What happens after an affair?

These are a few things I’ve learned about affairs that might help you to understand the process of therapy after an affair.

I have worked with a number of cases where one partner has wandered off with a stranger. I’ve noticed that there are two types of couples when it comes to affairs.

One type is where the betrayed partner blames the transgressed partner for breaking their heart and their trust, is very angry, bitter, humiliated and hurt by the act that they cannot move to a space of reflection, forgiveness or empathy. This type of couple almost always split up after an affair.

The other type is where they both reflect on why it happened, both are sorry for having a part in it happening, accept that it was a hiccup in the relationship, try and work out a way to move forward because they both realise they still love each other. This type of couple usually work on staying together.

My thoughts on this are that affairs always happen for a reason. The reason might be harsh and give you a-slap-across-the-face-kind of feeling but is usually a clear message that something has to change in the relationship. Whether that’s pointing out to the husband that he works too much, ignoring his wife, or that she sidelines her husband by spending more time with their children or friends, or perhaps he’s emotionally hurt because she has been harshly critical of him for years, there is always an underlying cause for someone to seek comfort, love, sex and attention elsewhere.

Clients often say about the affair “I loved the way he (the other man) paid compliments in my appearance, it made me feel like myself again.” or “The other woman was so loving and understanding and I didn’t realise I was craving that!” This tells me that in their current relationship, there were crucial elements missing and in seeking to have these needs met, they went looking for it elsewhere. Maybe they have tried to ask their partner first but were rebuffed or ignored. Sometimes they don’t ask for their needs to be met and so in that instance, I work with them to express their needs, because nobody can read their mind, you have to ask and make it explicit.

Sometimes it is pure lust that attracts someone to a stranger, in that case you might think there’s no underlying cause, but if a guy had a healthy passionate sex life with his partner, why would he want to and look around to have sex with someone else? I guess he could be looking for ‘different’ rather than ‘more’ sex. Out of these people who lust after the ‘other man’ or ‘other woman’, a small percentage would be considered to have love addiction or sex addiction. They would have an obsession with being loved constantly by another person or with having sex. Often this indicates that they are co-dependent. These couples need specialist help from a sex/love addiction therapist.

The two types of couples above have illustrated to me that I need to work in different ways with the topic of affairs. With the first type, I would help them to verbalise their hurt, sadness and anger, then validate those strong feelings and needs. I’d listen to both parties and de-escalate the blame. If there’s too much raw emotion, they won’t be able to accept that there was a reason for their partner wandering off.

With the second type of couples, I can also do the same as for the first type but then expand the work into what caused one partner to seek attention elsewhere. Often they realise that, for example, they were both ignoring the problem of not spending enough quality time together. If they display a willingness to change the current set-up, the work becomes very rich and this conversation becomes a turning point in the relationship. Some couples have said their intimacy has increased since working through the affair issue, because they realised they were so close to losing each other and realised how much love they still felt for each other.

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