Infidelity creates waves of disorientation in a marriage. The betrayed spouse may describe the aftermath as an earthquake that shakes them to their core, tears them down, and leaves them with a surge of emotions. Being flooded with these emotions creates confusion and a struggle even to begin processing the event. Eventually, the intensity calms and each partner begins to make decisions on how to manage the relationship moving forward. The next steps include three different paths to choose from. The couple can decide to separate/divorce, commit to repairing the relationship, or continue the relationship in its current state. Within this decision, there exists an exceptionally difficult question for the couple to manage.
The ability to manage and provide a resolution to this question can be a driving force in determining which of the three paths the couple decides to embark on. Ultimately though, the betrayed spouse may never feel that they receive a satisfactory answer to this question. Sometimes the reply they are given points to the inadequate aspects of the relationship.
“I didn’t feel connected enough to you”
“We are always fighting”
“I wasn’t satisfied sexually in our relationship”
Other times the explanation contains a more individualized focus and presents the flaws of one partner.
“I’m no longer attracted to you”
“I just don’t love you anymore”
“You’re too …..”
Yet, there is a response which can be worse.
“I don’t know why”
This explanation brings about additional challenges for the couple to deal with. The betrayed partner will begin to wrestle with doubts about what might be wrong with them or how they might have caused the affair. Without answers, the betrayed will ruminate on the incident which prevents any true healing of the hurt caused. However, the partner who committed infidelity may not have the insight to understand themselves. It may be confusing as to why they acted on temptation or why the affair was so appealing. The unfaithful partner might desperately want to know themselves so an accurate answer can be given to their spouse, but that answer eludes them.
Esther Perel, a leading voice in the realm of couples counseling, writes about this phenomenon and some of the ways she approaches trying to understand the reasons for infidelity. Esther suggests that a third category of explanations exist, one that can make people uncomfortable or even disgusted because of how countercultural the explanations are for society today. She suggests that when a couple does not know why an affair occurred, the answers are carried deep within the unfaithful partner.
Looking within the unfaithful partner for answers is unsettling. Some may view this approach as a vindication of the affair, when the approach just seeks to understand the affair and allow for healing to start. In her work with couples, Esther asks questions similar to:
“What did the affair provide you?”
Affairs can provide a sense of excitement, liberation and empowerment. For some, affairs create an environment for a person to feel safe and loved. Esther also suggests affairs allow the partner to explore a form of themselves that they previously did not know existed or a part of self they lost and want to reclaim. When seeking oneself through an affair, it matters little who the paramour is and matters much more what the unfaithful spouse experiences through the affair. They can feel alive and rejuvenated with confidence by pursuing an adventurous thrill. Within that experience they appear to be a new person which they feel better being.
Many people falsely believe the underlying pursuits of an affair must only be occurring if an inadequacy exists in the marriage. This fallacy focuses on the need for an absence of specific characteristics in the relationship, so this absence can be filled by the affair. According to Esther, relational deficiency is not necessary for an affair. This narrow perspective intentionally prevents the realization of these other factors. When couples are able to dialogue about what the affair provided, they attain greater understanding. This dialogue does not seek justification for the affair, but allows for “why” questions to be answered honestly.
No answer is ever pleasant to hear nor can it make the affair any less painful for the betrayed spouse. However, discussing these factors within therapy and finding a resolution to the question of “why” does provide more insight and understanding into a confusing situation. There is no justification for betrayal but an explanation of “why” can provide a sense of safety in the known or understood. Then the healing process begins.
Esther finishes her article by writing:
“Often when a couple comes to me in the wake of an affair, it is clear to me that their first marriage is over. So I ask them: ‘Would you like to create a second one together?’”