Extramarital affairs follow a typical pattern from their inception through to their end in either repair or divorce. Understanding the pattern and the potential pitfalls along the way is vital to helping a couple make the right choices.
For the sake of this article, I have assumed the husband cheated on the wife. This is more often the case by 60% to 40%. The article is equally applicable if the wife is the cheating party. It is also equally applicable to non-married couples.
This is the blissful period of the relationship. People remember this period of their life as the one where they were the most happy and alive. This is the period of relationship that Hollywood most often portrays. We love to watch couples in love in movies, because there are few times in our life where we feel this joyous.
The couple is over-the-moon to discover one another and can spend hour gazing into one-another’s eyes. The feeling of “being one” that reminds us of the blissful merger of mother and infant that we all experienced. Couples love to stress how alike they are. Differences are ignored or smoothed over to keep the blissful “sameness” alive. If there are disagreements or tension, the effects are often masked by the wonderful rush of endorphins of “being in love”.
Sex is frequent and feels very, very alive and exciting. Couples want to explore each-other’s bodies and soak in every moment of spontaneity and aliveness. It is difficult to think of anything else but when we will see them next.
- “You complete me.”
- “We are exactly alike.”
- “I can’t stop thinking of them.”
The intensity of this period of bonding often lays the foundation for the rest of the relationship. In times of trouble, couples will be able to remember the feeling of oneness created during this time, to see them through the tough times. They have high, but reasonable, expectations of their partner and the marriage. They feel excited to be married, but are able to consider both the positive and negative aspects of marriage.
Unsuccessful couples will need to push aside and deny too much of “bad” in this period. They will ignore almost all of the bad in order to desperately hold onto the good. They may report they “never fight” and that everything is “perfect”.
In order to maintain the illusion of a perfect union, these couples may rush to the altar in order to “lock-in” the positive feelings – they subconsciously feel that if they slow down the rush to the altar, the whole illusion of perfection with disappear. The hope is that marriage will “cement” this “everything is fine” feeling forever. The more doubts they have about the marriage; the faster they will rush to the altar in an attempt to eliminate the doubts.
Sadly, the marriage will only stave off the inevitable creeping of tension back into the relationship. The next step is often to have a baby to avoid the tense feelings. Sadly, the baby (or babies), just delay the inevitable transition into the next stage, “Tension Build-up and Arguments”.
Tension Build-up & Arguments
This stage starts when couples can no longer deny the “bad” in the relationship. Being in a close relationship stirs up old struggles from each of the party’s pasts. It may start around the time of the wedding, or shortly after having a baby. Couples start to argue.
At first they are both on their best behavior, but this cannot hold up for too long. Every day the problem is still there when they come home. Soon the anger overwhelms their ability to “be nice” to one-another.
- “If you just did ______, everything would be fine” (both say this)
- “You are just like my mom/dad/ex-boyfriend/ex-girlfriend”
Successful couples are able to manage the tension. The fights may occasionally get ugly, but the couple is able to apologize and repair the hurt feelings. Rarely can the cause of the conflict can be fully resolved by the couple; more often the couple learns to manage the tension by frequently sharing their feelings about it. Managing the tension is like managing the effects of chronic illness – it requires sustained efforts through the entire relationship. With successful couples, there are enough positive aspects of their relationship to provide a solid base to tackle the conflict.
Common quotes of successful couples:
- “He and I disagree a lot about this issues, he feels _____, and I feel this _____”
- “It feels good to get our feeling out into the open.”
- “At first I could not understand them, but after a while I came to see why it was so important to them.”
Successful couples navigate this stage and then to build further upon the good base created so far. There grow confident from the conflicts – they have experienced trying times, and have learned that they are able to work through them together.
In unsuccessful couples, the feelings stirred up by the other are so intense that they lose the ability to hear or understand their partner. Conflicts can neither be resolved nor managed. Fights become intense and brutal. Now the couple is not only dealing with the original conflict, but is dealing with the mounting hurt created by the fights themselves.
Common quotes of unsuccessful couples:
- “You are such a liar/bitch/asshole/idiot”
- “I can’t remember what we are even fighting about”
Unsuccessful couples begin to feel hopeless in their ability to resolve the issue, and head to the next phase “Distance & Isolation”.
