After the Affair: Introduction

After an affair, most people expect divorce, or at least a miserable time in their relationship. No wonder they are very creative in their efforts to keep the affair hidden.

Yet when disclosure occurs, a question arises. Is it really the affair that spells the end of the relationship? Or is the affair merely a sign or symptom of the extent to which the relationship is already in trouble, the partners in pain?

When the crisis of disclosure erupts, many couples look to relationship therapy as a last resort: a final attempt to repair their damaged relationship. When they enter therapy, they often bring with them an air of futility and hopelessness that seriously limits their ability to restore their relationship. Actually, the conclusion of failure that often characterizes these couples usually predicts the outcome of therapy- separation or divorce. A commonly accepted definition of an affair is "a non-agreed upon sexual liaison outside of the primary relationship." People generally do not expect that a relationship can endure infidelity. For many, the affair is the last straw, while for others it is the first sign of any problems. The end result is the same: divorce, separation, or continued relationship misery- a form of emotional divorce. The exceptions to this pattern interest me very much.

Some couples challenge the affair -divorce sequence. Holding tenaciously to their commitment to the relationship, these couples struggle to create a partnership that is mutually satisfying.

As they adjust to the crisis precipitated by the disclosure of the affair, I have come to notice four identifiable feeling states that describe the experience of the partners as they cope with the event. These courageous persons truly turn the crisis into an opportunity. Recognizing and working with these four feeling states markedly enhances my ability to assist those couples who define the affair as a crisis in their relationship and are attempting to continue in it. Elaborating these four feeling states to professionals and non-professionals will, I sincerely hope, assist others in their efforts to overcome the painful and often devastating experience of an affair. Dealing with the emotional swamp of the aftermath of an affair may help the partners to continue the relationship or end it, constructively, resulting in less damage to themselves and their children.

The four feeling states, denial, anger, guilt, and sadness are not sequential or mutually exclusive. Although denial characterizes the beginning phase of an affair, because by definition, an affair is a secret, at various moments in the aftermath of disclosure, one or both partners may make extensive use of denial to contain the powerful feelings emerging. Moreover, a partner may experience more than one feeling state at a time. Most common, is the denial of anger. Yet, at any moment the partner may burst into rage, and then deny the feelings have anything to do with the affair. As couples do their work, each partner moves in and out, back and forth, through the various feeling states.


 Feeling State I: Denial: Energy Contained

To go on any journey, one must start from the beginning. This is no less true for the couple who are facing the affair. When I first began to follow my interest in this particular form of marital distress, however, I did not really know where to begin, or where the couple needed to begin. Because I perceived the relationship as very fragile, I would support the couple's desire to contain the powerful emotions attached to the experience of the affair. I feared that any strongly expressed negative feelings might eliminate the possibility that the relationship would survive: the stated goal of the couple. Often, the injured party would say " I’ve been through enough!". The guilty party didn’t want to rock the boat. There seemed a decided preference to discuss communication problems instead of the affair. Many had already concluded that the affair was caused by poor communication. Unconsciously, the couple had agreed to keep the lid on the frighteningly powerful feelings associated with the affair. My decision to go along with their pact made me a co-conspirator of denial.

These people may have believed their communication to be less than adequate, yet their message to each other was clear. One was guilty; the other was injured. After the affair is disclosed, and couples request help for their relationship, usually the partner having the affair is labeled the "guilty party." The other partner, then, is the "injured party." The latter, having been so deeply wronged, is allowed, and often encouraged by friends and especially relatives, to express indignant anger at such a humiliation. On the other hand, the guilty party, as a penance, must bear the weight of being the cause of the present crisis in the relationship: the anguish of the partner, the shame to the family, the suffering of the children, and inevitably, the end of the marriage itself. Such a clear definition of who is at fault reflects the equally rigid pattern of communicating about the affair. The trenches of the marital war are dug. Yet the battle is over before it begins; one side is clearly right; one side is clearly wrong. The fighting may be hot and vocal or cold and silent. No one wins such a war.

