Over the course of several years, psychologist/author Esther Perel contacted couples she had seen following an affair to find out more about the long-term impact of the infidelity. This posting is an abridged version of an article she published in 2010 (After the Storm: The Affair in Retrospective), in which she identified three basic patterns in the way couples reorganize themselves after an infidelity.
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People stray for many reasons — tainted love, revenge, unfulfilled longings, and plain old lust. At times, an affair is a quest for intensity, a rebellion against the confines of matrimony. An illicit liaison can be catastrophic, but it can also be liberating, a source of strength, a healing. And frequently it’s all these things at once. Some affairs are acts of resistance; others happen when we offer no resistance at all.
Stuck in the Past
In some marriages, the affair is not a transitional crisis, but a black hole trapping both parties in an endless round of bitterness, revenge, and self-pity. These couples endlessly gnaw at the same bone, circle and recircle the same grievances, reiterate the same mutual recriminations, and blame each other for their agony. Why they stay in the marriage is often as puzzling as why they can’t get beyond their mutual antagonism.
Couples who think in absolutes are less able to integrate the infidelity into the new substance of their marriage and likelier to get stuck in the past. For them, the affair is entirely bad and destructive, a transgression against commitment and morality. Complete remorse, followed by dramatic confession, unqualified promises of “never again,” unconditional forgiveness, and categorical absolution are the only acceptable outcomes.
Just Letting Go
A second pattern is found in couples who remain together because they honor values of lifelong commitment and continuity, family loyalty, and stability. They want to stay connected to their community of mutual friends and associates or have a strong religious affiliation. These couples can move past the infidelity, but they don’t necessarily transcend it. Their marriages revert to a more or less peaceful version of the way things were before the crisis, without undergoing any significant change in their relationship.
Reinventing the Self
Things are more fluid for those who see an affair as an event that, no matter how painful, may contain the seeds of something positive. Such couples understand that forgiveness doesn’t happen all at once, and they feel okay with partial forgiveness. To be sure, after betrayal, trust isn’t likely to be total. When declarations like, “How can I ever trust you again?” are made by such couples, I often interject, “Well it depends. Trust for what?”
Couples who can successfully recover from an infidelity often display a significant shift in language: From “you” and “me” to “our,” from “when you did this to me” to “this was an event in our life.” They talk about “When we had our crisis,” recounting a shared experience. Now they’re joint scriptwriters, sharing credit for the grand production of their life together.
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Straying can sound an alarm for the marriage, signaling an urgent need to pay attention to what ails it. Or it can be the death knell that follows a relationship’s last gasping breath. Most of us in the West today will have two or three marriages or committed relationships in our lifetime. For those daring enough to try, they may find themselves having all of them with the same person. An affair may spell the end of a first marriage, as well as the beginning of a new one.