Distance & Isolation
The couple starts to feel hopeless to resolve their differences. The fighting was so intense that the couple begins to avoid certain topics completely.
Every once-in-while, one party may make a tentative attempt to bring up the topic, but they quickly retreat when the resulting argument reminds them why they stopped talking in the first place.
The couple creates an unspoken agreement not to talk about “that”. This does in fact work at reducing the number and intensity of arguments, but comes at a very high price – distance & isolation. It is impossible to have an intimate relationship where important topics are taboo. They constantly sit like “the pink elephant in the room, which no one wants to talk about”. The couple begins to drift apart and lead separate lives. This is the beginning of the long slog of an unsuccessful marriage. This period may last several months to several decades.
The couple turns to routines to manage their interactions. Each day follows the same ritual. The ritual makes sure that the relationship skeletons are not stirred up. “You know your role, and I know my role. Both of us know what we do and do not talk about.” This is the opposite of the Honeymoon Phase. In the Honeymoon Phase, the couple wanted to do is spend hours discovering each-other. Now the couple doesn’t want to discover each-other at all. They know all they want to know – they don’t want to know any more.
For the same reason, sexual intimacy becomes crippled. Sex becomes routine and “boring”. A million excuses are found for not having. Problems with sexual performance arise here. Men might disguise the lack of chemistry with erectile dysfunction drugs; women might hide it with store-bought lubricant. Sadly these are just more tools that help the couple avoid confronting their marital problems (what they truly need).
Human beings do not handle isolation and distance well. It is a vacuum that must be filled somehow. This is where the extra-marital affair comes in. It is important to know that both parties will find comfort in one form or another. The extra-marital affair is just one of the ways. When our emotional needs are not being met we either find some way to get them met; or we find some way to dull the pain of not getting them met. For example:
- extra-marital affairs (emotional and/or sexual)
- substance abuse e.g. alcohol
- over-involvement with children
- porn addiction
- emotional eating
Affairs are almost never about sex – instead they are a way of dealing with the loneliness and quiet desperation of a struggling marriage. Sex is like an intravenous injection of emotional connection with another. It can instantly take away loneliness and pain. The glorious merging of two bodies allows us to forget all of our private struggles. At the crescendo of the sexual experience we experience, what the French call “le petite morte”, or “the little death”. Our minds go blank; we lose consciousness; and for just a few precious moments we are free.
- “We never talk anymore.”
- “If she ever finds out, I will die” (said internally).
- “I’ll just devote more time to other parts of my life.”
- “He is always at work.”
- “She never wants to have sex.”
During this time, the wife may be seeing many signs of the affair. She may not confront her partner, or may only hesitantly confront her partner. There are several possible reasons for this:
- Her own childhood was marked by distant relationships. She may not know that there is something more possible. Distance and loneliness are “normal” to her. She does not notice anything missing.
- She is afraid of the repercussions of confronting her partner. She may be emotionally or financially dependent on the marriage succeeding. There is too much at stake to risk rocking the boat. Her hunches are quickly pushed away because she wants to believe everything is OK.
- She has lost hope of restoring closeness. She may be unconsciously colluding with the affair continuing, because she prefers to continue leading her own separate-but-together life.
Occasionally couples will come into counseling at this stage. However this is often too early. The wife is not ready to fully confront her husband in spite for her strong suspicions. I often recommend these wives consult with a lawyer to discuss the potential implications of divorce. If the wife can start to form a mental picture of a life beyond the marriage, it will give her the strength she needs to confront her husband. I have seen many cases, where only a lawyers letter announcing the beginning of separation proceedings, is enough to break through the husband’s denial.
Her husband on the other hand, is in a different sort of purgatory. He is stuck between his family and his mistress. Each step closer to one, leads him to take a step away from the other. He can not truly have either. Additionally, he may now start to be pressured by his mistress to leave his wife. He tries to walk a very anxious tightrope between the two.
The affair is never uncovered. The couple slowly limps towards old age or divorce. Unfortunately, remarriage rarely solves anything. There is a 50% divorce rate for first marriages; 67% for second marriages and 74% divorce rate for third marriages.
