Affairs & Infidelity
Note: I answer questions like How Long Do Affairs Last? and Why Do People Cheat? in the Affairs FAQ section at the end of the article.
If you are experiencing an affair by your partner you are likely in the midst of an emotional crisis.
Many people describe the process of grieving and recovering from an affair as more complex and painful than recovering from the death of a loved one. To put this in perspective, when polled about the most painful experiences of their lives people consistently report:
- The #1 most painful experience is the death of a child.
- The #2 most painful experience is a partner’s affair.
The loss of trust and self-esteem that often accompany a betrayal of trust send many people into a time of self-doubt, disbelief, shock, anger, hopelessness, and sadness. Additionally, because of taboos associated with extramarital sex in Western culture, the discoverer of an affair may feel as if they have no where to turn for support and no one to talk to. They may feel shame and guilt about their partner’s affair which can lead to social isolation.
If you have recently discovered your partner’s affair you are likely in a lot of pain right now. You may feel totally bewildered and have many questions about why this happened, what you could have done to prevent it, and what it means for the future of your relationship. You may feel that you don’t recognize your partner because their actions were so reckless and dishonest.
A few things you should know about affairs:
- The affair is not your fault. Even if you made mistakes, your partner had other choices. They could’ve been honest with you about how they were feeling. They could have left you before they broke your trust.
- 70% of marriages that experience affairs do NOT end in divorce.
- When people leave their marriage for their affair, the new relationship rarely survives (3 to 7% survive).
- There are different kinds of affairs: Emotional, sexual, short-term, long-term, one-night stands, philandering, etc. The common denominator is that important needs are being met outside the agreed upon structure of the relationship.
- Affairs have an extremely addictive quality and people typically experience a powerful high associated with their affair.
- People often mistake the intense rush of feelings they experience in their affair for love. They often compare these intense feelings with their primary relationship and use the difference to justify the affair. Most people exiting affairs realize at some point that what they felt was not based on a real foundation, but on the rush of something new, the universally positive reflection of self they got from their affair partner, the secrecy, and the drama.
- People in the exit stage of their affair typically experience a withdrawal that includes depression, ambivalence about their primary relationship, and a feeling that normal life is not exciting.
- Affairs most commonly occur with people who are seen regularly—at work or in the social circle.
- Many people enter affairs because they offer freedom from normal social roles. Because these social roles are put aside, affairs exist in a bubble or fantasy world. This allows affair partners to romanticize each other. When the bubble breaks, people often report being stunned by how little they truly know about their affair partner.
Out of respect for each person’s unique situation, and because of the complexity of affairs, I will offer only limited concrete advice here. However, if you have recently discovered your partner’s affair, I will encourage you to STOP for a moment before taking any action. You may be in more pain and confusion right now than you have ever experienced, so your judgment is understandably clouded. There are many good books you can find online that cover all aspects of affairs—from discovery to recovery. Please take the time to research a couple of these books right now. If you would like my recommendations for reading, feel free to email me. There are also a number of excellent websites with resources that will help you understand what is going on. Gathering information to increase your understanding of affairs will be both a life-raft and a compass for you in the months to come. Please use this information to take stock of your situation before you make any major decisions. Here are two helpful websites to visit:
In counseling I can help you explore your situation, deal with your pain, express your feelings and values, and examine your relationship. I can provide you with education about different kinds of affairs, how they typically progress, and how they should end. I can help you generate an action plan and set firm boundaries with your partner to give you the best chance of reaching the resolution you want.
To schedule an appointment please email or call me.
Phone: (503) 757-6259
3050 SE Division, Suite 260, Portland, OR (In the ‘D Street’ building.)
Frequently asked questions about affairs:
How long do affairs last?
The question How Long Do Affairs Last? is a common one, and complex to answer, but fortunately we can do better than “It depends.” There are many different types of affairs to discuss when it comes to considering how long affairs last.
Some different kinds of affairs:
One Night Stands and Philandering: These tend to be short-term affairs based on casual sexual connections. If your partner has a history of philandering, there may be a pattern of many short-term affairs.
