I was recently asked by a journalist to share my thoughts regarding whether we should spill the beans to someone, when we know they’re being cheated on. Those of us who value honesty above all else (and are often comfortable with conflict or even seek it out) will say “absolutely” and will do it regardless of the cost. On the other end of the spectrum those who value an easy life (and are often conflict avoidant) say “No, why stick your nose in where it doesn’t belong”. My answer to that question, like many of life’s dilemmas is, “it depends”.
Firstly let’s clarify what constitutes an affair. An affair isn’t just about a sexual indiscretion, it’s also about secrets, intimacy and the destruction of trust. I help couples who seek me out in the aftermath of an affair to co-construct it’s definition. Looking for a less pejorative way to describe each partners’ situation, I use the terms ‘affairer’ for the person who’s having/had the affair and ‘affairee’ for the partner who’s having/had it done to them. When there has been a sexual transgression it’s often pretty easy to define, but when physical intimacy hasn’t yet happened, the affairee often recognises on an emotional ‘felt-sense’ level that they’re in dangerous waters, even if the affairer flatly denies it, or worse, accuses the affairee of being over-sensitive or clingy. When we explore their behaviour more deeply, most affairers recognise on some level that they are hurting their partner. I suggest that as a general rule of thumb (and one that has helped me become more discerning in my own desire to co-construct a safe relationship), if they can’t go back to their partner and comfortably and honestly describe what they did or said, or how they were being with a third party, they can assume they are violating the implicit sense of trust that forms their relationship.
People cheat for many reasons ranging from purely opportunistic lust that means nothing (to the affairer at least), to getting a physical or emotional need met that’s not being met by their partners. Sometimes it’s just a temporary need, and often for men a physical one, when partners they love and get on well with are unavailable, maybe due to childrearing or illness. I personally believe the rate of infidelity is much higher than the 30-50% that different studies indicate, and that some relationships have actually survived because of it, especially if the affairer was discreet and managed not to become emotionally attached.
Before you wrongfully think I’m recommending it as a panacea to get through a rough patch, I’m not. Neither discretion nor emotionally indifference can be guaranteed, especially in this age of social media, so the odds are stacked against it. Firstly it’s karmically wrong and it traumatises the person in whose hands we’ve chosen to place our emotional happiness, not to mention the children who witness it. The second reason that I believe we shouldn’t cheat is one that paradoxically harms us more if we don’t get found out; it’s something we don’t even recognise is happening and it rots the relationship from the inside out. Time after time when I ask affairers who, unbeknownst to their partners have come to see me, “when your partner looks deep into your eyes and says ‘I love you’, based on what you’ve been doing can you fully receive that?” They recognise that on some level they can’t, because they feel they don’t deserve it. This subtle rejection then causes their partners to sub-consciously shut down, the often unrecognised yet insidious ‘beginning of the end’ of the relationship. Karmic retribution in action, right? At least when an affair is uncovered, the chaos and catharsis that ensues, especially if working with an experienced therapist, affords some chance to save the relationship, and for those motivated enough to work hard, a chance to co-create something truly magical.
When it comes to telling someone their partner’s having an affair, many of us like to live by the credo “do unto others as you would like done unto you”, but often we don’t take the time to really understand what situation the affairee is in. Instead we tend to assess it from our vantage point, and being with someone who lies and cheats is so unacceptable to most, that we would rather leave if that behaviour is continued. We would certainly want to know. For some though, leaving is not the preferred option. Say for example you were a mother of three children under 5 years old, and you had debilitating illness and could hardly get through the day. Would you really want to have to deal with something at this point in time that could potentially break up the family and leave you without any support? Or maybe you developed a debilitating illness later on in what was otherwise a good relationship that makes it difficult to have sex, or due to your upbringing, you were never really inclined towards physical intimacy other than for procreation. You don’t wish to work with a sex therapist to overcome it, yet there’s a lifetime of shared memories, family and finances keeping you comfortably united. Maybe there’s an implicit understanding that those needs can be met by your partner elsewhere. When you choose not to know, you are always taking a risk that your partner may fall in love with the other party. Some either live in denial of this, or decide it’s a risk worth taking.
My suggestion is, if you care for the person and you know they’d want to know, tell them. It’ll probably blow their world apart initially but the alternative of doing nothing and watching their relationship slowly rot from the inside out is worse. You can be there to support them; bring a box of Kleenex and the number of a good couples therapist. If you’re not sure they’d want to know, tell them you have a friend who’s being cheated on and you’re not sure whether or not to spill the beans to them. Say you read somewhere that not everyone wants to know, share with them whether or not you would if you were in the same situation and ask them ask if they would. At least that way you’ll get a better idea of their perspective.
If I were to guess I would say about 15-20% of relationships break up immediately after an affair for several different reasons, sometimes the affair is just the catalyst. Another 60-70% limp along for years after either not working on it, or going through the motions of working on it, until the relationship either eventually breaks down, or they stay in the lacklustre, just good enough category until ‘death do they part’. Finally about 15-20% of couples, not wanting to part and not willing to let their relationship die on the vine, hunker down, find a good guide and do the difficult and time-consuming work required to co-create something that makes both of their hearts sing.
Working through an affair requires a two-pronged approach. Firstly a thorough understanding of why it happened and a creation of a safe environment in which trust can be rebuilt, is paramount. Without a doubt the biggest indicators as to whether the couple will be able to heal after an affair are the extent to which the affairer is willing to go in order to fix it and also how constructively the afairee shares their emotions. Secondly, while only one partner ‘pulled the trigger’ by choosing to transgress rather than confront or leave, both partners need to take responsibility for their part in co-creating an environment in which the affair happened. This is a very complex process that usually requires the help of a skilled couples therapist. It can range from something as overt as critical or withholding behaviour by the affairee that drives their partner to seek solace elsewhere instead of confronting the behaviour head-on, or something as subtle and insidious as both partners failing to maintain a high level of closeness and connection after the honeymoon phase is over.
Regardless, as annihilating as it is, an affair can be healed. As a deeply pro-marriage therapist with nearly 20 years of working with couples, I can tell you there is definitely hope. From out of the devastating ashes of an affair the phoenix of an amazing relationship can arise. It’s possible for anyone, you just have to believe it’s worth it and be willing to work very hard at it.