Leading a double life exacts a high psychological toll. Eventually the affair is voluntarily revealed, or involuntarily discovered. It is so difficult to maintain two lives, that many men actually subconsciously want to be discovered. They will subconsciously leave clues for their wife’s to discover. This will lead the couple to the most intense of the phases, “Affair Uncovered”.
This is the point in the cycle where most couples come into counseling. The shock of the affair being revealed is intense and overwhelming for both parties.
Common quotes of the wife:
- “I can’t believe it” (shock and denial).
- “How could you do this to me” (anger).
- “I have been made to be a fool. Everyone knew but me. They must have all been laughing at me behind my back.” (shame).
- “Was our entire relationship a lie? Was anything real? How could you lie to my face the whole time?” (disorientation and mistrust).
- “I will never trust you again” (mistrust and hopelessness).
Common quotes of the husband:
- “I am the worst person in the world” (exaggerated shame).
- “I can’t believe I could do that?” (confusion).
- “I am not bad. You also did _____” (defensiveness).
In this stage, the husband and wife are in very different places emotionally. The woman is reeling from the shock. The man on the other hand has known for months and has had time to mentally prepare for this phase. Since the couple is so out-of-sync and the emotions are so strong, it will be nearly impossible for each party to feel heard and understood by the other.
Both couple as a whole, and each individual, need outside support from friends, family and counselors. A counselor specializing in this area can provide a safe place where both members of the relationship can feel understood. They will also provide the couple with the tools needed to navigate the upcoming stages.
A lot of compassion will naturally be given to the wife as a “wronged party”. It is true that she needs a lot of support. However, the “cheating” husband will need a lot of support too. He faces a difficult struggle. He may not believe he is worthy of sympathy, and he may additionally find himself cast out by disapproving friends and family.
The severe “shaming” that is often cast upon the husband may be useful in helping him confront his behavior. However, a there should be a balance of both support and confrontation. Without support, the husband will simply be surviving and not have the energy to look within. He will also not have the energy to help his wife on her healing process.
- Find qualified outside help and begins to work on repairing the damage caused by the affair.
- Don’t get help from a counselor
- Add the affair to the list of issues swept under the rug and continue further along the distance and isolation phase.
- The wife won’t attend or actively participate in counseling: “I never did anything wrong, why should I go too? He is the one who needs to be fixed.”
- The wife is afraid that coming to counseling means that she will have toforgive her husband (this is not the case).
- Possibly they were looking for an “excuse to get divorced”. One or both of the parties are secretly relieved that they now have a tangible reason. They may have wanted divorce for a long time but not wanted to appear to be the “bad one”.
- They feel frustrated by their inability to be understood and assume that they will never be understood. They believe divorce is the only option.
- Don’t realize that even if they choose to get divorced, there is a lot they can learn a lot by a good “post-mortem” of the marriage. Information learned by studying what went wrong can vastly improve the chances of success in future relationships.
Initial Repair & Stabilization
The shock of the revelation of the affair has passed. In this phase, the couple tries to return to some normalcy. They may still be unsure if their marriage has a viable future or not.
The wife will have a million questions about the affair. She will want to know every detail in minute detail. When, where, how, who, how long, how frequent, etc., She is desperately trying to assess the extent of the damage to the relationship. She is also trying to assess if she can ever trust her husband again. Wives frequently report not being able to turn their mind off. Her world is so shattered that she is frantically trying to get her life whole again.
Common quote of the wife:
- “When?”, “Where?”, “How?, Who?”
- “Is there anything you aren’t telling me?”
- “How do you expect me to believe you now when you lied to me so easily?”
- “I just need to hear it again. Start from the beginning.”
Common quotes from the husband:
- “Why do you have to ask all the questions?”
- “I feel so helpless to give you what you want to hear.”
- “I don’t even remember the details.”
- “Can’t we just start over again. Why do you always bring up the past?”
- “I swear there is nothing more.”
- “I have answered the same questions a million times. Why do I have to keep on answering them?”
