Extramarital affairs are among the most powerful disruptors to marital relationships. The stories can be complex but the messages can fall into at least four categories.
First: I want out! When a partner has finally given up, lost any interest in starting over or attempting to resurrect lost feelings, they may begin devising an exit strategy. In this out-of-the-door scenario there are several options to choose from beginning with the direct approach of honestly reporting the status of the relationship to one’s partner. On the other hand, intimidated by the consequences of honest discussion another person may initiate an affair, leaving obvious clues to one’s partner, anticipating that they will discover them and initiate the termination of the marriagefor them. While neither of these possibilities are necessarily fatal to the relationship, they are among the most challenging for couples to reconcile.
Second: Listen to me! In some cases the partner who is stepping out on the marriage wants desperately to receive the attention from their partner; but, they no longer feel that they are being heard. The affair almost becomes an act of desperation for action, moving the relationship into the fast lane for change. The hope for the best is what motivates it. The fear of the worst is what keeps it secret until it is discovered. When it is discovered and they are finally confronted by their spouse there is almost a sense of relief mixed in with the grief of a broken trust and the guilt and shame over not having the courage to live honestly with their partner.
Third: I did it for our marriage! There is a logical leap that occurs when a partner actually believes an extramarital affair can help his or her marriage. It begins with one partner’s dissatisfaction with the relationship. Attempts to help it change for the better have failed and even made the relationship worse because of the vulnerability that one invites when they verbalize their discontent. Punished or snubbed by their partner, they decide that attempts to reconcile will not work, they remove this topic of discussion from the table, and they submerge into going-through-the-motions numbness. The affair opens the door to a life of excitement and intrigue on the side while they spare their partner the pressure to bend to theirdesires. Indeed, their marriage may even improve for a while as the affair continues, taking pressure off the relationship for change; but, in the end, the revelation of the affair will be explosive and potentially catastrophic to the marriage.
Fourth: “I’m in love!” No matter what may be the reason for the affair, the spouse engaged in the affair can become emotionally torn between his or her love for their spouse and the infatuation found in their newly acquired partner. This can be one of the significant magnets for the affair. Realizing they will have to choose between one or the other they prolong their agony by deciding not to decide. While straddling this fence of decisive indecision, the chances are pretty good that the illicit relationship is not encumbered with normal family pressures such as children, mortgages, credit card debt and the other usual household responsibilities and interpersonal tensions. Indeed, the false sense of unencumbered affection–that is an illusion–is hypnotic in its attraction. At the same time, their spouse is aware of their foibles and failures, good and bad traits and propensities. Add to that the full weight of maintaining a household and the daily grind of working through multi-leveled responsibilities can create a sameness that pales in comparison to the heady excitement of secret trysts and dangerous rendezvouses. ‘Falling in love’ with the illusion while ‘falling out of love’ with the one to whom they vowed fidelity forever, they finally announce: “I have fallen out of love with you. I’m in love with another person.”
If you know someone who is engaged in a ‘secret’ affair–or if you are in the midst of one yourself–there is helpful advice available to increase the probability of saving the marriage. One helpful example is an article by Joe Beam entitled “How to Confess An Affair Without Losing Your Marriage.” Living with honesty, trust and integrity are important values that contrast sharply with keeping secrets and deceiving one’s partner about something that goes to the heart of the marriage relationship.
In the end, there are many factors that can contribute to extramarital affairs. When the affair is revealed the offense can often mask the factors that led the affair until trust is restored and a shared working agreement between partners is established. Marriage and Family Therapists have been specially trained to help couples work through the issues in a constructive way.