Infidelity destroys trust in a relationship.
People have a deep need for trust, to know they are not alone. Trust helps a person deal with the ups and downs of daily life. So an affair can shatter the ground a person’s life is built on.
The destructive choice to cheat may end some relationships that psychotherapist Esther Perel describes as “already dying on the vine.”
But an affair is not necessarily the end of what was initially, and ideally, a monogamous relationship, Perel says in a TED talk on NPR in May 2015.
For couples willing to go deep and understand the meaning and motivation behind the affair, she says they can create a new relationship that’s stronger and healthier than the one that led to the affair. They can rebuild trust, and it’s likely to be a more mature and realistic trust.
The vast majority of couples who experience an affair stay together, says Perel.
Couples handle staying together after the betrayal in three basic ways, she says in
“After the Storm: The Affair in Retrospect” in Psychotherapy Networker.
- Bitterness – Some couples get trapped in bitterness and blame after an affair. The relationship doesn’t really improve.
- Stability – A couple may decide to stay together for family, stability, belief that marriage is a lifelong commitment, or for religious reasons. These couples move past infidelity, but don’t transcend it. The marriage may be relatively peaceful, but there is no significant change in the relationship.
- Creating a new relationship – The healthiest outcome is when couples use the affair as a catalyst for renewal and change. Therapy has the potential to help couples reinvent their marriage. A therapist can help the couple reach a neutral perspective. Then each person can begin to clarify and fulfill individual yearnings for what’s truly needed in the relationship.
A therapist can help the couple begin to admit and deal with the reasons the affair happened. What one person in the couple crosses the line into infidelity, it is not necessarily for just a physical, sexual experience.
“Affairs are an act of betrayal, but they are also an expression of longing and loss,” says Perel. “At the heart of an affair, you will often find a longing and yearning for an emotional connection, for novelty, for freedom, for autonomy, for sexual intensity.”
After the affair is exposed, healing beings when the person who had the affair admits to being wrong, says Perel. The person expresses guilt and remorse for hurting the other. That person also takes responsibility for bringing up the topic to relieve the partner from being obsessed with it.
The person who has been cheated on will do well to begin healing by being around supportive friends and taking part in activities that bring joy and a sense of identity.
Then comes the important work of being honest about what the affair meant, what was not able to be expressed in the relationship previously, what is valuable in the marriage, and what would help heal and recreate the relationship.
“Every affair will redefine a relationship,” says Perel. Each couple will determine what impact the affair has on the relationship.
“Some couples will turn crisis into opportunity,” says Perel. “It may lead to conversations more open and honest than they have had in decades.”
Esther Perel, “How Can Couples Build Trust After an Affair?” NPR, TED Talk, May 21, 2015
Perel, Esther, “After the Storm: The Affair in Retrospect,” Psychotherapy Networker, July/August 2010