When a couple enters therapy, blocked in the expression of their feelings about the affair, or in denial of the impact of the affair, or stuck in a repetitive blame/defense cycle, it is important to challenge this barrier. Such couples represent the most common post-affair relationship. They are stuck in a repetitive pattern of blame and defense. They cannot move ahead because their reactions to the event keep them focused on the event itself rather than on each other or themselves or their feelings. "How could you do this to me?" and "I didn’t think it would become so involved!" typifies their interaction. Such couples continue to look backward and so avoid the task of sorting out what the event means in the broader and ongoing historical context of their relationship. They become fixed, as if this were the only event in their relationship. In my early work with these couples, however I did not realize the necessity to respect the powerful feelings contained in the various forms of denial and the blame cycle. Instead of encouraging and facilitating the expression of the feeling states, I would steer them in the direction of negotiating the terms of a new relationship. They did not resist such a move on my part. Most preferred to look into the future because the immediate present was too painful or potentially explosive. My tendency to encourage them to look for new options was premature. After learning to communicate clearly with "I" messages, the outcome was frequently a "polite" divorce. The assumption with which they entered therapy, that an affair means the end of the relationship, had not been challenged. Only the separation was made easier through enhanced politeness skills.

The therapist or helper may unwittingly contribute to or maintain the denial by steering the couple away from expressing the strong feelings of one or both partners. If one is worried about violence on the part of the male partner, because of previous history, then I believe that the conjoint approach to counselling is dangerous for the woman, regardless of whether she had the affair or not. As long as the power imbalance remains in the relationship, as long as there is any risk of violence to or control of the woman partner, one cannot build the relationship, without condoning the existing imbalance. One should cease or refuse to commence couple counselling and support the woman to secure safety for herself and her children.


Feeling State II: Anger: Energy Explodes

I remember one very polite couple who refused the gentle separation. They knew something I did not know about the process through which they needed to move in order to reach a new decision about their relationship.

In one extremely significant session, the partner who did not have the affair broke through his previously impenetrable barrier to the expression of anger. In deference to years of containment and his fear of jeopardising a reconciliation he dearly wanted, he exploded. Feelings of rage for what he experienced as the ultimate betrayal burst forth. At first I imagined that he had destroyed any possibility for continuing the counselling, let alone the marriage. To my surprise, however, he moved from bitter rage to tears. In his sadness, his face softened. With this shift in him I realised my error of supporting the containment of these feelings and encouraging instead a focus on the future. The change of feeling reflected in his face was also the beginning of a shift in his perception of the affair as irreversibly harmful to his marriage. He then became willing to appreciate that the occurrence of the affair could become an opportunity for enhancing relationship satisfaction. For a moment, in that session, as he traded repression for expression, he experienced the deeper satisfaction of intimacy: a satisfaction in himself, not in his picture of how his relationship should be.

This awareness was fleeting at first. His characteristic withholding of feelings soon replaced the momentary opening. With much encouragement from me and permission from his partner to express his anger he continued to penetrate the barrier to the expression of his feelings. What then occurred, interestingly enough, was that his wife, who had been reassuring, apologetic and sorry for what she had done, began to express her angry feelings. She had previously kept them to herself, believing she was not entitled to them because, after all, she was the "guilty party." She was particularly angry about her husbands earlier tendency to mask his feelings, especially anger. She resented how the withholding of these feelings robbed their relationship of vitality. She literally felt ripped off! For this couple and for myself as well the fear of unpleasant and disastrous consequences deterred the expression of strong anger. The use of " I " messages did not prove to be able to drain the seemingly limitless pool of resentment of the so-called injured party. Couples could send "I" messages session after session, week after week, with no apparent movement. In fact, most couples dropped out of counselling for reconciliation and began the process of separation.

Whether the affair is discovered or confessed the lid is taken off the secret. The couple then begin the process of adjusting to the event. What is most helpful in this, as in all other feeling states, is to encourage the most complete expression of the full range of feelings experienced by the couple in this moment of relationship and personal crisis. I mentioned above the limitation of teaching the couple to communicate using "I" messages to deal with the powerful feelings experienced during this early period of adjustment. For most "I feel angry" or " I am really sorry" do not do justice to the depth of feeling experienced by either partner in response to their partner’s behaviour. With a little encouragement, and the creation of a safe place, a more honest and energised expression of feelings will burst forth. To avoid an escalating cycle of blame, I introduce the concept of responsibility for self. Capitalising on the deeply felt desire to express one’s rage and hurt, I create certain guidelines for the couple that make it safer to let loose with their feelings. In the therapy sessions, I structure this concept behaviourally before discussing it as an abstraction.

