An Affair to Remember: What Happens in Couples After Someone Cheats (Part Three)

We’ve already looked at two types of couples that, for better or worse, remain together after affairs, but for some partners, the affair becomes a transformational experience and catalyst for renewal and change. This outcome illustrates that therapy has the potential to help couples reinvent their marriage by mining the resilience and resourcefulness each partner brings to the table.

The Explorers

“The affair was a shock that forced us to get unstuck,” was Julian’s unequivocal response in an interview five years after I’d seen him and his wife, Claire, in couples therapy. “I agree that our relationship is now much better than it ever was,” said Claire as she turned to Julian and added, “but I still think that you acted like a jerk. You didn’t need to cheat on me to make the point that our marriage was in trouble.” While they still disagree on the way Julian delivered his “message,” they agree his affair transformed their marriage.

Claire found out about Julian’s affair through accidentally discovering e-mail messages. Deeply jolted, she sought individual therapy and reached out to her friends. But along with giving her support, they asked her to see that, while Julian had betrayed her trust, she herself had–as she later put it–“betrayed my vows.” Knowing that Claire didn’t want to lose the man she loved, her friends encouraged her to fight for him. So she reached out to him, and they talked with each other as they hadn’t done in years, sharing feelings and thoughts that had long been tucked away. As the conversations evolved and they began to narrow the distance between them, they felt awakened into a new experience of connection, in which they felt both great pain and excitement, as they never had before.

When couples like Julian and Claire begin to find their way back to each other, there’s often a combustive rekindling of desire, a mix of anxiety and lust, which many couples are shy to admit. In this emotional maelstrom, couples swing between starkly opposing feelings: one minute it’s “Fuck you”; the next minute it’s “Fuck me.” Then it’s “Get out of here!” Followed by “Don’t ever leave me!” Throughout this drama, Claire and Julian managed to sustain these swings without either one marching off to a divorce lawyer. Being able to express and accept such a wide range of feelings without demanding a premature “closure” made them good candidates for a positive resolution. Tolerance for ambiguity and uncertainty is vital to discovering a space from which a more creative and robust relationship can emerge.

In my joint work with Julian and Claire, I did something that some therapists might consider risky: I suggested she invite Julian to talk about his experience with infidelity. Paradoxically, I’ve found that this type of openness about one’s affair, rather than being destructive and painful, can be a deeply affecting demonstration of loyalty to the spouse. Telling one’s partner, “Okay, I’ll show you who I am. This is what happened, and this is how I felt about it” can be a way of saying “I love you and never really wanted to leave you; I want to tell you this because you’re so important to me.” Indeed, Claire found that having Julian talk about his intimacy with another woman was itself an expression of intimacy with her–increasing their bond with each other.

Sometimes the crisis of infidelity helps couples make a crucial distinction, one between a relationship based on exclusiveness and one grounded in the uniqueness of their connection. Exclusivity depends on establishing rigid boundaries: the emphasis is on “not permitting,” “restricting,” “not sharing with others.” Before the affair, Claire and Julian had increasingly based their relationship on this kind of external framework to set them apart as a couple. In contrast, through our work together, they learned to value what was distinctive about the meaning they held for each other, with the emphasis on why they “chose to be with each other” rather than what was “forbidden with someone else.” Ultimately, this enhanced sense of “us” is the most powerful analgesic for relationships at the edge, soothing the pain and promising a prospect of renewal.

Couples like Julian and Claire manage to turn the turmoil of an affair into an enlarging emotional journey. Each one takes appropriate responsibility for the deterioration of the relationship, focusing not only on mending the breach produced by the affair, but on rebuilding the emotional foundation of the marriage. Such couples tend to identify the affair as one event–but not the definitive event–in their history together. Rather than seeing the affair purely as an act of failure and betrayal, they transform it into a catalyst for change, an inspiration for a rebirth of connection.

