Couples who survive an affair can be generally divided into three groups, says Esther Perel, M.A., author of Mating in Captivity: Unlocking Erotic Intelligence. Perel is a marriage therapist who wondered just how “happily ever after” the couples who survived an affair lived after the reconciliation. She contacted couples whom she had successfully treated years prior for infidelity to determine how they looked back at the event and its impact on their marriage. Their retrospective views were telling.
After completing interviews with the couples, Perel found they fell into three general groups. She writes extensively about her findings along with pieces of case studies for Psychotherapy Networker Magazine in an article called “After the Storm”. It’s well worth the read, particularly if you or your partner has experienced an affair or other type of turmoil during your marriage. The couples were categorized as:
- Living in the Past—These couples stay married, but never successfully move past the affair. Forgiveness is not truly given. The offending couple may not take any responsibility for contributing to relationship problems. “The affair has become the narrative of their union,” says Perel, who adds, “It’s a black hole trapping both parties in an endless round of bitterness, revenge, and self-pity.”
- The Survivors—These couples revert to a fairly peaceful marriage, similar to what they had before the affair. They stay in the marriage because they honor the values of commitment and loyalty, and they don’t want to break up their families. They may lack passion in their marriage, but they want to do the “right thing.” They see the affair as a painful mistake. They don’t transcend the affair, but they do move beyond it.
- The Explorers—These couples use the infidelity as a catalyst for change, transcending the experience to bring their relationship to new heights previously not experienced. They reinvent their relationship, learning from their failures and past hurts, and each take responsibility for their part in the marriage’s deterioration. The infidelity becomes an impetus for a transformative experience.
Perel explains that the most successful couples shifted from talking about “you” and “me” (what you did to me) to reflecting on “our life” or “our crisis”. (Read The Power of “We” in Relationships.)
Don’t’ just overcome adversity; be transformed by it. In an ideal world, we would all look for signs of relationship stress or difficulty before an emergency like infidelity takes hold in the marriage. For those who do experience a deep valley, such as an affair, use the opportunity to change yourself and your partnership for the better. Forgiveness may be a process. Moving on may be a process. But dwelling on past hurts for years afterward is a surefire path to long-term marital unhappiness.
Do these groups sound accurate to you? Why do you think it often takes something drastic to get our attention and bring about positive change in relationships?
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