The role of affairs in relationships

Your heart is not living until it has experienced pain…the pain of love breaks open the heart, even if it is hard as a rock.

– John Welwood

If you find out your partner has had an affair it can be one of the most devastating experiences possible. The shock, sadness and anger experienced by the betrayed partner are often what bring a couple to therapy.

In couple therapy we need to give a place to these feelings and to acknowledge the hurt and the breakdown in trust the affair has caused.

But, if we are working from a soulful perspective, we also need to look below the surface, at what the affair may be signaling about deeper issues in the relationship.

In a paradoxical way, while not devaluing the pain and damaged trust that an affair can bring, it is possible that exploring the deeper meaning can actually help a couple improve their relationship in the longer term.

Getting to this place is a gradual and often difficult process. It will depend on the betrayer being willing to take responsibility for their actions and the painful consequences. The hurt partner also will need, in time, to look beyond the immediate experience of anger and distress.

At a basic level, one partner having an affair is signaling that something is not working in that relationship. This may be because one partner is feeling, either consciously or unconsciously, neglected.

When a couple has children, for example, many fathers experience feelings of neglect and exclusion, alongside the more acceptable feelings of joy and elation. If they are not fully conscious of the more troubling feelings and not able to talk to their partner or another trusted person about them, they can find themselves caught up in an affair in which they feel ‘special’ again.

Similarly, a woman whose partner seems to be constantly working or disinterested in her may find herself, without consciously intending to, drawn into an affair with someone who attends to that part of her that feels neglected.

At an unconscious level the affair can be a signal by one partner that they want more attention. When the other partner finds out about the affair it can, therefore, is a catalyst to looking at what may be missing in the relationship. But that transformative effect is more likely to happen if the couple is able to work through their feelings in a supportive and non-judgmental environment, such as couple therapy.

It may emerge in explorations of the feelings around the affair that earlier ‘betrayals’ have been re-awakened, such as the anger and despair of a child whose father or mother abandoned the family.

It may transpire that the partner having the affair seeks romance with others as a way of avoiding intimacy with his or her main partner. The couple therapist may ask, what is it about intimacy that this person fears? And what about the other partner, are they colluding in an avoidance of deeper intimacy?

These kinds of questions can help the couple look at their relationship and the expectations, hopes, fears and disappointments that they bring to it. Out of this can, potentially, emerge something different – a new and more authentic way of relating.

Helping both partners get in touch with earlier emotional wounding can shed light on the possible role of the affair and how it can, potentially, help them come to terms with earlier, unresolved pain.

Couple therapists Hal and Sidra Stone argue in their book Embracing Each Other that the partner having the affair is often acting out a deeper unmet need of that individual and of their relationship.

For example, a very responsible family man may find himself in a romance with a very sensual, free woman. He falls for her because, at a deeper level, she allows him to connect with his disowned wildness.

Or a woman who, with her husband’s encouragement, gave up her studies and career plans in order to be a stay-at-home mother, may find herself having an affair with a man who values her intelligence and ambition.

‘There is usually an intense pull to have an affair when something within wishes us to break form and move ahead,” say Hal and Sidra Stone. But an affair can be used either to maintain the status quo or to risk something new – it can shore up a relationship that lacks important elements or it can be a catalyst that releases new energies, ‘and either changes or ends our current relationship’.

But there are rarely clearcut resolutions or complete closure when it comes to affairs.

There is always the possibility that the ‘victim’ partner will be so hurt by the affair that they are unable or unwilling to continue the relationship, even if the other partner is genuinely taking responsibility for their actions and the consequences.

Nevertheless, as psychotherapist and author John Welwood argues, to allow ourselves to truly feel the pain of betrayal can lead to a deeper understanding.

Referring to a male client, whose pattern has been to end relationships by having affairs but who now finds that his partner has had an affair, Welwood writes in Journey of the Heart: “He began to realise that his pain was not just about being betrayed. On a deeper level, it was also a sorrow about never having given himself fully to a relationship. In opening to this sorrow he saw all the ways he had kept himself apart from Sarah, just as he had with women all his life.”

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