All kinds of unexpected discoveries can come out of the crisis of infidelity. Claire, having had to reconnect with her own resources to weather the storm with Julian, experienced a new sense of self-reliance and a new willingness to take the initiative. As she learned how to express her sexual yearnings, Julian was surprised to find a partner with a strength and enthusiasm he’d never encountered before. At the same time, no longer the lone decision-maker in the marriage, he found himself missing the ability to make decisions for the two of them. While richer and more interesting, the relationship felt less secure to both of them. “I’m not sure at all where this is going to take us, but dull it certainly isn’t,” Julian said.

Reinventing the Self

Couples who can successfully recover from an infidelity often display a significant shift in language: From “you” and “me” to “our,” from “when you did this to me” to “this was an event in our life.” They talk about “When we had our crisis,” recounting a shared experience. Now they’re joint scriptwriters, sharing credit for the grand production of their life together.

Couples who think in absolutes are less able to integrate the infidelity into the new substance of their marriage and likelier to get stuck in the past. For them, the affair is entirely bad and destructive, a transgression against commitment and morality. Complete remorse, followed by dramatic confession, unqualified promises of “never again,” unconditional forgiveness, and categorical absolution are the only acceptable outcomes. But things are more fluid for those who see an affair as an event that, no matter how painful, may contain the seeds of something positive. Such couples understand that forgiveness doesn’t happen all at once, and they feel OK with partial forgiveness. To be sure, after betrayal, trust isn’t likely to be total. When declarations like “How can I ever trust you again?” are made by such couples, I often interject, “Well it depends. Trust for what?”

Above all, what sets apart couples who use therapy to turn an infidelity into a transformative experience is that they come to recognize that therapy doesn’t provide clear-cut answers, but a nonjudgmental forum in which to discuss their ideas of betrayal, both sexual and emotional. They discover that such discussions can become the basis for their new relationship. While by no means giving up on the idea of commitment, they learn to redefine it in a way that will prevent the recurrence of secret affairs and betrayals. For them, monogamy means mutual emotional loyalty, fidelity, and commitment in a primary relationship, even if, for some, it doesn’t necessarily mean sexual exclusiveness.

They find out that infidelity doesn’t necessarily point to flaws in the relationship. Such partners see the affair as less a statement about the marriage than a statement about themselves. When we seek the gaze of another, it isn’t always our partner we’re turning away from, but the person we ourselves have become. We’re seeking not another partner, but another self. Couples who reinvent themselves can bring this other self into their existing relationship.

People stray for many reasons–tainted love, revenge, unfulfilled longings, and plain old lust. At times, an affair is a quest for intensity, a rebellion against the confines of matrimony. An illicit liaison can be catastrophic, but it can also be liberating, a source of strength, a healing. And frequently it’s all these things at once.

Some affairs are acts of resistance; others happen when we offer no resistance at all. Straying can sound an alarm for the marriage, signaling an urgent need to pay attention to what ails it. Or it can be the death knell that follows a relationship’s last gasping breath. I tell my patients that most of us in the West today will have two or three marriages or committed relationships in our lifetime. For those daring enough to try, they may find themselves having all of them with the same person. An affair may spell the end of a first marriage, as well as the beginning of a new one.


Meet MoSex blog contributor Esther Perel:

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.

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.

The Survivors

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.

Meet MoSex blog contributor Esther Perel:
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.

Swing Clubs And Breakups, Father-Daughter Sex, & How To Have Safe Double Penetration

Have a question for me?  Email: AdviceFromMsM@gmail.com

Be sure to follow me, Ms. M. on Facialbook and Twitter my clitter!

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Dear Ms. M,

I’m trying to get over a vicious breakup with my boyfriend. Should I go to a swinger club and have a random hookup/threesome? It’s something I’ve fantasized about and they say the best way to get over someone…

-Miss Hurt and Horny

Dear Miss Hurt and Horny,

Are you doing this threesome swinger club thing in the least bit out of spite? If so, I wouldn’t do it. Do you think this vicious breakup is a part of the on-and-off cycle, or is it over for good … for sure? If it could possibly be back on, I wouldn’t do it.

