Working with Affairs
What is an affair?
Relationships, however they are constituted, are based on rules. Often these rules may not be explicitly stated, but might be assumed based on cultural norms. In the case of marriage and civil partnership, the rules are clearly stated and the ceremony includes a ritual declaration of mutual acceptance of these rules. Even in relationships where clear rules have been acknowledged it is still up to the participants to negotiate the extent and application of the rules. This can change over time and, in some cases, a rule may only become apparent once it has been broken.
An affair in this context has occurred when one party has broken the rules of the relationship. Most commonly this manifests as a sexual and/or romantic liaison with another person outside the implied/agreed relationship scope. The definition of what constitutes the affair is typically the preserve of the party not involved. There can be pain for all parties in this situation. Those in the relationship may feel betrayed by the actions of the one having the affair, the one having the affair my feel conflicted loyalties and regrets, and the subject of the affair may also feel a lack of control and validity in the situation.
Why do people have affairs?
The reasons are numerous. Some fit into culturally rehearsed ideas such as opportunity, selfishness, frustration within the existing relationship, and excitement/boredom. There can be less well understood reasons including a desire to experience aspects of relating or sexual preferences that are not permitted in the existing relationship. Some affairs occur by accident or due to the disinhibiting effect of drugs and alcohol, or social environment. It doesn’t appear to be the case that affairs only occur as a result of a failing relationship. One factor may be that an affair benefits from ‘new relationship energy’ (NRE) and all its associated enticing brain chemistry changes. Maybe the secrecy and intrigue can act to prolong this NRE phase of an affair relationship, in some cases indefinitely.
Walls and Windows
The relationship therapist Shirley Glass devised a metaphor that is helpful in understanding affairs. She conceives of a relationship as being constructed of participants in adjoining rooms. There are open windows between the participants’ rooms which facilitate the connection and there are walls around the other sides to protect and maintain the sanctity of the relationship. In an affair, a window opens to an outside participant and the window to the existing participant(s) can become closed.
Working with Affairs
Dealing with the effect of an affair has been likened to working with trauma. The betrayal and lies may have taken the floor away from the non-involved partner(s) and brought into doubt many of their comforting certainties. For the partner having (or having had) the affair there may be shame, humiliation, confusion regarding their options and an indeterminate period of contrition. For the affair partner there may be exclusion, lack of closure and also perhaps betrayal and uncertainty.
A sensitive but boundaried approach is needed to facilitate the development of clear communication so that the client(s) can recover from any shock and evolve their understanding of a way forward that works for them. This can be a plan to recover and redefine their relationship, or a plan to constructively end the relationship. It may be to help facilitate a negotiation if objectives cannot be agreed.
Opinions are divided about the extent of disclosing the details of what has taken place in the affair. This can satisfy a partner’s quest for understanding but may also be traumatising. It is likely that trust must be rebuilt and the bulk of this responsibility initially rests with the partner who conducted the affair.
As Esther Perel suggests: “The old relationship is over. Now there is a possibility to form a new relationship, even if it is with the same people”.