I hear this story too often with the couples I work with. It goes something like this…
“I don’t understand how my partner could’ve cheated on me?! We have a family and yes we’ve had our ups and downs but we’ve been going through a good patch lately.” I thought things were ok?!”
What people don’t realise is that affairs happen over time not overnight. You don’t wake up in the morning and decide today I’m going to have an affair and pick the first person that happens to cross your path.
Affairs happen as a result of the relationship waning and that also happens over time, not overnight. As couples move through their relationship cycle the dynamics of their relationship changes. They get caught up in the daily grind of chores, life and juggling the many balls we have in the air such as paying bills, parenting, work pressures, family responsibilities and more.
Our relationship takes a back seat as a result of this and we stop connecting and communicating with each other on a deeper and meaningful level because we are too tired, too stressed, too self absorbed in doing what needs to be done. We stop appreciating our partner, and the effort we used to make in the early stages of the relationship has all but faded.
The consequences being that we take very little heed of our partner and their needs leaving them feeling unloved, unappreciated, not valued, unimportant or even invisible. The more this happens, the more couples find themselves in a spiral of withdraw, attack, defend, combined with small glimpses of what once was and so the cycle repeats itself. Often.
Over time we let things slide and work ourselves into a toxic cycle of blaming, shaming and fault finding. Emotions are on high alert as we tip toe around each other hoping not to rock the boat yet again but rather keep the peace for as long as possible. Invariable this is short lived leaving each other feeling resentful, hurt and betrayed on various levels with our emotional needs not being met. If not dealt with, the cycle can become destructive and ultimately result in the breakdown of the relationship.
It’s at this point that a 3rd party comes into the picture and when affairs happen…..
One gets to the lowest point of craving an emotional connection with their partner yet it is not forthcoming. This is not necessarily because the other is unwilling, but because both are so caught up in the destructive spiral it’s very hard to connect in a loving, caring manner.
The 3rd party, who could be a friend, a colleague, an acquaintance… offers some kind of comfort, perhaps even listens and offers advice or reasoning. A seemingly safe place where the other does not have to be on their guard all the time, they don’t get criticised or constantly feel attacked. It is a safe space where the gloves are off and someone is actually paying them attention, showing care and concern and is interested in them. The very things they crave from their partner.
Just as the original couple met, spent time together, connected and had fun, so too does the same begin to happen with the 3rd party. Over time this new ‘relationship’ starts taking shape until that point where boundaries are crossed and an affair begins.
Can couples come back from an affair?
Absolutely they can – if they are both prepared to do what it takes.
Couples co-create the situation to begin with and are equally responsible for coming back from an affair. It takes hard work on both sides but it is not impossible and can even be a catalyst for a stronger bond than before.
Couples need to ask themselves some hard questions when they are on the brink deciding whether to continue or walk away:
You need to be completely honest with yourself and rate the following (0 = low and 10 = high):
- How badly do you want to fix/save this relationship?
- What is your level of commitment to the process?
- How willing are you to start doing/stop doing things to improve your relationship?
- How soon are you prepared to start the process?
Once couples have answered these questions, anything above a level 6 is workable. Where the ratings are 6 and less it will take a lot more work and effort but not impossible. At the end of the day any relationship is salvageable if the couple wants it badly enough.
If a couple does decide to work on their relationship below are some things they need to apply as part of the healing and growing process:
- Each one needs to take a step back from the toxic spiral and see the bigger picture of what once was. The love that once was there is still there, it has just been overshadowed by the negative. Love doesn’t walk away – people do.
- Both need to work hard at overcoming the feelings of being threatened, betrayed, or rejected and rather focus on the real issues that result in these feelings.
- Both are responsible for creating safety so each one can risk speaking vulnerably from his or her heart as to how they are feeling and what they need from each other.
- We all love differently, allow yourself to be vulnerable with your partner and to ask for the love and understanding you desire. When one’s love tank is full, it’s highly likely they will give love in return.
- Learn how to respond to your partner’s attempts to reach out and connect with you with openness and encouragement instead of shutting down or shutting them out.
Only when your partner feels safe and that you really want to listen and understand rather than attack, dismiss, or belittle his or her feelings, will he or she risk opening up about more vulnerable feelings and needs.
This is where intimacy and connection is created. When there is a deep connection with each other, intimacy grows leading to couples feeling closer to each other, are more loving towards each other and able to resolve issues long before they spiral out of control.
A version of this article also appeared on Jacaranda FM
Paula Quinsee is a Relationship Expert, Tedx speaker and author of self-help guides ‘Embracing Conflict’ and ‘Embracing No’. Paula works with individuals and organisations to cultivate healthy relationships in both their personal and professional arenas by focusing on emotional skills and personal growth and development. She regularly appears in the media and consulted to ‘Married at First Sight SA’ TV show.