Peace After the Affair

Expect recovery to take at least 2 years.

3 min read

Jerry Rogers had a dead-end job and a dull marriage.

He could usually cope on the job, but not at home. "After years of being with the same woman," says Rogers (not his real name), "the desire to have sex with another woman was overwhelming." When the opportunity for an affair came along, he couldn't resist. "The affair helped me escape," Rogers says.

Escape is a nearly universal attraction of affairs. Some people cheat to escape boredom; others to escape conflict in the relationship. Whatever the reason, the sense of escape is exciting. Only later comes the psychological trauma with its cascade of negative emotions. Spouses who cheat often feel angry, desperate, and guilty. Those who are cheated on also feel angry, not to mention abandoned and fearful.

How you face these emotions -- and the extent to which you analyze what went wrong and what you contributed to the situation -- will play a major role in whether you find peace after the affair, regardless of whether the original relationship endures or dies, according to Emily Brown, MSW, an expert on the topic.

"It's easy to assume that an affair is about love, sex, selfishness, or trying to inflict pain," says Brown, author of "Affairs: A Guide to Working Through the Repercussions of Infidelity" and director of the Key Bridge Therapy and Mediation Center in Arlington, Va. But affairs are much more complicated than that.

Having an affair is one way of communicating that emotional issues aren't being met by the other partner or the marriage, according to Brown. Having an affair lets one partner get the other partner's attention and communicates that the cheating partner is in pain. Sometimes affairs happen when one partner is a sex addict. But a sexless extramarital relationship can also be an affair, ifa strong emotional connection exists that is kept secret from the spouse, Brown says.

Although hard-and-fast statistics are difficult to come by, infidelity is common. One study of 300 subjects, published in August 1992 in the Journal of Sex Research, found that 44% of husbands and 25% of wives had engaged in at least one episode of extramarital sexual intercourse, says Shirley Glass, Ph.D., a Baltimore psychologist and the study's lead author. Those numbers have remained about the same since then, she says, based on her clinical practice and other research studies; however, she notices the number of straying women is increasing.

But Peggy Vaughan, the Southern California author of The Monogamy Myth, says those numbers are very conservative. Based on research done for her book, she says 60% of married men and women stray at some point.

When affairs happen, both partners need to do some serious self-evaluation, Brown says, because both partners contribute to it. For couples recovering from affairs, Brown and Vaughan offer a variety of suggestions. Their advice is targeted to married couples, since extramarital affairs have been studied the most, but it might also be applicable to couples in other types of partnerships.

  • Get the secrets out in the open. Telling the other partner what was lacking in the relationship might help explain why the partner strayed. In a survey of 1,083 spouses whose partners had affairs, Vaughan found trust -- always an underlying issue after an affair -- was more likely to be rebuilt when the couple thoroughly discussed the situation.
  • Face the emotions and heal. If you were cheated on, try to face the pain and then move on. If you cheated, face the anger or restlessness and move on as well. A counselor or therapist may also help; the American Association for Marriage and Family Therapy (202-452-0109) can refer you to a specialist.
  • Avoid making major decisions. Initially, you may want to move away or file for a divorce. Hold off, at least for a reasonable period. "I've never seen anyone fully recover from an affair in less than two years," says Vaughan.

Jerry Rogers followed these steps. "After my partner found out and we went through a lot of therapy -- together and individually -- we were able to deal with the pain of the affair," he says. "It helped me understand what led to my infidelity, which had more to do with issues about myself and my work rather than not being satisfied with my partner."