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Affairs – to tell or not tell, and dealing with the aftermath

Affairs happen: as far one can tell they have always happened and always will happen. The question many couples face is how to handle an affair when it is discovered and the question some individuals face, who want to remain with a partner, is, should I tell my partner that I have been having an affair?

The first thing to understand is that the person who has been cheated on will almost certainly be devastated and enraged once they know. For a couple wanting to stay together, the first task is to be able to work with the betrayal, which I will come to in a minute. For the individual wondering whether to tell a partner, this raises profound ethical questions for them, which need to worked though, preferably with someone else, in a safe setting, which is where a good therapist can be helpful. Amongst the sorts of questions that are useful to ask are, what is the benefit to my partner in being told? Can I live in a relationship where I do not feel that I am being honest? Am I seeking forgiveness from my partner when I need it from myself? Am I really wanting to bring the relationship to an end and this is only way I can see to do it? What will I do if I stay and don’t tell and it is discovered in the future?

When the secret comes out into the open, the existing relationship is over, there is no going back, only a going forward in a new relationship, if they can find their way to it together. The person who has been betrayed will want to know all about it and that can be done in one of two ways, the first of which can be helpful, the second of which will almost certainly doom the relationship.

For this to be done constructively both parties have to understand the need for transparency once the affair is known about. Attempts to conceal anything from the person who has been betrayed will prevent the restoration of the trust needed in any relationship. The person who has been betrayed should be given the right to ask what they need and want to know, with the following caveat that they do not immediately go on the attack every time they hear a new detail. They will also need to hear more than once, something that the person who has had the affair often does not want to do, as each telling of what happens leaves them feeling guilty as the ‘bad’ one. In needing to hear more than once, it is important that the person who has been cheated on is not continually re-traumatised and does not use each telling to take their revenge on their partner – such a way is destructive and leads to the end of the relationship.

Which brings us to another difficult part of repairing a relationship where there has been an affair, which is the integration of the person who has had the affair’s story, into the couple’s joint narrative of their relationship. Very often they want to go back to a point before the affair, where the relationship was not working for them and tell their story in a way that subtly and often not so subtly blames the partner for their affair. It seems to me that is an attempt to relieve their sense of guilt and of restoring some sort of balance in the relationship where their story can be heard. And while it is important that their story is heard, it is equally important in the telling of their story, that they do not blame their partner and take responsibility for their turning away and then stepping outside of the relationship to have the affair. If their partner can then forgive them and take responsibility for anything they feel they need to take responsibility for, before the affair started, then they as a couple have a chance of building a new relationship. In all this a skilled couples therapist can be very useful, as is the framework Gottman Method Couples therapy provides, to help couples forge the new relationship that is needed after the discovery of an affair or if the relationship is to end, then to help the couple to find a more constructive way of ending that recognises the pain, hurt and anger in what has happened without it escalating into something that is damaging to both.










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