Sexual Addiction: Does your partner have a history of sexual addiction? If so, his/her infidelities are likely short-lived, but there may be a history of many partners, a significant amount of time spent locating affair partners, interruptions in important social roles like parenting, work, and partnership, and he/she may be more likely to cheat in the future.
Exploratory Affairs: These affairs attempt to answer, “Do I want out of my relationship? What’s it like to be with someone else?” Exploratory affairs can take many forms but tend to highlight the needs that are most absent from the primary relationship.
Sexual Identity Affairs: These affairs attempt to answer whether the person having the affair is gay, lesbian, bisexual, or straight. In other words, is their sexual identity different from the gender of their primary partner? If the partner having the affair is closeted with regard to their sexual identity these affairs can be long-term, or there can be many of them.
Tripod Affairs: This occurs when a failing relationship is propped up by an affair. Tripod affairs can last for years. As with many affairs, the factor that shortens them is communication. When couples begin talking about the primary relationship and the affair, the affair tends to end much sooner.
Retaliatory Affairs: This is cheating because your partner did it first. Retaliatory affairs tend to be short-lived, especially if the primary partners are actively discussing their anger and hurt with each other and trying to repair the trust.
Emotional Affairs: Emotional affairs usually have a build-up period during which the affair partners make a connection. Because a bond is made, these affairs tend to be longer-lasting. Many people are primarily worried about whether or not their partner had sex with their affair partner, but it is the presence of an emotional bond that is more predictive of a longer-lasting affair.
The Common Modern Affair: Modern affair partners usually meet at work or in the social circle. The modern affair has both emotional and sexual elements, and a build-up period in which the affair partners transition from friendship into romance. Affairs that have both emotional and sexual connection tend to feel very compelling for the affair partners, they can be longer-lasting, and can be damaging to the primary relationship. It is normal for your partner to feel depressed and conflicted if they are ending their affair, and communication is crucial during this painful time.
Exit Affairs: This occurs when an affair is used to leverage out of a relationship. People often fear that their partners affair will turn into an exit affair, but most do not. Again, communication is the key that allows couples to face their pain, get to work, and begin healing the trust.
In general, affairs may end more quickly if they are primarily sexual, with little emotional attachment. And affairs that are discovered and discussed end much more quickly than those that aren’t. This is because infatuation is not the same as relational love. When the person in an affair is confronted with the possible loss of their primary relationship, this can cause them to reevaluate their position on their affair. What seemed to affair partners like the ‘love of their life’ may shift to a passing infatuation when the loss of the primary relationship becomes a possibility.
The health of the primary relationship is an important factor when it comes to predicting how long affairs last. Do you and your partner have a history of being close? Do you typically have good communication and an emotional bond? Do you like each other? If so, the loss of the relationship to an affair is less likely.
There is a misperception that an affair always leads to the end of the primary relationship. Research shows most people stay together and choose to work through it. Ultimately, the function of many affairs is to blast the primary relationship down to its foundations. This can be quite painful, but the end result is often that the couple can begin to talk about unmet emotional and sexual needs in new ways. I hope this overview has helped answer your question, How Long Do Affairs Last?
Why do people cheat? What are some reasons people have affairs?
Why Do People Cheat? is another common and complex question, and I’ll give some concrete examples to answer it. People have affairs for many reasons, and some people cheat even though they are in perfectly happy relationships. Most people, however, have affairs to try and meet needs that are no longer being met in their primary relationship. Because honest communication is shut down in their relationship (or may never have existed in the first place) they did not have the tools to talk with their partner about what was going on—which ultimately blocked the couple from making changes in the relationship to meet unmet needs. The petri dish for affairs is a relationship in which important need are going unmet, and the communication does not exist to talk about it.
