Affairs in marriage and relationships are very common. Data suggests that between 30% to 60% of married individuals will engage in infidelity at some point during their marriage. Other studies suggest that roughly 3 to 4% of currently married people have a sex partner on the side in any given year, and that about 15% to 18% of married couples have had an affair. So we can conclude that somewhere between two in 10 and six in 10 married people will have an affair at some point. It’s hard to get accurate data since obviously people have shame and embarrassment about having affairs and may not always give accurate data even to anonymous researchers. My sense is that if you include emotional infidelity, meaning flirting and getting close to another person of the other sex, at least half of all married people have had an affair.
I frequently see couples in my practice where an affair has recently been disclosed or discovered. This creates a crisis in most marriages. Affairs obviously create enormous amounts of emotional pain. There is the actual affair and its impact on the marriage, but there is also the betrayal of trust, which may have even a more lasting impact.
Before I can help a couple who is dealing with a recently discovered affair, it’s important to understand what type of affair has occurred. The different types of affairs have different implications for the future of the couple’s marriage, as well as for treatment. Let me discuss each. These six affair types are listed in order of prognosis, from worst to best.
- Sociopathic affairs. These spouses have many affairs with multiple partners. They are often men who travel a lot for business, and cheat on their spouses when traveling. These affairs often are with sex workers. This type of affair is often a lifestyle choice. The men want a wife and family but also want to be able to have sex with many different women. These men (and occasionally women) have little or no remorse about their behavior, often are talented deceivers, and rarely are willing to stop this behavior even upon discovery.
- Affairs designed to break up the marriage. These are affairs where the affair perpetrator is ridiculously indiscreet in a way that suggests that they want to get caught. For instance, they will repeatedly send and receive intimate texts from their affair partner on a smart phone that displays texts on the lock-screen. They can’t even be bothered to change the settings so that texts are hidden. These types of affairs are usually committed by someone who wants out of their marriage, but is not willing to take the responsibility of saying to their partner “I am unhappy and I want to end this marriage.” Instead, they have an indiscreet affair, get caught, show little or no remorse, and then their partner terminates the marriage. Later they get to describe the narrative as “My partner left me just because I had an affair.”
- Impulse control affairs are usually associated with drug or alcohol use, often occur repeatedly in combination with substance use, and are initially casual sex. Controlling the substance abuse often will prevent this type of acting out.
- True love type of affairs. These are usually very idealized and unrealistic, often a cry for help because the person feels desperate and needs the drug of the idealized romantic affair. The person thinks that the “true love” of their affair will solve all their problems and make them happy.
- Marriage stabilizing affairs. These typically long-term affairs serve to stabilize a marriage. Sometimes the primary function of these types of affairs is sexual. A person likes their spouse, gets along well with them, thinks they are a good parent, but for a variety of reasons the couple rarely or never has sex. So in a sexless marriage, one person may find a sex partner who is also in a similar situation, married without sex, and they can fulfill each other’s sexual needs and stabilize their mutually sexless marriages. These affairs are typically very long-term, discrete, and typically end only because of discovery or because one person decides they want to leave their marriage and be with their affair partner.
- Friendship affairs. These affairs typically begin at work. These are affairs where the primary purpose of the affair is connection and friendship. These types of affairs usually occur in the context of a fairly cold and disconnected marriage. The difference is that the cold and disconnected marriage may still be a sexual relationship but it is no longer a good friendship. Often in these affairs, people talk about their relationships and marriage. The affair serves as a support structure for the person. These affairs sometimes lead to true love affairs but rarely as they are not at their core romantic affairs. They are really best thought of as emotional affairs, which may or may not include sex.
Treatment of affairs
Before one can offer treatment to a couple in which there has been an affair it’s important to diagnose what type of affair you are dealing with. In terms of prognosis, the most positive prognosis is with marriage stabilizing affairs or with friendship affairs. In both of these cases if the therapist can help the couple to either to improve their sex life or become better friends, there is a good likelihood that their marriage can endure and even become better.
The worst prognosis is with affairs designed to break up a marriage and with sociopathic affairs. In the first case, the person has already made up their mind to leave the marriage and the only thing a therapist can do is to help the couple gracefully negotiate their mutual exits. A common therapist mistake is to assume that there is actually desire to fix and rebuild the marriage. In sociopathic affairs you are dealing with an underlying personality disorder, and as such, it is virtually impossible to resolve. The only possible resolution is for the betrayed partner to come to sort some sort of peace with their partner’s sexual behavior. Sometimes establishing ground rules like only in faraway towns can help. But the prognosis is not good.
In impulse control affairs particularly those associated with substance abuse, treating the underlying substance abuse is the best way to lower the probability of future affairs. But the treatment of substance abuse has its own difficulties, and relapse is common.
What about true love types of affairs? These can go either way. Sometimes the best approach is not couples therapy, but rather to counsel the betrayed partner alone. This counseling usually has the goal of having them encourage their spouse to fully pursue the other relationship and to move in with the affair partner. Often these true love affairs only can maintain themselves in a rarefied and separate universe where there are no responsibilities and no stresses. By encouraging the spouse to create a real-life relationship with their affair partner which includes school pickups, sharing expenses, cleaning the bathrooms, it sometimes takes most of the magic away. Then the spouse may seek to return and couples therapy can then begin to address what the issues were that led to the spouse straying in the first place.
A key perspective on treating affairs is how do you address the betrayal of trust? Trust is asymmetrical. All it takes is one betrayal to completely destroy trust, but rebuilding trust requires many pieces of evidence of non-betrayal and non-lying.
What I often suggest in order to rebuild trust is that the affair perpetrator adopts a position of radical transparency with all aspects of their life. This means turning over passwords for email accounts, phones, iPads, and all other electronic devices. It means allowing your partner to access your airline online accounts so that they can track your travel, and it even means installing GPS tracking software on your phone so that your spouse knows where you are at all times. The idea of this radical transparency is to gradually rebuild trust by displaying that you have nothing to hide, and that you are doing nothing that would trigger distrust in your partner.
Many people resist this radical transparency idea, often saying that their partner should just trust them. But why should they trust when that trust has been betrayed? Without this intervention, it takes a very long time before trust is rebuilt, and I often wonder if those who resist it want to maintain their ability to hide things from their spouse.
It is important to establish ground rules for the other partner. If they use the data to relentlessly question even the most innocuous events, then this will generate more friction and more conflict in the couple.
Beyond the rebuilding of trust, the treatment of affairs primarily focuses on improving the underlying quality of the relationship. Most affairs occur because people feel disconnected emotionally from their partner’s, and they can’t talk about it. Sometimes affairs occur because couples are sexually disconnected as well.
So couples therapy for affairs often looks a lot like couples therapy in general. Teach the couple to communicate emotionally. Teach them how to be more nurturing and loving towards each other. Work on teaching them communication skills to resolve conflicts. Help them to discuss and improve their sex life. I have written about this topic here and here.
Affairs have meaning and have impact. My very first family therapy trainer, Sheldon Starr, said, “An affair is like tossing a hand grenade into the middle of the marriage. It always creates change, sometimes for the better, sometimes for the worse.”
In counseling couples where there has been an affair my goal is to help them to survive and even grow through this painful experience.