Mark's Blog   

Dealing with Affairs

Dealing with an affair is always a painful process. The ‘injured’ party naturally wants to know why the ‘guilty’ party did what they did. They often have a pressing need to know all the details, have their many questions answered, and perhaps a desire to apportion blame. Whilst this is an understandable and for some, an unavoidable reaction, it may not be the best way to get to the heart of the matter.

An affair is rarely the cause of a relationship breakdown even if it appears that way at first; it’s generally a symptom that something has gone wrong, some time ago. An affair brings the problem out into the open when perhaps one or both partners have avoided doing so via open and honest communication, sometimes, ironically, because of fearing the possible consequences. Now those consequences have become real and appear to be posing a terminal threat to the relationship, but with courage on both sides the previously ignored problems can be identified and addressed through counselling.

It’s sometimes said that the affair turned out to be a good thing because the issues were dealt with and the relationship made stronger. Whilst the relationship may be stronger; choosing an affair as a way of opening up the channels of communication is an extremely painful, high risk strategy that consequently adds further complications, to an already difficult situation that will now take even longer to deal with. It is not to be recommended!

For many, building trust is not a conscious process in which we engage, but happens if we stay within the (probably unspoken) jointly assumed and accepted boundaries of the relationship. The components may vary from couple to couple and certain things may be more important for some than others.

If however, we have experienced problems around trust with a previous partner, it will be something we are more keenly aware of, due to fears of being hurt and let down again. Like it or not, baggage from previous relationships always travels with us.
Under normal circumstances, failure to maintain one of the chosen elements that make up our trust may cause problems for a short period, but these can normally be dealt with and our trust is restored. However, following an affair, all the aspects we require to build and maintain trust are called into question and that trust is broken in a far more significant way. Re-establishing it will take time and cannot be guaranteed.

Trust is not something we are often aware of when things are going well, but it becomes painfully obvious the instant it has gone. The feelings a partner has following the discovery of an affair (anger, shock, disbelief etc.) will not be explored here, but they are generally those experienced following a bereavement which is often the way this situation is regarded.

Establishing trust
The following are some of the characteristics we need to find in each other. Once again we may not be seeking them consciously, but they are all vital elements that we require to establish that thing called trust if we are to build a relationship that will stand the test of time.

When our partner does for the most part (we all forget things at times) what they say they are going to do or have been asked to do, we learn over a period of time that we can rely on them.

Knowing that someone will basically behave in a certain way on a daily basis to various circumstances, may not necessarily be something we initially look for in a partner or consider to be attractive, in fact we might think it boring and desire someone more spontaneous. However, if a relationship is to have any chance of success, predictability will be something we subconsciously come to rely and thrive on, even though we rarely if ever congratulate someone for displaying such behaviour. An affair is often difficult to comprehend because it appears so out of character. Predictability has now been replaced, because of our partner’s spontaneity with someone else, by its significantly less attractive counterpart, unpredictability.

Truthfulness is vital for a relationship to be successful. Once dishonesty or lying come into play, all boundaries are called into question. If a partner can lie about one thing, then why not something or even everything else as well.

Knowing that our partner will stand by us when we have perhaps let ourselves down in some other area of our lives will deepen our relationship, and hopefully give us greater confidence to confide in them when facing difficult situations in the future.

Agreeing to stick together ‘for better or for worse’ and demonstrating it when things get tough as they most certainly will at times, also helps to build trust, especially if it has been our own behaviour that has caused things to become ‘worse’. Perhaps after a period of reflection, our partner’s decision to stay committed to us and the relationship will strengthen our trust in each other.

Can trust be re-established after an affair? 
The short answer is yes if both partners genuinely want to rebuild their relationship. Following an affair, despite initially strong feelings to the contrary, it doesn’t mean that all trust is lost. It is quite likely that the “guilty party” can still be trusted to fulfil various family roles such as looking after the children, and if the relationship is to be revived it will be important to take up such opportunities, as they may provide a bridge from the past to the future. Never despise small beginnings.

There are no instant or easy solutions for re-establishing trust. It can only be rebuilt minute by minute, day by day. Although in excruciatingly short supply at the beginning of the counselling process, after a number of weeks and with the benefit of hindsight we can see the fledgling signs of it being re-established through honesty, reliability and that now so highly desirable characteristic of predictability.

See ‘After the affair’ by Julie Coles. Vermillion 1999.