There are definitely situations where getting under someone is the start to getting over someone else, or as the band Peaches puts it, “F*ck the pain away.” However, I can tell you from personal experience, not all fantasies turn out the way we expect or imagine.

You could luck out and meet hot couples at the swing club, but that is so not typical. Chances are, the expectations of what you’ve imagined won’t be met, and you’ll find yourself feeling a void the next day, one that may only seem to be refilled by that vicious ex-boyfriend you should totally steer clear of. But then again, slim chance you might get lucky. It’s a gamble.

I’d advise to experiment and act out fantasies because you’re ready – not reactionary. Be patient and premeditate ways for a more favorable outcome. See if there are any private exclusive swing parties that screen people first. You could also post a few adds on hook-up websites, initiate conversations to gauge compatibility, and then meet for a drink in public before committing to anything. In other words, do your homework. It’s better to wait for the odds of a good experience than having a bad one. Just going out and doing it when you’re emotionally vulnerable will likely leave you more emotionally vulnerable the next day.

In the meantime, jam-pack your schedule to stay busy and forget this f*cker! There are so many other fun crazy things you can do to expel your angst and energy (like peeing in a taxi). Use your imagination … just don’t get arrested.

At the end of the day, you know yourself better than I do. If you think you’re ready to jump into that threesome at a swing club (for you and not out of spite), then do it. Just be aware, be safe, and don’t knock it if it doesn’t go well the first time you try it.

Best of Luck,

Ms. M.

P.S.  Here’s the above referenced Peaches song, F*ck the Pain Away.  Dancing releases feel-good endorphins that will boost your spirits.  Get to dancing!

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Hello Ms. M.,

I know this is going to sound really awful but I need your help. I was 14 when my adoptive mother died. After her death, my adoptive father and I began a sexual relationship. I think it was how we both dealt with it. He took my virginity when I was 15 and the relationship has since continued. I’m now 24. I have struggled with the morality of it for many years, but we aren’t technically blood related. I don’t have romantic feelings for my dad, just sexual. Two and a half months ago I started dating a super great guy. I’m pretty sure I’m falling in love with him. I’m scared I will devastate my father if I end our sexual relationship or if he even knows I have a boyfriend. Help.

-Confused

Dear Confused,

You refer to him as “father” and “dad” in your email, so that trumps whether or not you’re related by blood. Adopted or not, it was extremely wrong of your father to do that to you and rob you of your innocence and your own self-discovery. Now you’re grown and left in a very painful and unfair predicament.

While your father may have left a deep imprint on your sexuality and feminine identity – in addition to taking advantage of you – you’re a grown woman now. It’s time to take responsibility for your own choices and your own life. If your father were any other f*ck buddy you didn’t have romantic feelings for, and then you started falling in love with someone else, I would advise you to end it with the f*ck buddy. 

You MUST end this relationship with your father. Sure it might hurt him and it might even be painful for you, but you will never be able to have a happy healthy relationship with any other man (or yourself for that matter) until you end this one. MAKE THE BREAK! It’s time to move forward with your life. Keep in mind you’re going to go through a healing and learning process once you’ve ended it, probably re-processing all that has happened to you.  Have patience and be compassionate toward yourself. Find a good therapist to help you through the process. Remember, the right thing to do is usually not the easiest. My thoughts and love are with you.

Love Always,

Ms. M.

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Ms. M.,

I’m gay and recently started hooking up with a hot couple.  They are both tops for the most part so I take turns with them and love all the action I’m getting.  They have been together several years so they don’t use condoms with each other but I still require that they do when they’re with me.  I’ve always had a fantasy of being double penetrated and we’ve talked about it.  They proposed both wearing the same condom to do it butt I’m afraid it will break.  Suggestions?

-Bottomless

P.S. I love all the gay friendly stuff you post!

Dearest Bottomless,

Thank you, Darling!  Five gold stars for being so adamant about using condoms!  Try a much bigger female condom for the both of them.  That should hopefully solve the problem. 

Best,

Ms. M.

 

Have a question for Ms. M.?  Email: AdviceFromMsM@gmail.com.

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