This is a difficult time for the husband. He will feel helpless to “fix” how she feels. He is likely to get frustrated and wants to give up. He will want to stop answering any questions, because “it doesn’t make a difference– she doesn’t believe me anyway.” The husband will need outside support to help him – he certainly won’t get support from his wife during this time. This is difficult for many men, since for most men, their only source of emotional support has been their wife (women on the other hand tend to have a wider circle of emotional support).
It can help for the husband if he keeps in mind the positive underlying motivation of his wife’s millions of questions. Her mind is desperately trying to make sense of a flood of new information. She is trying to get used to a very different world from once it once was. She is also trying to assess the extent of the damage to the relationship – the first step towards the possible repair of the marriage. Both of these must take place for the marriage to have any chance of surviving.
- The couple does not get outside support.
- The husband is too defensive for the wife to feel understood.
- The wife is too scared to begin to trust at all.
- The quantity of hurt overwhelms the couple’s ability to tolerate the intensity of feeling.
- The challenge posed by such a large shock to the system overwhelms the couples existing coping strategies and they head to divorce.
- Get support from a counselor and close friends and family.
- The husband begins to be able to tolerate more and more of his wife’s questions.
- The wife’s mind begins to settle.
- Their relationship is stabilized and is ready to head to the next phase, “Incremental Repair”.
The couple has successfully navigated the early days of stabilizing the marriage. They are both committed to making the marriage work. Here there is less urgency to repair process.
Thing start to return to “normal”, but the old feelings are easily triggered. Over time the frequency of arguments reduces and the couple becomes more skilled at handling the hurt feelings when they arise. Managing the conflict becomes more of a day-to-day part of the relationship.
Common quotes of the wife:
- “I start to feel OK, but then I will see something that reminds me of what he did, and I just go off.”
- “I want to trust him, but I am scared.”
- “I am afraid if I let myself trust him again, I will just get hurt again.”
- “I am afraid if I don’t constantly bring up what he did, he will use it as license to do it again.”
Common quotes of the husband:
- “Everything seems fine for a few days, but then suddenly if feels we are back at square one.”
- “I feel helpless to make her better.”
- “Can’t she just get over it? I don’t bring up the past, why can’t she?”
- “I feel like I will always be in the dog-house”
- “I am not that bad. Now she seems to think I will chase after every girl I see”
- “She is constantly making back-handed sarcastic comments”.
- Discontinue counseling after the marriage is stabilized. They return to the distance and isolation phase – thinking that this is normal.
- The woman is so scared of lowering her guard or clings onto the “ammunition” that the affair provides. This places an impenetrable wall between the couple.
- They either get divorced now or set the stage for a future affair.
- The husband spends time looking at himself to understand how he could live a double life for so long. The aim is not to humiliate him, but to help him develop a “healthy sense of shame” – the ability to acknowledge his humanness and use the knowledge to improve himself.
- The wife is able to slowly lower her guard; paving the way to greater intimacy.
- The couple comes to realize that that the marriage was not “fine” before the affair. There were serious problems before the affair that still need to be worked on. With this knowledge, they are ready to move towards the final phase, “Fixing the Foundation”.
Fixing the Foundation
In this phase couples start to look at what lead to the original distance and isolation. They start to dust of those arguments that they were never able to resolve. If things have gone well, they now have the tools and outside support to begin to tackle their buried daemons.
- “We wasted so many years.” (mourning lost time)
- “If only we had come into counseling earlier”
- “I guess we both played a role in how things turned out”
- “Even though we have lost so much, I feel like there is a silver-lining to this whole thing”
- “It was horrible to go through, but maybe we needed something big like this to give us a wake-up call.”
- Never find the courage to look at their relationship with mutual honesty.
- Are unaware or unwilling to take the risk of moving the relationship from “OK” to “great”.
- Stumble along.
- Are able to look at all the issues in the marriage with honesty and humility.
- Are able to apologize to one another for what they have done during the harder times in the marriage.
- The wife is able to acknowledge that she also found ways to cope with the loneliness in the marriage.
- The couple can mourn lost years and needless fighting and distance. Mourning the past, helps them embrace the present.
- Find a deeper and more substantial intimacy than they ever experience during the “Honeymoon phase”.
Understanding how extra-marital affairs develop can give couples the direction and hope they need. The right help delivered consistently through the stages of recovery, can make the process as painless as possible.