Infidelity–Learning about it, Recovering from it
I was surprised to find an article in the Wall Street Journal (The Post-Affair Conversation, September 8, 2015) that put into words something that had been in the back of my mind as a couples therapist: How a spouse finds out about an affair significantly affects the relationship outcome post-affair.
The Journal of Social and Personal Relationships (2001) outlined four ways affairs typically come to light :
Unsolicited partner discovery (the partner who had the affair admits to it without prior interrogations from his or her spouse). This was the least damaging. 43.5% of study participants said their relationship dissolved after this conversation.
Solicited partner discovery (the partner who had the affair admits to it only after being suspected and questioned by the spouse) 86% of relationships dissolved.
The “red handed” discovery (a spouse catches his or her partner in the act of infidelity) 83% of relationships dissolved.
Unsolicited third party discovery (a spouse is told about a partner’s affair by another person). 68% said their relationship dissolved at the other’s discovery.
Reliable studies on affairs are fairly rare and may not be products of the most rigorous scientific method. There are studies, for instance, that show the majority of marriages survive an affair and the numbers are appreciably higher than those quoted above. We don’t know from this report the percent of these couples that received couples therapy, how many had children, duration of affair, etc.
However, this variable of “discovery” matches my clinical experience. While there is no good way to learn of a partner’s betrayal, discovering it on your own is terribly difficult. Finding the receipt, the email, the phone trail is a trauma in and of itself. Often alone in the house, wandering rooms and feeling life has been shattered is an experience which may be a life-long memory. Spouses wonder “when they ever would have found out”, which is a very scary preoccupation. At least a confession indicates a person is connected to their conscience, which may be reassuring.
The other vectors that I think affect outcomes are the spouse’s emotional involvement with the other person: Is she in love? Does he seek anonymous sexual contact? Is she regretful and dismayed by her own behavior? Is he eager for the upset to be quickly resolved?
In EFT, we think that affairs happen because somehow a window was left open in the house of the relationship. We regard affairs as attachment injuries that can often be healed. The relationship can certainly end up stronger than before the affair. But some circumstances and behaviors require more time and repair than others. And many of these situations can benefit from professional help with a therapist who specifically knows about repairing attachment injuries.