First I ask one partner, usually but not necessarily the injured partner, to take a tennis racquet in hand and stand on one side of a chair with a large cushion on it. Then I instruct the other partner to stand opposite, out of the range of the racquet. Finally, I coach the first in expressing his anger while hitting the pillow with the racquet. I explain that the exaggeration of the feelings by hitting the pillow will help them go away. While this is often true operationally, what occurs is more like the "acting as if" breaks through the resistance to expressing the feelings as strongly as they are felt. Often the verbal expression catches up to the behavioural expression and the prop of the racquet is no longer needed. When physical violence or psychological abuse has occurred in the relationship, I do not do conjoint therapy. (Although I am comfortable with the use of the racquet, I must stress that it is not a necessary technique. The goal is to facilitate a breakthrough in any impasse in the couple’s expression of their experience of the affair. Role reversal, for example may be used just as effectively.) I ask the partner without the racquet to stand still and listen to their spouse without justifying, explaining, defending, or counter attacking whatever is said or screamed. When the first to try runs out of steam, I reverse the process, again coaching the expressor when stuck. Often the guilty party needs more encouragement because he often feels unentitled to any rage. Yet experience has taught me it is there at some level.


Feeling State III: Guilt: Energy Implodes

Anger is not the only feeling state with which a couple are blocked. Many people are uncomfortable and ashamed by their sexual attraction to persons other than their marriage partner. What I find interesting is that a person may minimise the discomfort by talking to a friend who will likely explain that it is normal to experience these feelings. Temporarily relieved, nothing more is said; this sequence may repeat itself many times. The one person with whom this attraction is not shared is the spouse. "It isn’t important enough to tell him/her" is often given as the reason. Even more common is "it will just cause an argument." I believe this to be a critical moment in the history of the couple’s relationship and in the development of the conditions necessary for an affair to occur.

The perceived necessity of keeping the attraction a secret makes it important; more accurately, the need to keep an experience secret from one’s spouse invests that experience with considerable significance. Therapists know the tremendous healing power that exists in the therapeutic relationship when the client is allowed to disclose years of deeply held secrets. Many affairs begin when two people share very openly with each other the troubles in their lives, often focusing on their marital relationships. This new, mutually solacing relationship, though, is kept secret from their respective marital partners. Then as the new friends spend more time together, the degree of secrecy swells. The most frequent explanation for it is "I didn’t want to upset my partner." After all, the relationship began as a forum for complaining about one’s partner; at the outset people do not anticipate the affair, although the fantasy may be there from the beginning. The first contact may have been an innocent and spontaneous sharing with a co-worker during a coffee break. As the participants become more practised in the art of subterfuge, they can easily contain the experience of sexual intimacy within the boundary of the affair.

The game of secrecy has its own intrinsic reward of excitement. Of course, people vary in their ability to handle their guilt feelings associated with the affair. Some claim they feel no guilt at all; so the affair continues until discovered or ended. Others feel very guilty; do they tell their partners? No! They tell their new friend, who is so willing to comfort them, sexual juices begin to flow. The guilt numbing potential of sexual intimacy is profound. Still others will eventually break down and confess to their spouse. The confession may be sloppy cover-up: a letter from the lover in a purse or briefcase. I believe any discovery is really an attempt to begin the process of recovery. A surprising number of affairs are discovered when the level of intimacy reaches the maximum comfort level of the partner caught.

There are a number of common outcomes as the couple move within the feeling states of their adjustment to the affair. First, it is not long before the partners experience a sense of satisfaction out of completing the exercises: "getting it off my chest." Many begin to recognise their life-long reluctance to be angry, say what he or she wants or to just feel. This particular discovery about self broadens the awareness of one’s reactions to the affair. The shift is from blaming the affair, and by extension one’s partner, for the total of one’s painful experience to an acknowledgement that much of the anger and hurt triggered by the event has roots in past experiences. For whatever reasons, these feelings did not get expressed completely when first experienced. Particularly when the range of affective expression expands beyond the immediacy of the affair, the couple typically begin to experience, and with support, express their pain and sadness that has been stored for years. They reach a moment of mutuality hither to unavailable in their relationship - a potential locked up with their contained anger or sadness. The couple are now moving into the fourth feeling state of adjustment to the affair.


