After the Affair…What?

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I recently gave seminars to two different groups of therapists: one in L.A., the other via webinar. The title of each was “After the affair, who owns the relationship?”

Here are some highlights of what I said.

* What is infidelity? It’s a contract violation. Sometimes that’s clear—‘we agreed we wouldn’t have sex with anyone else, and you did.’ But other times it’s much less clear, because marital contracts are notoriously brief. So I periodically hear, ‘Yes, I did internet chat, but that isn’t infidelity.’ Or ‘A happy ending to a massage isn’t an affair.’ Or ‘looking up old boyfriends on Facebook doesn’t mean I’m looking for action.’

* As a therapist, I don’t vote on whether something is infidelity, whether it’s on-line chat, masturbating to porn, or sensuous slow-dancing. If one person is in pain about the other’s behavior, they need to discuss it; getting bogged down in debating whether something is infidelity is easier—but far less productive—than discussing how each person feels.

* After the revelation of infidelity, the Betrayed often demands access to the Betrayer’s cellphone records, email passwords, etc.. I discourage this, because it doesn’t build trust, it prevents it. Trust is what you develop in the absence of information, not as a result of having information. And I’ve never seen anyone use the information gained from this monitoring in a wholesome way—it’s always to hurt someone, either self or other.

* You can’t “prevent” someone from betraying you again. They either choose to be faithful or they don’t. If they want to be unfaithful, all the monitoring in the world won’t stop them.

* I’m stunned by the number of Betrayeds who tell their kids the other parent has betrayed them. Your marital difficulties or broken heart are not your kids’ problem. No, the kids don’t “deserve” to know “what kind of person” their mom or dad is. They care about being parented, not her/his marital adventures.

The Betrayed’s desire to express his/her feelings is understandable and legitimate. On the other hand, if there’s any desire for reconciliation, expressing feelings has to be done in a way that allows for the Betrayer’s feelings and reality. Those two conflicting impulses—to express pain and to maintain respect and even empathy—are difficult to manage.

* All affairs have some sexual component. But the Betrayer should be honest—is the affair mostly about sex, or mostly about emotional adventures? A lot of affairs are about intimacy and feeling connected, honored, known, and celebrated, and the sex at the affair’s beginning is just the gateway to those other things.

* Particularly if there aren’t small children involved, I don’t automatically push for reconciliation. I’m usually the only person either party knows who’s neutral on the issue. This is often very helpful.

* Before people agree to reconcile after an affair, they should describe what relationship they each want to have. It’s rare that both people say ‘yes, I want to return to exactly the relationship we had before the affair was exposed.’ If two people discover they can’t agree on what relationship they want to have, there’s nothing to reconcile.

* When one person is considering whether to attempt reconciliation, they often want to know how this will be accomplished. But you don’t need to know that in order to decide whether to reconcile. First you have to decide you want to. Then we’ll discuss strategy.

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