How to handle a partner's most painful transgressions.
Affairs exist on a continuum, and some transgressions cause more damage than others.
Factors like the timeline, the degree of emotional intimacy involved, and partners' values can affect how much pain infidelity inflicts.
Affairs with close friends or relatives can be particularly harmful.
Whether you are married or in a long-term relationship, if your union is not considered “open” and an emotional or sexual transgression is committed by your partner, the pain is often palpable. However, affairs, like many life events, exist on a continuum.
Some clients use the concept of “time” when considering where to place this type of transgression. They tend to make a great distinction between a “fling” and an “affair.” A fling is considered a one-time or short-lived sexual encounter that some non-affairing partners are not threatened by. For example, a female client who found out that her husband had once visited a prostitute dismissed his transgression by commenting: “It’s a one-and-done experience. Men will be men. I do not condone it, but I can live with it as long as it does not happen again.”
Other victims of affairs use the concept of “emotional” connection or intimacy to evaluate the transgression. Many of these non-affairing partners seem less threatened by the actual sex act than by a situation where emotions are involved. For example, a female client whose husband was in the habit of entertaining escorts claimed that she could stay in the marriage if her husband got help. She said that the fact that he had no loving feelings for the women he hired made all the difference in the world to her. She added: “I know he does not love these women, and I am sure they do not love him. If emotions were involved, I might be speaking to a lawyer right now, not you.”
And yet other non-affairing partners use their sense of “values,” religious and otherwise, to process the transgression of an affair. For example, a male client was admittedly devasted when he discovered his wife’s affair. He claimed to have trusted her implicitly and insisted that this situation could not have been her fault. He said that some sort of mental illness must be involved for his wife to do such a thing.
A deeply religious man, it was easy to empathize with his pain. But his “sense of world order” was a rigid one, and at times very unrealistic. Simply put, he saw the world split into two parts: good versus bad or innocent versus evil. Although a bitter lesson, his wife’s affair forced him to see the complexity in human nature.
What makes affairs egregious?
Just as beauty is in the eyes of the beholder, so too is trauma. While the consensus is that most affairs are considered traumatic, the intensity of the trauma depends on the individual victim’s personality or perspective based on their prior life experiences. For example, if one’s father, mother, or ex-partner committed adultery, then the replication of this event in real time might trigger a significant traumatic reaction. If the victim is sensitive by nature, the reaction may be even more devastating. In the specific case of transgressing ex-partners, a female client who discovered her wife’s affair commented: “I must be cursed. My first wife cheated on me as well.”
But there are those types of affairs that need no background to cause a great stir… and many of these I consider the most egregious of all, in part because they include a betrayal and a boundary violation of the highest order. The following are noted in order of least to most devastating.
In this case, one partner tells the other—usually before a serious commitment is made—that they can tolerate just about anything but an affair. That would be a deal-breaker for them. These individuals want a guarantee or “promise” that their counterparts would never have an affair. The counterpart hears this and pledges emphatically never to commit such a transgression. But if and when human nature dominates and the promise is broken, it will have a particularly devastating impact on the non-affairing partner.
Consider that the non-affairing partner directly expressed that which he/she fears the most, and still their worst nightmare is realized. I have treated many of these cases over the years, and it is no surprise that most of the non-affairing partners who make this upfront request have experienced the devastating effects of an affair before and do not wish to relive them. But the mistake in making this request—that should go without saying anyway—is that they give the offending partner their kryptonite, and if and when this partner decides to use it, consciously or unconsciously, the perfect weapon is at their disposal.
If your partner breaks a promise to you, particularly after you have exposed your vulnerability, it bodes poorly for your relationship. Consider whether your partner was sending you a message about his/her interest in maintaining the relationship. Also, think about whether you can ever be vulnerable with this person again. Finally, if there have been other broken promises in various contexts, you might consider that there is a pattern operating that might merit professional intervention.
Sometimes partners steal each other’s close friends. This has been fodder for many a movie and television show. However, when this occurs, the number of losses tends to multiply, making it particularly traumatic. For example, a female client told me that her husband-to-be had an affair with her bridesmaid days before her wedding. Not only did the non-affairing partner lose her husband and her best friend for many years in the process, but the wedding was canceled at the last minute, and many people suffered financially as well. In this case, however, the victim called off the wedding and refused to speak with her fiancé and friend again. But in some cases, it is the two offending partners who run off together, adding insult to an already devastating injury.
Regardless, in this situation, it is best to cut ties with all offending parties and start fresh. But before you do, I recommend that you closely examine whether you may have enabled what happened. For example, perhaps you allowed your fiancé and friend to get too close, even encouraged it. If you did, it could be a sign that you were unconsciously trying to get rid of these people but underestimated the trauma associated with the outcome.
This sounds very distasteful, but it happens. This type of transgression is most common with siblings—that is, one sibling steals another’s partner. I have seen it happen with young married or soon-to-be-married adults and in-laws or potential in-laws.
Both circumstances may have something to do with power games. For example, if you have a history of competing with your sibling, and you can steal his/her partner, you demonstrate your power; you win the game. The same can be said for having an affair with an in-law. You convey to your partner that he/she is not enough for you, that you require someone older, perhaps richer, smarter, or more mature. The problem with these high-order transgressions is that they can destroy entire families, and usually do.
Somewhat related is the act of incestuous child abuse. The difference is that in this dynamic, an adult (older) relative is taking advantage of a younger (minor) family member. And while the power differential is still a key variable in this dynamic, the age difference between the actors changes the quality of the transgression.
It goes without saying that these transgressions should be exposed and dealt with. In some cases, the families may be able to heal and move forward with limited loss. But it will usually take a long time, and there are no guarantees. Most often, professional help is merited, and several agencies need to be involved. What all parties must be aware of is that sometimes these transgressions are deeply ingrained and consequently may replicate unless there is enough intervention to disrupt their patterned behavior.
The preceding material is based on my clinical experience in treating a wide variety of couples over many years. I can say without any reservation that in almost every one of the examples provided, the pain was pronounced, especially from the non-affairing partner, and would most likely evoke empathy in anyone witnessing them. Affairs do exist on a continuum, but too often, we are only exposed to the garden-variety sort that generally exists between employees, neighbors, and those heated portrayals in the entertainment industry. But there can also be a much darker side.