Feeling State IV: Sadness: Energy Released

Many couples in whose relationships affairs occur, do not share with each other their pain. They may share their angry feelings or their guilt. Quite often, they feel more comfortable keeping a lid on their hurt. Any sharing that is done is to a third party, independent of the knowledge of the spouse. Common reasons are "he/she’s been through enough" or " things just got settled down, I don’t want to upset everything again." Such avoidance will also occur in therapy, so the couple needs the therapist to encourage an ongoing willingness to express their experience.

What commonly emerges for the person who had the affair and is usually withheld, is the desire for contact with the lover. Before therapy, most couples have made an agreement about contacting the third party - no contact at all! The guilty party may perceive this as a demand and then continue to see the lover in secret. Or it may seem obvious to both that there should be no more contact between the participants in the affair. If the couple are fighting over this issue when they ask for therapy, I request the partner who had the affair to choose which relationship she wants to concentrate on first. If the marriage is chosen, I request that there be no more contact with the lover for a specified period of time, usually four sessions. The time limit is helpful, if it is short, to make completing such an agreement more palatable. I stress that this agreement is with me and is simply a technique to facilitate one’s sorting out which relationship is more important. If the lover is chosen, then I invite the couple to continue therapy for divorce counselling.

When the marriage is selected as the focus and the goal is marital adjustment, it is inevitable that the partner who had the affair will experience moments of longing for her/his lover. These feelings particularly emerge when the couple begins to realise that the emotional reactions to the occurrence of the affair have connections to past experiences in their relationship and in their family of origin. One of the strongest reinforcers of continuing the affair is that one can tell many things to one’s lover that one chose not to express to one’s mate. Moreover, if a person is jeopardising their marital relationship by having an affair, the affair becomes a significant relationship, whether the person having it acknowledges feeling that way or not. When the relationship is in danger, there is no such thing as a "casual affair." The affair is significant by its consequences, if not by its level of emotional satisfaction or declared importance. By taking this position, I give one night stands as much significance as long term relationships when the consequence of either is that the married couple experiences a crisis in their relationship that lands them in therapy, the lawyer’s office or in distress.

When the partner who had the affair becomes aware of missing her/his lover, she/he tends to withhold this information, rationalising, " it will only upset him more." Building on the satisfying experience of completeness resulting from the exercise to facilitate the expression of anger, in the earlier sessions, I encourage the "innocent partner" to be willing to listen to whatever thoughts and feelings the partner has, without taking responsibility for them. By this, he understands that he doesn’t have to do anything about what she says; his role is to hear her. Within the space of this agreement, I will encourage the partner who had the affair to describe her day to day feelings of missing her lover. Not uncommonly, the other partner bursts into tears, or rage then tears. He had believed, or at least hoped, that the lover was forgotten, that the marriage had been restored. Typical comments are" How can I ever trust you again? You’re still thinking of him!" Needless to say, this is a very difficult and painful moment in therapy.

Actually, I believe many couples terminate therapy prematurely to avoid the open expression of this feeling state. Perhaps therapists also stop here. The pain of our clients may trigger our own incomplete grief reactions to relationships that have ended. Because both partners are dealing with loss, I compare their experience to the stages of grief associated with the loss of a loved one through death. The partner who had the affair mourns the loss of her lover. What isn’t obvious is the source of grief for her partner. People get married with many expectations about marriage; these may be expressed or assumed. One that is very often assumed is sexual fidelity of both actions and thoughts. Therefore the couple do not usually discuss how to deal with the occurrence of a sexual attraction to someone other than the spouse. Actually, many couples state unequivocally that any sexual wandering will result in the end of the marriage. The pre-affair stage is not discussed. When the affair occurs, the assumption of fidelity is shattered. The "injured party" looses this assumption. I believe, moreover, there is a deeper source of his grief that reflects his developmental maturity. The experience of abandonment, despair, and helplessness of the "injured party" suggests a relative incompleteness in the developmental stage of individuation. Although the child depends totally on the caregiver, an adult need not. The welfare of the child rests, to a gradually decreasing degree, on the parent figure. The adult can care for him or herself. There is not the same degree of "absoluteness" required in adult relationships.

The extent to which a partner holds on to the "myth of absolute trust" suggests a need for individual therapy. It is not uncommon that themes connected to one’s family of origin dominate the therapy at this point. The "guilty party" may identify similar issues and continue to be present for the sessions. Sometimes I will suggest individual or group therapy for the partner(s) encountering family of origin issues. The underlying goal for each partner is to reach that level of individual responsibility that he or she can listen to their partner express their grief without launching into counter-attack.


