After the Affair
The common cancer of the relationship no one expects to hear.
As a therapist & relationship coach I’ve worked with many couples navigating their relationship post-affair. This is such a difficult and sensitive time for all involved.
A time of grieving and betrayal filled with waves of anger, deep wells of sadness, panic-like anxiety, and terror that one might lose his or her partner and family, all juxtaposed with periodic intense feelings of love and desire.
You may have picked which partner you think I’m talking about: the cheater? or the cheatee? What’s interesting is that if both partners want the relationship to work they’re both confused by the barrage of feelings they’re now riding like an untamed bull. “Am I going to feel this way forever?”
Of course it’s obvious that affairs are about dishonesty and disrespect from one person to another. But what’s obvious has never interested me much. Most of the couples who end up in my office are both interested in the relationship working and confused about how their marriage has gotten this far off-track.
To me, affairs are a symptom and it’s the “of what” I’m always trying to figure out. Every couple I’ve worked with has very different disagreement styles pre-affair: highly conflictual, sort of conflictual, or not conflictual at all. What I’ve noticed among these couples is that the common cancer of the relationship is that one or both people are dishonest about how they feel for the sake of the short-run improvement of the relationship.
Each person seems to have his or her own words for this tendency and whether he’s “sweeping it under the rug”, “sucking it up”, “swallowing it”, or “just dealing with it” over the long-run this can be highly detrimental to the relationship.
One client last week said, “I figured if I was the only one hurting I could just deal with it.” What ends as an affair seems to start out as a repetitive behavior with quite honorable, yet misinformed, intentions. In my experience most cheaters I’ve seen tend to be the person who holds in and holds back the most, but each person plays his or her part.
I call what happens after repeated bouts of holding things in the tea kettle effect. People can only take so much pressure before they blow. Like a volcano they lie seemingly dormant for a period of time until it all comes flying out in a way that’s disadvantageous for the relationship and the person comes to the conclusion that “talking about it doesn’t work either.”
People who love their spouses and have affairs, to a degree, have given up and lost hope in their current relationship and/or in him or herself. It hurts terribly that they’re not getting results. They’ve tried everything they know to make their relationship better and now are just trying to figure out how to make him or herself feel better…enter the inappropriate relationship.
But it’s not talking about issues that doesn’t work, it’s the subtle nuances in HOW one talks about issues that can make all the difference in the results of the conversation and most people are hugely unskilled at having difficult dialogues. I know this because I was REALLY bad at it not that long ago; I’ve done it both ways.
The avoidance of conflict that starts out as a way to make better or pacify a relationship in the here and now turns into a festering tumor that can kill the future.
This can look totally different across relationships, but the underlying theme is the same. Maybe one partner is more judgmental, always right, and easy to yell. To avoid outbursts and passionate disagreements the other person might “suck up” how they feel or what they want.
Maybe you are quite pleased with the “really important” aspects of your relationship (your husband provides for the family, is involved with the kids, etc.) and you don’t feel like you should “nag” about the little stuff. Or maybe these beliefs that what you want and need and how you feel aren’t important or “right” came from your past? Maybe things you saw in your family of origin (i.e., I don’t want to be a nag like my mom)?
I know that many people are prone to avoiding confrontation. In my family I learned that if you had concerns you either swept them under the rug or you screamed and yelled about it. I didn’t like yelling much and I identified it with “bad people” so I quickly became adept at disrespecting, disregarding, and dishonoring myself for the sake of being a good person, being liked, and avoiding conflict at all costs.
This is one of the hardest things I’ve had to overcome and it took years of classes, seminars, reading, therapy, and experience. My goal is to deal with “off” feelings the nano-second they happen in a way that works for everyone. I know the awfulness that comes with an elephant under a rug in a close relationship and that a tough conversation + some skills and emotional awareness in the present can prevent future disasters.
While both people in a relationship may avoid their own feelings for the sake of the relationship there’s usually one person who does it more. It doesn’t matter which role you play it’s still your job to make sure that under that relationship rug is CLEAN.
My husband also has a tendency to hold things in. For him, I think, it’s sort of unconscious; like he doesn’t believe that what’s bothering him is “enough” to talk about or address. But over the years I’ve gotten good at knowing when he’s “off” and I say things like, “I hear you say that nothing is wrong, but it really seems like you’ve shut down” or “What do you need?” because I know he’s reluctant to say what he needs. I’m careful to say these things with a very neutral or caring tone. In no way (most of the time) do I want to imply nonverbally that he’s “stupid” or “doing it wrong” and I can easily communicate this with a nasty or condescending tone.
Intent is important and I know if my intent is “off” it can ruin everything that comes out of my mouth. I use a really cool tool in life and with my clients to help them be clear about when their emotional intent is “off”.
I’ve just read what I’ve written so far and am smiling wondering if you think it might be AWFUL to be married to me. My husband gets asked some variation of, “Oooohhhh gawwwd. What’s it like to be married to a therapist???” quite often. And his answer is one of the best compliments I’ve ever received because all I ever wanted was to have a marriage and family that felt good: “NOOoooo, she’s helped me be a better communicator and helped me be who I’ve always wanted to be.”
He says this with breathtaking sincerity and it makes all my own ups and downs feel worth it. This is always nice to hear, but there’s no one more glad I have done the relationship work than me. I had to learn all these high-level, ninja-like, slicing through conflict skills as an adult; I wasn’t born into a family with pristine communication skills or high levels of emotional maturity.
You deserve to not have an elephant under your relationship rug.
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Originally published at www.mikaross.com.