An affair is one of the most difficult challenges a couple can face. It is a powerful catalyst that can either end the relationship or take it to a greater level of intimacy. An extreme symptom of a relationship that has been in trouble for some time, affairs do not happen out of the blue. They challenge both partners to look at themselves and their relationship in a radically new way.
At first, reactions to an affair are hurt, anger, and a profound sense of betrayal. These intense, negative feelings make us feel we must immediately end the relationship in order to preserve our dignity. But these feelings quickly turn to self-degrading thoughts, such as “there must be something wrong with me or he/she wouldn’t have cheated” or “how could I have not known…I feel like a fool and a failure.” Our culture adheres to a strong belief that it is weak, foolish, and degrading to stay with a partner who has been unfaithful. But it isn’t that simple.
When a couple seeks my counsel in the wake of an affair, the initial questions we struggle with are: Can I stay with my partner? How will I know if I should leave? Will I ever be able to trust again? How long will the healing take? If I stay, will there be another affair?
In the flood of doubts and questions, below are some guidelines to help you decide if you should stay with or leave your cheating partner:
1. Sort out the conflict and understand how the crisis happened by using The First Argument Technique. Go back to your first argument and see where the seeds of the conflict started that are now being acted out in an affair.
Example: The nine-year marriage of Genevieve and Tyler was collapsing. Tyler crossed boundaries by kissing and using seductive language with her close friends. By revisiting their first argument, their core issues were uncovered. Tyler had moved when he was 13, made no friends, and suffered from lack of self-esteem. Genevieve struggled with a domineering father, pacifying him in order to avoid the consequences of abuse. In their marriage, Genevieve avoided confrontation of Tyler’s behavior, while Tyler compensated for his lack of self-esteem by attracting women with his wit and charm. Their marriage was saved by resolving their core issues.
2. Affairs as Symptoms. An affair is never the answer to unresolved problems, but it is the catalyst to address unresolved patterns because the relationship is now on the line. It becomes an opportunity to voice what was once unspoken and sort out the issues that led to the affair. Unresolved patterns can be resolved with honesty and hard work.
3. Every affair has at least two victims and potentially two victors. The person who was betrayed feels like a victim and powerless because something was done to them. The person acting out in the affair feels guilty, shameful, and responsible for destroying the marriage. Both victims, however, can become victors if they look at their own issues and take responsibility for their part in the affair.
4. There is no “right” way to deal with an affair…some couples stay together, some couples separate. Neither decision is a sign of weakness.
5. If you can, seek professional help as soon as possible. A therapist will be able to quickly get to the core issues and develop a plan to give the couple a safe place to begin understanding what happened in their relationship and begin the process of healing.
Following the affair, recovery and trust-rebuilding are possible, though the process can be long, following no specific time line. Patience and perseverance are essential. It is important to give yourself permission to stay in the relationship as long as necessary to deal with the issues that the affair brings to the surface. Allow all feelings to come up, including love. Just because you’ve been hurt and betrayed doesn’t mean the love has gone away, which is why affairs are a challenge. Mixed emotions are being juggled and assessing what you truly feel can only be accomplished by examining what really happened and what the core issues are. Only then are you in a position to make the decision of staying or leaving.
Also known as the "last ditch effort therapist," Sharon M. Rivkin, therapist and conflict resolution/affairs expert, is the author of Breaking the Argument Cycle: How to Stop Fighting Without Therapy and developer of the First Argument Technique, a 3-step system that helps couples fix their relationships and understand why they fight. Her work has been featured in O Magazine, Reader's Digest, and Time.com. Sharon has appeared on local TV, appeared on Martha Stewart Whole Living Radio, and makes regular radio appearances nationwide. For more information, please visit her website at www.sharonrivkin.com.