What Ideally Happens When An Affair is Discovered?
What typically happens is fury on one side, and a desperate show of contrition on the other. The person who has had the affair admits that they have done something evidently terrible for reasons that they are in no mood to defend. They were – they say meekly – merely being ‘idiotic’. The partner for their part is deeply hurt and enraged – and encouraged to be even more so by most onlookers; they are shell shocked by those lies about messages and meetings; they are struck by the monstrosity displayed by their spouse in undressing and having sex with someone else (when they were meant to be doing bath time). There are brutal accusations, tears and very long sulks. The relationship might be destroyed or it might continue – but there are sure to be high levels of hostility and distrust long into the future. The guilty partner will know that they can never now make any legitimate complaints, nor expect any mercy or tenderness. Their task will be to atone more or less without end.
But there’s another possibility which can be sketched out initially in its fantasy form. In this case, when the affair is discovered, the key factor won’t be seen as the sex or the hotel meetings or the kisses in the bathroom. Rather the affair will be understood as a symptom of an unhappiness that both partners can be committed to exploring and resolving without rancour: the real issue will firmly be ‘what led to the affair?’ – not ‘how dare you?’ The focus will be on how it came about that one of them got into an affair-ready state. The discussion won’t be powered by jealousy, but by open-minded curiosity. The real target of investigation won’t be when the meetings took place or what happened in the seaside B&B; it will be the task of uncovering the moments of emotional disconnection that unfolded during long years before the fateful tryst.
Together the couple might go through how they came to take one another for granted, how one of them felt misunderstood or abandoned or ignored, why it was so difficult to address their hurt and how things might be set right in the future. The burden wouldn’t be placed solely on the shoulders of the one who had the affair. It would be accepted, with immense maturity, that there must have been problems on both sides. The one who in normal terms was ‘betrayed’ would concede that the liaison was only partly the unfaithful partner’s responsibility. For their part, the one who had the affair wouldn’t focus overly on their own guilt; they would be concerned about and saddened by their inability, at a sufficiently early stage, properly to communicate their growing distress and alienation. They would locate their error not around having had sex with someone else but around failing to work out how to communicate their emotional wounds properly and in good time to their partner.
Instead of being destroyed, the relationship would thereby be improved – because the couple would emerge with a much better understanding of how to avoid the kind of emotional disconnection that had inspired the affair in the first place. Looking back on their relationship, they would identify the affair as an important turning point after which they gradually learnt to be more patient, more understanding and more communicative partners to one another.
Admittedly, this is an ideal. Few of us will manage such exemplary behaviour. There are likely to be irrational scenes. But the hope is that despite the anger and the sense of betrayal, there can truly at some stage be a recognition that the affair didn’t happen by accident or from nowhere. It will be viewed as something evidently bad but also poignantly comprehensible; one person may be much more guilty, but it can’t be that the other had no role at all in creating an affair-ready state. And an affair won’t be seen as a symptom of a mean-minded desire to exit the relationship so much as a dangerously distorted plea for intimacy and connection – an attempt, however wrongly enacted, by one person to communicate to another what they so desperately wanted and needed from love.