Can your relationship survive an affair? An expert reveals how to know whether to stay or go
Relationships expert Elisabeth Shaw shares her tips for dealing with the fallout of an affair.
If infidelity has never happened to you, you might think you’d immediately walk out on a relationship if your partner cheated. It seems like the ultimate breach of trust, and it is hard to fathom how something so fundamental could ever be repaired.
When infidelity does happen though, it can be surprisingly difficult to make a hard and fast decision. This is for a whole range of good reasons, like;
- you’re angry and hurt, but still in love and have hope
- you’ve invested a lot into the relationship, have been together a long time and don’t want to give up without a fight
- you have children and the ramifications of separation are significant.
There might be other factors which also feel influential, but you are not yet sure if they should be featured in your decision making.
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For example, your partner may tell you it was a mistake and meant nothing, that they don’t love the other person, the affair was short lived, or it only happened opportunistically.
If you’re in a heterosexual relationship, your partner may have cheated with a person of the same sex, and you don’t know whether you should react differently to that. It may have been an emotional rather than physical betrayal, and you don’t know if that should matter (although it usually hurts just as much).
Everyone reacts differently to infidelity
Affairs take different tolls on different people. For some, they experience the betrayal so deeply it is like a trauma. For others, both partners might recognise they’ve let relationship distance get the better of them, and there have been poor behaviours on both sides. In this scenario, they might be more open to recognising the unfaithfulness as a big problem, but not a death knell.
As for the person who has had the affair, they might try hard to talk their partner out of their feelings, saying things like “it meant nothing to me”, and protect them by not going into details, or minimising them.
They might become accusatory or blaming, saying if only there was more attention, affection and sex in the relationship, it might not have happened. However, it is important to know that while the relationship may have had some problems, ultimately the person who had the affair is entirely responsible for their choices.
Why affairs can happen
Firstly, it’s important to know that unhappiness doesn’t necessarily lead directly to affairs, but it can set a scene for being vulnerable to one. Developing strong feelings for someone else – even if purely physical – can be a red flag. Alternatively, the unfaithful partner might not have even seen any relationship problems, but simply got caught up in a self-interested opportunity.
Whatever the case, in order to manage the regret, guilt and need to justify, the person might still blame the relationship. In reality, the affair might say a lot more about the individuals involved in the affair, than the primary relationship.
And although you might be tempted to turn your attention to the other party involved and blame them for seducing your partner away, that can be a way to protect your partner from the full force of your disappointment. Of course, the other person played a part, but it’s your partner who made a commitment to you and needed to protect that.
Stay or go? How to make the best decision about the future of the relationship
#1 Create some safe space
It can be hard to know where to get help when this happens. If you go to friends and family, they’ll no doubt be angry on your behalf and want to support you. If it hasn’t happened to them before, they may immediately tell you to leave.
However, if you and your partner want to try and work it out, these other voices can be intrusive. Later, you might also be sorry they know all about it, as others can take longer to move on than you do. So, it’s worth turning to a well-trained professional in the first instance.
#2 Be careful with details
You might want full disclosure from your partner and launch into questions about where, when, and how often the infidelity happened. It can be important to know what you are dealing with, as your imagination may be worse than the real events.
At the same time though, you’re not necessarily going to benefit from an in-depth technicolour account. Sometimes the pursuit can seem valid if your partner is being cagey or slippery and you think pinning them down will help with accountability. However, if they’re not appropriately forthcoming and reassuring, and you continue to feel unsafe and deceived, that is critical information in itself.
#3 Trust is only partially re-built by rules
It can be tempting to put a range of new ‘rules’ in place, thinking that they’ll help create safety and rebuild trust. That can be true to a degree if the rules make sense and actually serve their purpose.
For example, committing to date night or therapy or promising to ring if they’ll be home late could be helpful. Having someone check in every hour or doing random spot checks at their work is not. Trusting again takes time.
#4 Accountability is important
Repair will involve the person who had the affair owning their decisions, as well as taking a good look at what’s going on in the primary relationship. It’s not true that behind every affair is a flawed relationship. However, it can be a good opportunity to look at any unmanaged conflict, distance, or other issues that may have been brewing for a while.
When the affair isn’t over
Sometimes the affair is exposed when still in full force, and the person involved is indecisive about which relationship to choose. Often the unfaithful partner doesn’t want to throw out the relationship for an affair that doesn’t work out, so they’ll wait and see how it will play out first.
If you don’t want the relationship to end, it can be tempting to wait and see what they decide. However, going to counselling can be useful to build in some safety and boundaries, when it can feel like there are none.
It can be very eroding of your self-esteem to be caught in such a “competition”. Be careful about how long you stay caught in this, and while you wait, be sure that you do things to manage your confidence and mental health. It can be hard to be angry when you are full of fear, so you may find yourself supressing strong emotions. Don’t be surprised if they burst out at some point.
If your partner tells you it’s over with the other person, but you remain anxious and never quite reassured, then take that seriously. You could be intuiting that the commitment just isn’t there, or it could be that it is, but you are too affected by the betrayal to feel safe again in the relationship.
The time it takes to repair
Rebuilding a relationship after infidelity is possible if the person having the affair realises it was a mistake, learns from it, grows themselves past it, and comes back to the primary relationship with a surety that this is where they want to be.
Reflecting on the relationship and making it stronger can in fact invigorate many couples. Those who have been together a long time will often say it has been a “wake up call”. While others at their stage are drifting a bit, they feel committed and purposeful about their focus on each other. They’ve had to fight their way back to each other and that can, at its best, be a powerful experience.
It doesn’t happen overnight, and there can be triggers along the way when a late night or missed call can unearth old fears and insecurities, which then have to be managed again. In the end though, trust doesn’t come down to any one rule or commitment, but the confidence you have in your focus on each other.
Elisabeth Shaw is CEO of Relationships Australia NSW and a clinical and counselling psychologist specialising in couple and family work.