An Affair To Remember: What Happens in Couples After Someone Cheats? (Part Two)
Last time, we looked at couples stuck in the past after extramarital affairs. Now, we explore partners who remain together and can move past the infidelity, but don’t necessarily transcend it.
Joanna had fantasized about the moment for almost two years: she’d leave her husband, Michael, move in with her lover, Eric, and be bathed in a state of bliss and sensuality that had been sorely missing from her life. Eric had showered her with affection and a sense of importance–attention she’d only ever received from her children, since Michael had excused himself from these gestures, saying he wasn’t that kind of guy. Lassitude had gradually crept into her marriage, leaving her feeling more attached to the habit of being married than to the man she’d once loved.
Joanna’s transgression was an attempt to recapture what she’d shared previously with Michael and didn’t want to live without: a sense of importance and belonging, relief from loneliness, and a feeling that life was basically good. Unfulfilled longings drive many cases of infidelity. Joanna carefully plotted her departure, but when push came to shove, she couldn’t do it.
Often people begin to see what they want to preserve at the moment that their affair is about to come out of hiding. Perhaps not surprisingly, this is also when they realize that the lover was meant to be exactly that: a lover.
“Part of me was very disappointed in myself for not being able to leave Michael, and I wondered if I was letting go of the love of my life,” Joanna recalled. “But part of me felt relief that I was going to stay and not destroy my family.” Michael alternated between panic and rage, between begging her to stay and chasing her away. “I couldn’t believe she was ready to jeopardize everything for this guy, Eric, and I felt trapped because I suspected that her reasons to stay didn’t have much to do with me. It was more about what we had than about who I was.”
At the core of Joanna’s predicament is a conflict of values, inherent in the affair itself, not just in its resolution. When people talk about their fears, often they’re really pondering their values. For Joanna and others in her place, lying and deceiving are more agonizing than thrilling. They don’t set out to betray their partners. Sometimes, as in the case of Joanna, they’re motivated by a yearning for what they’re no longer willing to live without: passion–not in the narrow, sexual sense, but as a quest for aliveness and erotic vitality.
For these partners, sexual excitement and what they regard as self-centered desires for more romantic “fulfillment” aren’t powerful enough incentives to turn them away from the long-term rewards and vital obligations of family. They hold themselves to the premise “when you marry, you make a commitment and you must honor it.” These couples value family integrity, security, continuity, and familiarity over the rollercoaster of risky romantic love. There can be deep, enduring love and loyalty in these couples, but passion doesn’t feature prominently on the menu. However, while people’s values can remain intact, the decision to stay in the marriage can be heart-wrenching.
When I work with these couples, I always include joint and individual sessions, keeping all information from the individual sessions confidential. The purpose of solo meetings is to provide a private space in which each partner can resolve his or her individual predicament, no matter how long it takes. With these couples, the therapeutic process is one of reasoning and rational thinking, as a way to temper the turbulence of their emotions.
Couples like Joanna and Michael had carefully crafted a path for themselves in their marriage, and much of what they seek in post-affair therapy is to reclaim a sense of control. They aren’t looking for massive renovations in their relationship; they simply want to come back to the home they know and rest on a familiar pillow.
In therapy, I explore the riches of the love affair, what they found in their relationship with the “other,” and what they can take from it into their primary relationship. We draft the new amendments for their life, in the singular and plural. We weigh the pain of ending the affair and I always ask how they imagine themselves 10 years down the road.
With the betrayed person, we examine the ebbs and flows of trust, the sense of impermanence that snuck into the relationship, and their wish to return to familiarity. Therapy offers couples like Joanna and Michael a place to evaluate the fundamentals of their lives. We also address the hurt that persists even though the couple remains together.
Joanna and Michael ultimately were able to resume a life similar to the one they’d had before the crisis. “We weren’t ready to divorce over this, but we don’t see the affair as being good in any way. It was a kind of temporary insanity,” Michael sums up. Listening to them, it’s clear that they’re both relieved that they were able to pull through.
Once in a while, Michael can feel a surge of insecurity, since Joanna and Eric occasionally meet professionally, but his suspicion is intermittent and easily absorbed. He’ll inquire, “When’s the last time you met him? Does he have a new girlfriend? Do you talk about personal things?” On occasion, humor is the perfect antidote. Once, when Michael asked Joanna if she thought Eric was still interested in her, she told him, “I don’t think so, but here’s his telephone number. You can call him and ask.”
Stay with me for the third installation of this article–looking at couples who have been totally transformed by affairs.
Psychologist Esther Perel is recognized as one of the world’s most original and insightful voices on couples and sexuality across cultures. Fluent in nine languages, the Belgian native and a celebrated speaker sought around the globe for her expertise in emotional and erotic intelligence, work-life balance, cross-cultural relations, conflict resolution and identity of modern marriage and family. Her best-selling and award-winning book, Mating in Captivity: Reconciling the Erotic and the Domestic, has been translated into 24 languages. For more information about Esther, please visit: www.estherperel.com.