Written by: Mayte Parada MSc(A), PhD
You’re in a relationship and your worst nightmare has come true, your partner has been unfaithful. What does this mean for your relationship? All you feel now is devastation, hurt, anger, betrayal, and deceit. Your family and friends tell you to end the relationship, “once a cheater, always a cheater”. Deep down you still love your partner and the thought of ending the relationship leaves you feeling scared and alone. On the other hand, the shame you’ll feel in staying with your partner after everyone finding out about the affair is also difficult to bear. What do you do? First, know that these feelings and experiences are very common, that you are not alone, and that an affair does not always have to signify the end of a relationship.
Esther Perel, Psychotherapist, Relationship Expert, and author of several books on love, relationships, and infidelity has been working with couples who’ve experienced infidelity for over 10 years. With her expertise she has helped to shed light on why people have affairs, the impact that affairs can have on a relationship, and the ways in which couples deal with the aftermath of affairs. Surprisingly, something that is so universal is talked about so infrequently and is very poorly understood. Still, Perel points out in her 2015 TED talk titled, Rethinking Infidelity…a talk for anyone who has ever loved, that society seems to have agreed that affairs are bad and that it means the relationship is over.
What constitutes cheating?
It is important to understand the meaning of the word affair. The definition, according to Perel, is continuously changing with the use of texting, online dating, online porn etc.
Infidelity is comprised of 3 key elements:
- A secretive relationship (which is the core structure of an affair)
- An emotional connection to one degree or another
- A sexual alchemy or chemistry (a simple kiss can be as powerful and as enchanting as hours of lovemaking)
Our expectations of marriage have significant weight.
It is important to take into consideration the weight of the expectations we place upon our partners and the difficulty we have to maintain the status quo. Whereas in the distant past marriage was about securing economic stability, today marriage includes love and our partners represent everything we should ever want; the best lover, our best friend, our confidant, the best parent, and emotional companion. Therefore, when partners cheat, it is a not only a threat to our economic stability, it is a psychological trauma that seems impossible to get over.
Esther Perel begs the question that if divorce is so accessible, why do people still cheat? Further, why do happy people still cheat? This is evidence that cheating does not simply mean someone wants out of a relationship. It is known that the majority of people who have affairs are NOT chronic cheaters. Often, they are people who are deeply monogamous in their beliefs, at least for their partner. These people however, find themselves in conflict with those beliefs and their behaviour when they cross the line into infidelity.
What does having an affair mean?
It is important to know that affairs are an act of betrayal but they can also be expressions of longing and loss. At the heart of an affair you will often find a yearning for connection, for novelty, for freedom, for autonomy, for sexual intensity, a wish to recapture a lost part of oneself or an attempt to bring back vitality that has been lost. When we begin to understand the motivating factors behind affairs we can then start to assess our relationships and see beyond the betrayal. Keep in mind, these are not excuses for affairs but they are reasons that explain how some people find themselves crossing a boundary that they never expected to cross.
How do we heal from an affair?
Perel believes that although betrayal from an affair runs very deep, the wound can be healed. If the relationship was already dying an affair may mean the final straw. For others, it can mean new possibilities of turning a crisis into an opportunity and for both partners to claim more from the relationship and from each other.
- Couples therapy can allow a couple to explore the relationship after an affair and move on from simply feeling betrayed or guilty. It can be an opportunity to have deeper conversations, deeper than any conversation a couple has ever had before. Healing will begin when the cheating partner acknowledges their wrongdoing. Ending the affair is a start, however expressing remorse for hurting their partner is another.
- The cheating partner also needs to be able to talk and bring up the affair in conversation to prevent the other partner from feeling as though it has been forgotten. They need to be the protector of the relationship, according to Perel.
- The partner who was cheated on needs to avoid asking questions about details that will only serve to deepen the hurt. For example, “Where were you?, Where did you do it?, and, Were they better than me?”. Instead ask questions like, “What did the affair mean to you?, What were you able to express that you felt you could not do with me?, What is it about us that you value?”.
Esther Perel believes that an affair can redefine a couple, and the couple will define what the legacy of the affair will be for them. Good can come out of an affair as difficult as that might seem. In therapy it will be critical to explore what the affair meant for one partner and what it did to the other. The couple can choose to use the opportunity to recreate their marriage together.
- Rethinking Infidelity: TED Talk by Esther Perel https://www.ted.com/talks/esther_perel_rethinking_infidelity_a_talk_for_anyone_who_has_ever_loved?language=en#t-1278790
- Perel, E. (2017). The state of affairs: Rethinking infidelity-A book for anyone who has ever loved. Hachette UK. https://www.amazon.ca/State-Affairs-Rethinking-Infidelity-ebook/dp/B01N5PY4ZN/ref=sr_1_2?keywords=esther+perel&qid=1562696665&s=gateway&sr=8-2