Recovery: Energy Transformed

As the partners move back and forth through the four feeling states, there is a gradual deepening of their experience of being with each other. Their range of emotional experience expands dramatically. They become more known to each other. By the time the couple have expressed their angry, guilty, and hurt feelings to each other as completely as possible and have acknowledged and begun to deal with the family of origin issues emergent in their adjustment to the affair, they have begun to experience each other in a profoundly new and deeper way. It is not uncommon to hear " I never knew you felt like this" or "I didn’t know you thought like that."

This process of discovery, about self and one’s partner really began when the affair came out in the open. As the couple experience the personal satisfaction, albeit very painful at times, that follows such discovery, the affair is transformed, in their eyes, from a crisis into an opportunity. To continue the discovery of self and other awareness, I lead the couple through various communication experiences that build a sense of responsibility for oneself and a desire to know and to share in the world of one’s partner. Included will be a request for the partner who had the affair to evaluate what she learned about herself in the relationship with her lover; what needs were met; her level of expressiveness; her likes and dislikes. The other partner is to share how he decided to withhold whatever parts of himself he kept from his partner and generally what he has learned about himself during therapy. In this way, he claims ownership for the therapy. The ordeal is reframed as a personal learning experience for him. The goal is to be as complete in one’s self-expression as possible; to tell the truth about one’s experience. Included in the recovery process is an evaluation of the therapy itself.

Initially, the couple learn about self and other; then as they look at their experience of therapy, they learn about being in a relationship. This focus brings them to a moment when they begin negotiating the type of relationship they desire. In my early work with couples, what typically resulted was a relationship contract that handled specific duties, functions, and obligations. However, as the recovery process became clearer in my understanding, I noticed a shift from outlining a relationship contract to creating a relationship map that supported the couple in expressing themselves as completely as possible. What was working in the therapy was the creation of this map as I supported the couple’s movement through what I called the four feeling states of adjustment to the affair. In all feeling states, my therapeutic goal is to allow complete expression of anger, guilt, or sadness by both partners.

When the couple presents for therapy, their secret is out in the open, but the more subtle aspects of denial need to be brought into the light. Therefore recovery requires first a growing willingness by each person to acknowledge responsibility for one’s personal experience: thoughts, feelings, and actions. If they don’t, the couple continues to be stuck, blaming each other overtly or covertly for the affair. Secondly, recovery requires a willingness for each partner to give space to the other partner’s experience, though this does not necessarily mean condoning it- such a judgement would imply taking responsibility from the partner. Thirdly, the partners need to develop a willingness to tell the truth rather than hold secrets. What can't be told gains its significance from the secrecy. Finally, they learn the importance of keeping one’s agreements. The therapy process illustrates how agreements work best when they are based on behaviour or actions, not feelings. For example, the couple agreed to keep their appointments; they did not need to agree to feel like continuing counselling. As long as they kept their word and showed up, the process continued. If they didn’t, the process broke down. The keeping of agreements obviously begins the moment the first appointment is made.

As the therapy unfolds, the map for intimacy unfolds. Every couple has their unique experience that contours the process of creating their relationship map. Each couple, even each partner within the couple, has his or her map to follow. As a therapist, or other helper, I believe that if we facilitate the expression of the four feeling states we will enable the couple to create their own map for intimacy. What I list below is my representation, or map, for creating intimacy in relationships.

  1. Willingness to claim responsibility for self( whether at the moment realised or not.
  2. Willingness to give space to one’s partner( meant both figuratively and literally), TO KNOW your partner.
  3. Willingness to tell the truth about one’s experience and be expressive, to BE KNOWN.
  4. Willingness to keep one’s agreements.

The recovery process begins and continues each moment the couple follows their map for intimacy. The four feeling states are both the problem and the solution. Unrecognised and unexpressed, the feeling states represent the stuckness the couple maintains. Acknowledged and expressed, the feeling states assist the couple to create their map of intimacy. The couple transforms the crisis of the affair truly into an opportunity for both personal and relational growth.

For a graphical map of the creation of a context of relationship that maximises the possibility of deep intimacy, click here.


Keith Marlowe
Copyright 1995, Keith Marlowe