How an affair can be a catalyst for change
Affairs are generally regarded as extremely destructive to any intimate relationship. They cause hurt, distress, anger and affect trust in a major way.
Despite this, if the affair leads to a couple seeking therapy it can actually force them to address deeper issues in the relationship.
When a couple arrives at their therapist’s office to talk about the effects of an affair there will always be extremely strong emotions expressed. The ‘victim’ partner may feel devastated, sad and very angry.
The partner who has had the affair may have more mixed feelings – there may well be guilt about the hurt caused and, possibly, remorse. But there may also be confusion about why he or she was so strongly attracted to someone outside the relationship.
The task in couple therapy is to honour all the feelings that both partners bring and to try not to occupy a moral position. We need to make a place for the hurt and anger the betrayed partner is feeling, while also exploring what caused the affair and what it might be saying about issues in the relationship.
For example, is one of the partners unconsciously angry with the other and having an affair to bring attention to their grievance?
It is not uncommon for one member of the couple to feel taken for granted – perhaps they feel their partner has become more interested in their work or the children?
The resentful partner may not be fully in touch with these difficult feelings. After all, it may feel uncomfortable to admit being angry with a mother who is extremely caring for her children or with a man putting huge energy into his career, in order to provide for his family.
But, when we are not conscious of deeper resentments, we tend to act them out through behaviour. One way of doing this is by having an affair. The affair, when it is discovered or disclosed, also has the advantage of signaling to the other partner: ‘You need to take more notice of me and my needs!’
The risk, however, is that the betrayed partner is so hurt by the affair that they do not feel they can continue in the relationship.
But if they are willing to come to couple therapy, in order to save or improve the relationship, they may find that the affair was a symptom of deeper problems in the relationship. This is not to say that the genuine pain and anger of the person betrayed should be glossed over. Those feelings need to be honoured and experienced.
But it is possible that, by sitting with the pain, something new can emerge for both partners. They may begin to recognize how each of them were dissatisfied about different aspects of the relationship.
With the help of a couples therapist these dissatisfactions can be brought into awareness and explored. The partners can be encouraged to look at whether, and in what way, both their needs can be met. This process can help create a more authentic and sustainable relationship.
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