It has been well documented that since the mid eighties, 50 % of all marriages result in divorce. Interestingly, it is the seventh year of marriage which presents itself as the most popular time to bid goodbye. The latter statistic most likely gave rise to the cliché we all know these days as the seven-year itch. There are no such statistics available for couples who are not married but one can imagine similar figures. In this post, I would like to look at the role of extra-marital affairs in a relationship breakdown. Devastating as this can be, it can be said that large events alone seldom break marriages.
It is rather the little everyday issues that make or break relationships. Failing to communicate effectively (to listen and to compromise), too much self-righteous posturing or bullying attempts at control, unilateral decision-making, failing to keep promises, and withdrawal from emotional and sexual intimacy are all that is needed to cause a marriage to disintegrate. Despite this being true, there are also ‘large’ events that can play a significant role in furthering the process of marriage breakdown. Abuse of any sort is one of these large events, and having affairs is another.
Most observers define what constitutes an affair as sexual relations outside of marriage. However, this definition can be misleading and a little outdated considering the amount of new ways that infidelity can take place, for example with a “cyber-partner” where a face-to-face meeting might never take place. It also fails to recognize that marriages can be threatened by any relationship, sexual or otherwise, that threatens to break the imitate and trustful bonds between partners. A purely platonic friendship developed with someone outside the marriage can very definitely cause problems inside the marriage if that friendship becomes more intense and intimate than the marriage relationship. In an important sense, any outside relationship that drains one spouse’s ability to attend emotionally, sexually and/or intimately with/to his or her spouse is a potentially damaging affair. In this sense, online-chatting and cybersex can be real affairs capable of damaging marriages. Figures for this type of infidelity are sharply on the increase.
Affairs can generally happen at any time, although they are more likely to occur during the middle years of marriage. The popular conception is that affairs start after marriage problems already exist, and this is generally the case. When existing problems overwhelm the marriage, having an affair is, after all, a particularly dramatic means of disengaging from one’s partner. But often, affairs can also start in the context of healthy marriages as platonic extra-marital friendships that becomes passionate and sexual. It can be easy to mistake a new passionate infatuation for evidence that the older marriage relationship has died, but this is not necessarily the case. Rather, that an affair relationship feels more passionate than a marriage relationship generally only indicates that it is far newer than the marriage relationship. The passion of an affair will almost certainly cool if it is pursued to its logical extension. Someone who leaves their spouse for another man or woman may find themselves essentially back in the same situation they started in or worse when this cooling occurs. In most cases, if married partners understand themselves to be more or less compatible with their original spouse, they will not gain anything by pursuing another and may lose a lot. In any event, affairs don’t always signal the end of a marriage, but they surely point to marital disengagement that must be addressed if the marriage is to survive an affair and become healthy again.
Unfortunately, many couples engage in tit-for-tat arguing after an affair takes place which makes reconciliation if not impossible, then very difficult. Some will go on to have “revenge” affairs to “even the balance”, leaving in their minds a level playing field for reconciliation. Some of those who do manage to reconcile will find it difficult to forgive and forget, destroying the emotional health of the relationship long-term.
Surviving an affair isn’t easy. In fact, the process of healing from an affair is a complex process that many couples are not prepared for. The period of mourning for the loss of what was is a strange concept but one that has to be followed. In effect, the loss of trust that existed in the relationship needs to dealt with . To do this, couples often enter therapy to learn the tools needed to communicate effectively and build the foundation for a new relationship. This is where the hard work comes in but if this process is successfully tackled, a couple can build something new, something where the mistakes of the past can be used to create opportunities for the marriage. As difficult as it may sound, surviving an affair depends on both spouses growing and learning from the experience.
Dr. Nicholas Jenner is a Counseling psychologist in private practice working with individuals, couples, groups and companies. Apart from seeing clients face-to-face, Dr Jenner also runs a thriving online therapy business bringing help to those who are housebound or located in rural locations where therapy is difficult to find. He can be booked for online sessions from anywhere in the world. First consultation free. For more information , follow the link to his website HERE
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