gradually snowballed may lead to a relationship breakdown that neither party wants to officially end - often due to a fear of being alone if. Infidelity or betrayal, therefore may seem like a much simpler way out of the relationship.
In other cases, affairs and betrayals may be a means to seek pleasure, opportunity and excitement. Sometimes people will have an affair, or betray someone close to them as a means to boost their self-esteem and social recognition. In these circumstances, the perpetrator is usually putting their own personal gratification before their relationship's, and the needs of those close to them. An affair or betrayal could simply be their way of escaping a relationship without having to take responsibility for the consequences.
Discovering an affair or betrayal
The discovery of an affair or betrayal can be very upsetting and life changing. There is a profound break in trust and the intensity emotions that follows can be similar to those experienced following the death of a loved-one.
Grief is a common response; grief over the loss of the relationship as it was known and grief over the loss of trust that had existed. There may even be sadness over a loss of expectation. This is because betrayal means a loss of security, loss of respect and above all, the loss of the 'perfect relationship' ideal.
The discovery of a betrayal or affair can trigger the onset of many questions, particularly for the person who has been betrayed. They may feel great confusion and uncertainty regarding the relationship, the person they thought they could trust, and themselves. A betrayal can make people feel like their entire view of the world is false, and that their judgement of people is completely wrong. As a result, they may be second-guessing every aspect of life.
The discovery of betrayal can lead to the following questions:
- "How could they do this to me?"
- "Why did they do it?"
- "What else have they lied about?"
- "Why is this happening to me? What did I do/not do?"
- "How can I ever trust him/her again?"
- "Can we recover from this?"
- "Should I walk away from this relationship?"
- "Was there something wrong in our relationship?"
- "Why do I feel so hurt and stupid for this happening?"
As for the person who committed the affair or betrayal, they too may be feeling extremely confused, distressed and guilty over the discovery of their wrongdoing - especially if they did not intend to hurt the other person. They may be wondering:
- "How has it come to this? Do we need help?"
- "Will he/she ever get over the betrayal?"
- "I want to save the relationship but he/she doesn't trust me."
- "I feel bad about the betrayal and I've said sorry, but he/she keeps going on about it."
- "It sounds stupid but I don't know why I had the affair/committed the betrayal."
- "How can we get through this?"
Relationship counselling provides a suitable setting in which individuals can work through these questions. This is an important step in learning to process what happened and can help foster acceptance and understanding of the situation.
Flight or fight response
Mixed emotions of anger, resentment, blame, shock and bewilderment can lead to a number of knee-jerk responses such as filing for divorce and blocking all contact with the person who committed the betrayal. These are typical flight or fight reactions - ways in which our body naturally responds to stressful and threatening situations - and tend to be triggered by a need to escape and defend ourselves when life gets hard. The loss of certainty and predictability that can follow a relationship betrayal will also contribute, as will a strong urge to run away from the situation rather than face up to it.
For many, finding out someone they valued and trusted has betrayed them can make them feel like their world has been turned upside down. Disorientation, dizziness, nausea and out of body sensations characterise this emotional vertigo, which is often a result of shock combined with the inability to accept the reality of the situation. Clinging on to denial and disbelief can be unhelpful, and confronting the issue tends to be more important if there is to be any chance of healing.
Effects of affairs and betrayals
Following the discovery of an affair or betrayal - and the emotional turmoil this can bring - those who have been betrayed may find themselves preoccupied with ways in which they can immediately deal with the situation and make the pain disappear. Often these methods are ineffective and can lead to further problems - especially if the betrayal itself goes unresolved.
Often the first response following the discovery of a betrayal is to demand full transparency from the person who committed it. This may involve demanding full access to all communications, such as email accounts, social networking sites, phone messages and voicemails, usually in the name of re-building trust. This is an understandable reaction, but such a controlling dynamic can create further problems and hurt. It fails to address what is really going on and can be exhausting and stressful for all those involved.
Wanting to know the details
It is natural for people who have been betrayed to want to know all the details about what happened and why. They may feel an intense urge to reconstruct, deconstruct and analyse every aspect of the betrayal in order to learn the truth and reassure themselves that it won't happen again. Understanding what went wrong may also seem effective for gaining some control over the situation - particularly over feelings of hurt and broken trust.
There is however a great possibility that the details of a betrayal can become a weapon for further hurt and destruction. Furthermore, interrogating the person who committed the betrayal for more information may quickly develop into an unhealthy obsession. Whilst talking through the betrayal can help the individuals involved to accept what happened, generally it tends to be in the process of tuning in to painful feelings that peace can be found. Relationship counselling can be of benefit because it supports the process of feeling.
Some people who have been betrayed may desire revenge for the hurt inflicted on them. They may feel deep injustice and loss of power, and will feel a need to restore this and correct the wrongdoing. Whilst getting revenge may offer a temporary release from the pain and hurt, it will not resolve anything. Only forgiveness can truly enable this, and relationship counselling is very focused on helping individuals see this as an option.
As explained above, relationship counselling can address many aspects of an affair or betrayal, and the impact it can have on a relationship and the individuals involved. It is an important means of helping people to accept and understand a betrayal, whilst guiding them through a process of healing and growth that involves strengthening bonds, rebuilding misplaced trust and learning to communicate better.
The majority of couples who have seen their relationships rocked by a betrayal or an affair do survive it, and for many it offers a chance to become more realistic and reach a deeper understanding. Couples counselling is a reliable means for helping individuals very soon after a betrayal is discovered - especially as it can help to contain the distress and shock that typically follows. It also provides a controlled and safe environment in which individuals can:
- begin to make sense of what happened
- ask and honestly answer questions
- slowly and sensibly work through painful feelings, such as resentment and anger
- understand and grieve over the damage and hurt inflicted on the partner.
Another important aspect of couples counselling is the way it addresses any long-term underlying issues that may have led to the betrayal. This can build awareness and understanding about why the betrayal happened and what can be done in the future to prevent it from happening again. A therapist may also help to clarify the true nature of the relationship by encouraging an open exploration of its strengths and weaknesses. This may reveal unhealthy patterns such as co-dependency or emotional abuse, which will also be looked at in therapy.
What should I be looking for in a counsellor or psychotherapist?
Whilst there are no official rules and regulations in position which stipulate what level of training and experience a couples counsellor, marriage guidance counsellor or relationship counsellor needs, we do recommend that you check your therapist is experienced in the area for which you are seeking help.
A Diploma level qualification (or equivalent) in relationship counselling or a related topic will provide assurance and peace of mind that your counsellor has developed the necessary skills.
Another way to assure they have undergone specialist training is to check if they belong to a relevant professional organisation that represents couples counsellors.
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- Are there benefits of having an affair?
Gill Sanders: Psychotherapist and Couples Counsellor, COSRT: BACP: UKCP:11th October, 2017
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- Coping with an affair
Eugene Gallagher BSc (Hons), MBA, MA, MBACP12th June, 2017
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