How your marriage can survive an affair

Cheating spouses are the stuff of TV dramas, but how do you cope when your spouse has been unfaithful?

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Stay-at-home mum Melissa Choo*, 40, couldn’t believe her eyes when she first came across tawdry Chinese text messages between her husband and a woman she did not know.

Her husband had just returned home from one of his frequent business work trips and was in the shower when his mobile phone pinged. When Choo saw the message on the lock screen, her heart sank.

After several attempts, she managed to unlock his phone, only to be greeted by a slew of hot and heavy text messages between the two. Apparently, the affair had been going on for over four months.

“How could this happen and I wasn’t even aware? This thought kept running through my mind as I scrolled through all his messages. I could not understand why,” Choo states, unable to fathom why her husband would have an affair.

The couple, who were university classmates, had been married for twelve years. “When I said ‘yes’ to his wedding proposal, I never thought that this would happen to me because he was so nerdy, prim and proper and adored everything I did. He was the last person I thought that would commit adultery. I thought we were happy,” she recounts.

“Even if things are going swimmingly well in a relationship, people might still succumb to an affair due to other factors such as seeking excitement, pressure, circumstantial (going away on work trips, influence of alcohol or drugs, etc).”

Why do people cheat?

From psychologist Dr KC Lee’s clinical experience, affairs usually take place when there is underlying dissatisfaction with one’s relationship, coupled with an opportunity, and an accomplice.

“However, even if things are going swimmingly well in a relationship, people might still succumb to an affair due to other factors such as seeking excitement, pressure, circumstantial (going away on work trips, influence of alcohol or drugs, etc), this can affect both gender equally,” Dr Lee notes.

He outlines the three categories of infidelity:

Internal factors

* Dissatisfied in some areas of life, stressed or bored ― An affair brings excitement, or novelty of being with someone new, or being in “honeymoon” period of a relationship again; or just a convenient escape from the mundane or stress of everyday life.

* Someone showers you with attention and affection ― You needed validation and affection and this person you’re having an affair with is providing exactly what you need.

* You are smitten by this person ― You’ve fallen head over heels, this is more like a crush, an infatuation than a committed long-term relationship. This person satisfies a certain psychological need of yours.

* You don’t consider the current relationship you are in as a committed relationship ― You are still in the mood to “play the field”. If you indulge in serial one-night stands, it may be a sex addiction or you have issues with commitment.

* You’re sabotaging your relationship ― Whether it’s low self-esteem or you feel unworthy of your partner, some people actively or subconsciously sabotage their relationship by instigating it such that their partner will indeed leave them.

External factors

* Old flame, new space ― A former relationship was rekindled between former lovers who are currently in another relationship, then things got out of hand.

Couple factors

* Long-distance relationships ― You want someone to tend to your emotional or physical needs, but your partner is not by your side.

* Different physical desires – You and your partner could not meet each other’s physical needs and one (usually the one with higher drive) decided to “outsource”.

* Revenge ― Sometimes, affair happens because one of the partners wants to “even the score” when they suspect/ discover that their partner had/is having an affair, or they were upset about something else in the relationship.

* As one (or both) parties wanted to leave the relationship, they started “shopping around” ― Some people use an affair as an exit strategy, or as a life raft to “transit” from one relationship to another.

* Your spouse suffers from a long-term condition ― You are tired and exhausted from the draining and demanding job of caring for your spouse. The affair meets your emotional and/or physical needs.

 

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What amounts to cheating?

Some argue that without physical intimacy, it is not cheating. “The ‘degree of cheating’ is an open debate. The simple measurement would be actions that would cause you to stray or compromise your existing relationship. It may be physical, emotional or even a simple thought, all the way to a full-blown relationship, sometimes even a second family,” Dr Lee explains.

Types of cheating

Sexual affair
The affair predominately begins with sexual activity outside of the primary relationship or marriage. While there may be no emotional attachment initially, there is no guarantee that it won’t develop through repeated sexual contact.

Notes Dr Lee, “Research shows that men typically find it more challenging to forgive women for a sexual affair. If no emotions were involved (that is, the affair was mostly sexual), women appear to be more likely to forgive.”

Online/cyber affair
Despite no actual physical contact, infidelity can be committed through sexts and chats. For some, they may also consider the viewing of pornography as a form of infidelity.

Rebuilding a relationship requires several main components: Trust and forgiveness, honesty and transparency, and time.

