Yes, You CAN Survive an Affair
Lots of people survive affairs. After all, it only feels like you’re dying. Even the marriages themselves often survive. For those who merely survive an affair, many don’t leave because they are still too attached (“But I’m still in love”), too afraid (“What will I do without them?”), or too invested (“I’ve got too many years in this marriage to walk away”). We have a harder time admitting to another reason we stay: Sometimes we’re just so emotionally needy, we can’t bear the thought of giving up the little that we seem to be getting out of this marriage for the nothing we’re sure to get if we leave.
But some people do better than survive an affair. Some people actually thrive. Their marriage is better, and they are happier than they have ever been. To some of us, the notion of thriving after an affair seems like a complete contradiction of all we’ve been trained to think: “They completely betrayed me; how can I ever trust them again?”
Some of this is a self-fulfilling view of how the world works. If we don’t believe we could ever trust them again, then we likely won’t. But if we had a different outlook on life, marriage, and the human capacity for imperfection, then we would be less likely to consider an affair to be “the unforgivable sin.”
As a marriage counselor, here’s what I’ve observed in those who thrive after an affair: First, they understand that the misbehavior is about their spouse — not them. Their conduct doesn’t mean you’re not pretty enough, man enough, sexy enough or any other type of “not good enough.” Their minds are clear and their thoughts are not about taking on the blame.
Second, they look at humanity as being highly flawed and capable of great failure. They don’t have MAD rules that guarantee Mutually Assured Destruction of the relationship like, “If you ever did that, I would so divorce you,” because they know life is complicated. There is no way any of us could foresee the many variables that contributed to the poor decision-making that led to the affair. Understanding and compassion, not perfection, is their goal.
Third, after the truth comes out and sincere apologies are offered and accepted, they continue to function as a highly adaptive couple. They treat the affair as if it were any other problem, that is, they focus on solving the real problems that eroded their mutual desire to live together happily forever after. Instead of focusing on punishing the guilty, these couples instead focus on solving the very challenging problem of how to be faithful. Instead of the offended party forever questioning, criticizing, and monitoring, functional couples go on to figure out how to build a new kind of trust that isn’t based on immaturity, naïveté and fairytale thinking. Trust 2.0 — and the ensuing Marriage 2.0 — are based on a radical new level of intimacy, where each partner feels safe to share who they really are.
No one is above temptation. Only a minority can claim to have maintained fidelity over a lifespan in all their committed relationships. And sometimes we can’t trust again because, after all, some people prove they are simply not trustworthy. But for those who want it, an affair can be the crisis that crushes the illusions keeping us from being our real selves with one another and from being loved for who we really are.
Author, speaker and therapist Steven Ing has been teaching people for more than 20 years how to manage sexuality intelligently by showing them how, not what, to think about this most personal part of our humanity. Email firstname.lastname@example.org or tweet @steveningMFT.
Article originally appeared in the Reno Gazette-Journal.