As discussed above there are many kinds of affairs but the common modern affair is both emotional and sexual. Most people do not go looking for an affair—they tend to slide into it after becoming friends with someone at work or in the social circle. After a time, an emotional connection develops which starts to include intimate sharing. Boundaries become blurred, and are then crossed. Once people have crossed their normal boundaries of emotional and sexual intimacy, it is very difficult to reestablish them. Here are some specific reasons clients cite for having affairs:
- “I was bored and lonely in my relationship. It felt great to have someone pay attention to me.”
- “I had been putting work into my relationship forever, and I felt like this was my time to do something for myself.”
- “I’ve been feeling hurt and angry and unfulfilled in my relationship for a long time, but we didn’t have the communication skills to do anything about it. The affair was a fun escape.”
- “I fell in love with someone else, and by the time I realized it, I was too far in.”
- “I didn’t want to leave my marriage, but I felt like life was passing me by. The affair was like a reminder that I was still alive.”
- “I wanted some sexual variety in my life.”
- “I didn’t get enough emotional closeness in my marriage and I really missed feeling that special connection.”
- “We were about to take a major step in our relationship (e.g., buying a house, having a child, etc.), and I was scared. The affair provided a distraction from my anxiety and created distance in our relationship.”
- “Our marriage has been about our social roles (parenting, working, etc.) for a long time, not about our connection. The affair was a breath of fresh air.”
Will you judge me or blame me for my affair?
No. I will support you toward honesty with yourself and with me about your affair and the circumstances that led you to it. We will work together on the elements of your situation that you find important and I will give you my feedback and point out themes as I see them. I will coach you toward taking responsibility for the choices you make and help you to work on relationship patterns as they come up.
I’m afraid to tell my primary partner about my affair, but I don’t want to keep lying—can you help? I don’t know if I should leave my old relationship or stay, knowing that it will take a lot of hard work before things get better. What to do?
Yes, I can help you explore these important decisions. If you had an emotionally and sexually involved affair, it is key to realize that your primary partner has almost certainly noticed a change in your behavior and may be coping by using denial. As you can probably guess, the admission of an affair usually precipitates a crisis in the primary relationship. What happens next is dependent on the level of commitment and love that exists between you and your primary partner. Most marriages that experience affairs do not end in divorce (70% do not), but healing the relationship will be hard work. Relationship counseling is helpful during this time, and couples that use counseling to help mend their relationship after an affair show much higher rates of survival and long-term happiness. The research shows that the partner who strayed must be dedicated to understanding the traumatized response of their partner, and must also work hard to regain trust. After you have worked together through the initial crisis of discovery (which can take 2-6 months) and have adequately processed the intense emotions of betrayal, anger, sorrow, guilt, shame, and resentment that will surface, you can then take the next step toward exploring historical relationship dynamics and patterns of deadness and blocked communication. This can ultimately lead to a relationship that is stronger and more deeply connected than it was prior to the affair. Affairs throw relationships into crisis, but that crisis provides an opportunity for both of you to tear down worn out patterns and replace them with more honesty and intimacy. If you decide to be honest with your partner and stay to work on your relationship you will have your work cut out for you. You will also be choosing a path that could lead you and your partner toward significantly more happiness and connection than you shared before.
How do I cope with my partners extremely hurt/angry/sad response to discovering my affair?
This is a very important question. If your partner has recently discovered your affair (or if you admitted it to them) you should know that they are likely to react as people do when they experience a trauma. An affair constitutes a massive betrayal to most people, and it can cause them to reassess their view of you, the relationship, and their perspective on the world in general. A typical reaction may include shock, anger, sorrow, sadness, loss of sleep, changes in appetite, obsessive thoughts about the affair, a pressing reoccurring need to have questions answered (Why? How could you? Where? When?), a feeling of vulnerability, and a need to know your whereabouts and your communications with others through phone, email, etc. It is important that your partner be allowed and encouraged to feel and express what comes up for them. If you are invested in mending your relationship it will be important for you to support your partner and try to understand their response. Couples counseling is essential during this time—the couple will greatly benefit from a neutral supportive party who can coach them through the stages that follow discovery. Getting past the initial crisis is the first step, and examining the underlying relationship and personal dynamics that led to the affair can only happen afterward.