Emotional affair
While two persons who are not married to each other may not be having any sexual contact, they may develop emotional intimacy and become emotionally attached to each other. They spend their time together so extensively that it becomes like what one would expect of an intimate relationship, be it chatting online, over the phone or in person; they feel a loving affection for the other that is beyond friendship. One tell-tale sign is that the person having an emotional affair would rather discuss challenges or emotions in work/life with their partner affair rather than their actual spouse.

Secondary relationship, mistresses/kept boy, second family There is no standard name given to this category, individuals may have more than one ongoing relationship at any given time, and provides extensively for this other party: Emotionally, physically and even financially. It is usually both a sexual and emotional affair, which may go on for an extended period, even developing into a separate family with offspring.

What should I do now?

You’ve discovered that your spouse is having/had an affair ― what’s the next step?

Dr Lee points out that, often, client’s jump to conclusions in their head, usually thinking of the worse, that is, to get a divorce or end the relationship. However, you have many factors to consider before ending a marriage or relationship.

It is important to consider the nature of the affair ― a one-off sexual encounter is very different from if your partner is romantically attached to someone else and has started to make arrangements to end your relationship, such as planning to separate, Dr Lee points out.

“Different situations and circumstances will require different approach. Again, some couples may choose to talk openly about the affair, some couples may choose to ignore it completely,” he explains.

Rebuilding a relationship requires several main components: Trust and forgiveness, honesty and transparency, and time.

The couple can use therapy sessions as a platform to get things clear on what they truly want, and what would work effectively for them, given their circumstances and resources. This is because the spouse who strayed and their partner may have very different views of the situation as well as different expectations of the outcome.

“Having a safe space to discuss honestly about their true feelings and concerns allows them to communicate better with each other truthfully and join our efforts in establishing something that works,” Dr Lee notes.

 

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To reconcile with the errant spouse, so that the relationship can continue, get help from a therapist to do the following:

1. Reconnect with each other

After the affair, couples may be in very difference spaces, so both parties need to put in additional effort to return to each other, emotionally and psychologically. It is not unusual for couples to feel awkward and distant, there may also be resentment, anger, and/or other more challenging emotions present that make reconnecting with each other difficult.

The therapist can help you find ways to communicate effectively and affectionately with each other, starting with the most basic interest in each other’s lives and feelings, to honestly talking about the impact osf the affair.

2. Re-establish trust

It might be necessary to consider sharing privacy controls such as phone passwords temporarily, considering that the deceived partner would be naturally suspicions of any activity. However, this must be carried out with sensitivity and care, and not be a form of punishment, but rather a strategic decision to help the couple regain trust.

The couple may need to establish certain ground rules and parameters, depending on the nature of the affair as such boundaries help the couple to re-build their relationship.

Talking about the future can forge a sense of comradeship between the couple… This process can help couples commit to a new future together.

3. Talk about the future

Ground rules may cover future threats and challenging situations, like others showing an interest in the spouse, or opportunistic affairs (if one party travels extensively). So, effective communication and continual checking-in with each other is key. Talking about the future can forge a sense of comradeship between the couple. Doing this will also minimise the risk of future infidelity, rather than to just hope and wish it would not happen again. This process can help couples commit to a new future together.

4. Restore Intimacy

Resuming sexual relations after an affair is often challenging. In fact, a sexual health check-up may be required. Often, it is an emotional barrier that may throw a spanner in completing intercourse. Be patient with each other and proceed using baby steps. A qualified psychologist can guide you on how to get past your pain, so as to re-establish (sexual) intimacy with time and practice. Remember that different partners work at a different pace.

Can the marriage overcome this setback?

The majority of marriages do survive infidelity, although some do not. Notes Dr Lee, “There are many factors involved: Children, life stages, nature of the affair (one-off or full on second family), financial, reputation, wider family expectations, pressure or implications.

“If the couple continues to stay together, many of the underlying issues that led to the affair in the first place are not addressed, which causes further resentment, and will lead to other issues, and ultimately, the dissolution of the marriage.”

But with a trained professional’s help, you have a significantly higher chance of salvaging the marriage, since they will you both address many of the issues, so that trust can be rebuilt with their guidance.

If children are involved, seeking the professional help of a therapist is strongly encouraged. As helpful as your friends, family and mentors might be, such delicate matters require a neutral third party,” says Dr Lee.

By the way, if Hillary Clinton, Victoria Beckham, and Beyoncé managed to overcome their cheating spouses’ affairs ― you can, too!

** Name has been changed.

Photos: iStock

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