You’ve probably heard that affairs in marriage are not uncommon. Roughly 40 percent of divorced men and women report having had an affair during their marriage, and I consider these estimates much closer to the likely truth of the matter than asking married couples if they’ve ever had a little something-something going on the side. What we don’t have a good idea about yet is the factors that will predict whether a couple can successfully weather the storm of an affair and, perhaps, make their relationship better in time.
The mere idea of a couple trying to make things work after an affair might seem ludicrous to you, but many couples do want to make their marriage work. The real question is whether the affair is a sign on the road toward divorce, or a symptom of a troubled marriage that can be nursed back to health.
In the case of Sam and Mari, I provided them with the most scientifically valid treatment for couples struggling with an affair. The treatment involves several important elements, but at its core includes a careful examination of the affair’s impact on each person and the relationship, as well as a careful study of the reason for the affair in the first place. All of this work follows from establishing basic ground rules about whether and how much the participating person will have any contact with the outside person.
Once these tasks are achieved, a major component of the model is cultivating forgiveness toward the participating partner and his/her transgressions. In order for a couple to move forward, each person must take responsibility for his/her own actions with the burden of responsibility on the participating partner. Finding forgiveness ultimately releases the couple from the control the affair has on their day-to-day emotions and allows the couple to solidify improvements in their relationship.
When it works, this treatment is great. For Sam and Mari, I couldn’t get them over the hump. The arrival of their boy shortly after the revelation only added stress to their lives. Sam was in love with Molly, and it was revealed that he had an intense need for her adoration. As his spouse, Mari couldn’t satiate his need to be put on a pedestal and as a consequence Sam had a tough time entering back into the reality of his life.
Although this particular case didn’t end well for the couple, or for me as a counselor, I have a lot of hope. Affairs happen for many different reasons, but the bottom line is that couples can recover in time if both people truly want to stay together and are willing to work for it. Part of the problem with staying together is that it’s hard damn work, and it’s often easier to withdraw than to give the relationship a genuine shot for improvement.
I hope you don’t have to struggle with these issues. If you do, I hope this column generates some ideas about moving forward and the factors to consider as you do so. Good luck!
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