I recently spoke with Melbourne relationship counsellor Lauren Sokolski about how adultery and infidelity can impact a couple. We spoke about how couples tend to respond and how you can best recover from adultery or infidelity in your relationship.
Here’s what she had to say in response to my questions…
What is considered infidelity or an affair?
I think of infidelity or an affair as any sort of extra-‘marital’ relationship that detracts from either the emotional or physical/sexual relationship you are having with your significant other.
For a heterosexual couple, this extra relationship would typically be with a member of the opposite sex and for same-sex couples, it would be with a member of the same sex. What I mean by detracting from the main relationship is to do with the energy and attention that is being invested into another person at the expense of the primary relationship.
When it comes to infidelity, do different couples have different reactions or are there common reactions amongst all couples?
Just as all human beings are unique, each couple partnership is unique so of course, there will be differences in reactions amongst couples.
Depending on what has been going on in the relationship between the primary couple and at what developmental stage of the relationship they are (new relationship, several or many years together), this will influence each couple’s reactions.
There is no right way to respond and each couple has to find their way through this difficult experience.
With the increase in online infidelity, how does a couple navigate an online relationship or betrayal?
I think the principles are pretty much the same whether it is an online affair or in-person: the betrayed partner needs to know that their partner has ceased all contact with the other person.
This could be deleting them from their phone contacts, from Facebook, and from any other social media context that they have been using to connect. The betrayed partner may need to be able to monitor their partner’s social media use in order to be assured that no further contact is occurring.
Their partner also needs to let them know as soon as it happens should the other party try to make contact with them in any way. This will help in rebuilding trust in the relationship.
What are some of the most common responses a partner may have to infidelity?
There are often common reactions to infidelity which may include the betrayed partner feeling highly emotional, crying easily, becoming hyper-vigilant towards their partner, feeling angry/guilty/responsible, experiencing flashbacks, obsessing over the details, and behaving erratically.
The unfaithful partner usually experiences feelings of guilt, remorse and sometimes, shame. This isn’t a comprehensive list and partners may experience some or none of these responses. But it can be helpful to know that any of these reactions are perfectly normal given the circumstances.
Is it helpful for couples to keep rehashing the details of an affair or do they need to try and forget and move on?
This really depends on the couple/betrayed partner. Some partners feel a need to know all the details and although this may make them feel worse, it can sometimes be helpful to know what actually occurred rather than imagining and fantasizing about what may have occurred in the affair.
However, if the partner is finding it difficult to get these images out of their heads, then it may not be useful for them to keep asking specific questions. The unfaithful partner must be willing to answer any questions their partner may have as this will allow for transparency and may assist in the process of rebuilding trust.
What do you see as important for a couple to do when there has been an emotional affair?
Regardless of whether it is an emotional or sexual affair, it is important to understand that the affair is saying something about the state of the primary relationship.
It is vital that partners start to identify and talk about the difficulties in their relationship and it is equally important for partners to intentionally create opportunities to reconnect and nurture the relationship. This includes spending time together without discussing painful topics.
How can therapy help a couple when there has been an affair?
In my work with couples, I think about the affair as a catalyst to understand what hasn’t been working in their relationship. This is not to suggest that the unfaithful partner isn’t fully responsible for having the affair. She or he is responsible for his or her behaviour and choices that they’ve made. But addressing it as a shared issue in the relationship can enable both partners to move forward with a greater understanding of why this occurred and provide an opportunity to create an improved relationship.
Therapy can provide the opportunity for couples to address feelings openly and honestly in a safe place in order to be able to make some changes in their relationship. I often work with the unfaithful partner, with their partner present, to consider questions such as:
- What did I like about myself in that other relationship?
- How was I different?
- Of the way I was in that relationship, what would I like to bring back so that I can be the person I want to be in my primary relationship?
- How can my partner help to foster that part of me in this relationship?
- What was the attraction for me in the affair?
Are there certain approaches or tasks that need to happen in order to heal from an affair?
Rebuilding trust is the most important task after an affair. There are a few ‘rules’ that will help in this regard. These include:
- It is impossible to rebuild trust in the relationship if the unfaithful partner is still having contact with the affair partner.
- The unfaithful partner must be willing to share their whereabouts.
- The unfaithful partner must be willing to answer their partner’s questions, even if it is difficult to do so.
- It is important that any encounters with the affair partner are shared before being asked. Talking about it with their partner won’t create as much upset as hiding it from them.
- It is important to invest in the relationship what was being invested in the affair.
How much compassion the unfaithful partner has towards the betrayed partner is an important factor in rebuilding a successful relationship.
If the unfaithful partner minimizes what she or he did, doesn’t take full responsibility for having the affair, or even blames their partner for their actions, there is a lot of work that will need to be done before resurrecting the relationship.
The key to healing is forgiveness. This is usually the last step in the healing process and can take much time to get to. It often involves a conscious decision on the betrayed partner’s part to stop blaming their partner. This can then open the door to real intimacy and connection.
How long does it tend to take for a couple to fully recover from one partner having an emotional affair?
There is no set recovery time and it really is different for different people. Some people recover more quickly than others and this may be dependent on factors such as previous experiences this person has had in other relationships; what their experience was growing up in their families (perhaps their father or mother had an affair); how long the couple has been together, to name a few.
Can all couples recover from an affair if they try, or is it just too hard for some?
Not all couples are able to recover from an affair.
So much depends on what has been going on in their relationship to lead up to this point and whether both partners are truly committed to repairing the relationship. It can take some time for either partner to be certain about re-investing in the relationship and taking what can feel like a risk to open up to each other without knowing for sure if the relationship will recover.
Even when the unfaithful partner is working diligently to repair the relationship, this doesn’t necessarily convince their partner of their intentions to be faithful from now on. It takes time and consistent effort to show your partner that you are serious about repairing the relationship. It also usually takes quite a period of time for the betrayed partner to be able to trust again.
Lauren Sokolski is a registered social worker and therapist who has been working for over 20 years. She has extensive experience working with individuals and couples to address their relationship difficulties, navigating life transitions, dealing with depression, anxiety, and issues of grief and loss. Lauren is in private practice in Melbourne, with offices in Bentleigh, South Yarra and Caulfield North. She can be contacted via email or by phone on 0423 932 200. You can also visit her website at www.laurensokolski.com.au
Do you need relationship help?
Since 2003, Clinton Power has helped thousands of couples and individuals as a counsellor and psychotherapist in private practice in Sydney and online in Australia. Clinton regularly comments in the media on issues of relationships and has appeared on Channel 7, The Sydney Morning Herald, and ABC Radio. Clinton’s eBook, 31 Days to Build a Better Relationship is available through his website or Amazon. Click here to take Clinton’s relationship checkup quiz to find out how well you know your partner.