When the Affair Ends, the Self-Examination Begins
Tuesday, March 30, 1999; Page Z13
Researchers and affair survivors urge you to seek help and confront the different issues that may have propelled you or your spouse into an affair.
Don't expect an easy mend.
Affairs often reflect deeper issues--in the individual and the marital relationship--that have set the stage for infidelity. Baltimore psychologist Shirley Glass and author Peggy Vaughan suggest that people explore these areas:
* What does the affair say about the individual?
Explore the personal issues, whether it be a feeling of entitlement, low self-esteem, hypersexuality or mid-life crises in which you question everything about your life--your work, your marriage, your place in the community. There may even be a family history of infidelity where having an affair is a "learned behavior" and is implicitly condoned or encouraged.
For many people, the affair is a life-changing event. It often prompts a thorough self-examination and can lead to a complete redirection of a person's life. Some people finally "grow up" in the wake of an affair. Others say the pain and loss experienced by infidelity forced them to look for a spiritual demension to their lives beyond relationships.
The spouse who has been betrayed also has to do some self-examination. Did you suspect the affair was going on? What about your self-esteem? Your sense of entitlement to a faithful partner? Your sexual needs? Your family history? Life is not the same for you, either.
* What does the affair say about the relationship? What is going on--or not going on in your marriage? Relationships are dynamic and mysterious and there is no one definition of a marriage that works and endures. But infidelity is a clue that something is amiss in the marriage. Marital conflict may be the triggering event for one or both spouses to get involved with other people.
"Often problems in the marriage provide you with a vulnerability for affairs, but relationship problems alone are not the only cause," says Glass. "After all, a lot of people unhappily married do not have affairs."
Usually, therapists say, it is a combination of factors that culminate in an affair. While the driving motivation may be rooted in the psychological needs of the individual, "falling in love" outside the bounds of marriage involves a myriad set of circumstances that aren't easily explained--except in hindsight.
For many couples that decide to stay together after an affair, restoring trust is a key issue. Therapists point out that honest and open communication is a place to start. That may mean learning new skills and changing expectations of what a marriage can realistically provide to both spouses.
"The underlying feature of all affairs for all parties involved is dishonesty," says Vaughan, who urges couples to set up a habit of honesty early in a marriage. "Physical attractions are normal. But we go about it . . . backwards and address all of those feelings and issues after the crises. Start talking now. Start from day one of the marriage. And the open communication must be ongoing."
In the aftermath of an affair, people waste time focusing on blame rather than healing and understanding, she says. You blame yourself. You blame the relationship. You blame the other person. Blaming is easy. Understanding the complexities of human nature takes work.
And time. Affair suvivors say it can take many years to come to terms with infidelity.
Vaughan urges people to check their assumptions. "Most of us fully intend to be monogamous," she says. "But we assume too much. We assume we know why affairs happen. We assume only bad people have affairs. We assume our partners will always be faithful.
"There is no absolute protection from affairs," says Vaughan. "No one is immune. You have to fight for your marriage. You have to fight for honesty. And it's not an easy path."
Finally, most researchers agree that recovery from affairs does not always mean staying married. It's not a matter of wining or losing but understanding the self, they say. The goal is a meaningful life.
"It really is not the job of one partner to prevent the other from having an affair," says psychologist Janis Abrahms Spring. "We are all the gatekeepers of our own lives. To move forward, we need to learn to forgive--others and ourselves."
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