Coping with Infidelity

What exactly defines infidelity? Most of us believe that infidelity is the act of intercourse occurring with an external person outside a relationship. Interestingly, feelings of hurt and betrayal can be equally intense on discovering that your partner has been having secret regular coffee dates with a work colleague. People Magazine asked readers to define an extra-marital affair, with this result.

  • 21% thinking about an involvement
  • 21% dinner and drinks
  • 24% kissing and petting
  • 26% sexual intercourse
  • 8% n/a

Whilst the definition of infidelity varies, many people describe the aftermath as worse than losing their partner through death. This is because relationships survive after death, but do not always survive after infidelity.

When a partner dies, he or she is remembered fondly and despite sadness and loneliness, love continues through memories and photographs. After infidelity, the relationship becomes unstable, and research shows that one of three things occur.

  1. The affair is ignored and may continue or is repeated but nothing changes in the relationship.
  2. The relationship ends.
  3. The affair stops. The old relationship discontinues and a new relationship begins.

Other Losses

Before we examine what may lie in the future, let’s look at the present. Discovering an affair can sometimes be catastrophic. Feelings such as denial, anger and betrayal can trigger behaviours such as excessive drinking, eating and smoking which can affect our thought processes, sleeping patterns and general functioning.

Whether the relationship ends or not, when infidelity occurs some serious losses are felt. Losses can be physical or symbolic and may include:

  • Loss of trust
  • Loss of security
  • Loss of hope/dreams
  • Loss of faith
  • Loss of intimacy and affection
  • Loss of self esteem

The obvious loss is that of trust in the other partner. Trust is crucial to all relationships and is usually earned. Whether one is able to trust his/her partner after the discovery of an affair is dependent on many things including one’s individual values, his/her ability to forgive and whether the person who had the affair is willing to re-earn that trust.

Loss of security for many can be twofold. A sense of security can mean feeling safe and comfortable in the knowledge that all is good around them. It can also mean for some, that the discovery of an affair may result in the relationship breaking down which in turn means division of property and changes in lifestyle.

An affair can damage or destroy one’s hopes and dreams, particularly if trust cannot be restored and the relationship ends. Many people have dreams such as raising their children in an “in-tact” family, owning their home, or travelling together in their twilight years. Losing hopes and dreams can be devastating until such hopes and dreams can be replaced with others.

Many people like to “blame” someone or something for an affair, and quite often people lose their faith either temporarily or permanently. Statements like “why would God do this to me?” or “life just isn’t worth living” are indicative of someone who has lost either their spiritual faith or their faith in life.

The loss of intimacy and affection leads to loneliness which can lead to poor or hasty decisions in subsequent partnerships. Whilst some relationships may have noticed the absence of intimacy and affection many months prior to the discovery of the affair, many relationships manage to retain their closeness, and the affair shocks the discoverer who is placed in turmoil. All of a sudden they are eating, sleeping and talking with no one.

Probably the most common loss suffered after the discovery of an affair, is the loss of self esteem. This sometimes occurs when the blame is self directed with statements such as “maybe if I had looked after myself better” and “if only I had paid more attention to her instead of my work”. Some also take the view that their partner “chose” someone else over and above them because of the way they look, act, work which assists poor self esteem.

Why Did It Happen?

There is no simple answer to why someone becomes unfaithful. It could be a symptom of other problems in the relationship or it could relate to something in your partner’s past. You may never truly know why it happened. Some believe that in order to reduce anxiety in relationships, we focus on a third party to whom we unconsciously pull into the situation. This is called “triangular relationships” which serve to keep the issues evident in the marital or original relationship, underground.

Usually there are three forces that can play a part. These are the forces within an individual that pull them toward affairs, the force within an individual that push them toward affairs, and lastly societal factors. We will go through these individually.

Forces which pull people toward affairs include attraction to others for reasons of power, admiration, companionship and sexual attraction. Excitement, risk, curiosity and falling in love are other forces that can be described as pull forces.

Forces within the individual which push them toward affairs include having a desire to escape or fill the gaps in a relationship, boredom or the need for punishment. Having the need to prove one’s attractiveness or self worth, or a desire for attention are other push forces.

Societal factors include movies, TV shows and romantic novels which tell the tale of glamorous love affairs. The general public is fascinated with headline news stories of public figures that have had affairs. Promotional marketing campaigns parade attractive, near naked models because “sex sells”.

The bottom line is that there is probably no ONE single reason for a person having an affair. There are usually many reasons including pull and push forces together with the influence of societal factors.

Types of Affairs

Knowing the type of infidelity sometimes makes understanding it a little easier. Was it a one night stand or a long term affair? Was it due to mid life crisis or an act of retaliation? Is there a sexual addiction or did he/she want the marriage to end?

There are several types of affairs which include:

  1. The curiosity affair – where one is bored and curious about the excitement of having an external relationship.
  2. The unintended affair – a simultaneous attraction occurs in an environment outside the relationship.
  3. The compulsive affair – often initiated by one with a risk taking and adventurous personality.
  4. The retaliative affair – is motivated by revenge and serves the purpose of equalising the wrongs. But do two wrongs equal a right?
  5. The split self affair – this happens when the needs of others are put before those of oneself, and the deprivation catches up. Usually a long term affair because decisions are avoided.
    The distance regulator – the relationship is usually over but tolerated for reasons which may include the children and security.
  6. Out the door affair – an “excuse” for leaving the relationship. This occurs when the relationship is over for the betrayer but wants a quick way out. Often clues are left for a quick discovery.
  7. Empty nest affairs – where couples have lived their lives around the children and have found that the empty nest is too empty and lonely.
  8. Sexual addiction – when the couple’s sexual drive is not equalised and the betrayer goes in search of sexual satisfaction outside the relationship.
  9. Intimacy avoiders – being intimate with someone outside the relationship helps retain distance from your partner. It is a means to staying absent.
  10. Conflict avoidance – an affair to control and diffuse anger, and avoid arguments and difference of opinion.

Infidelity Demographics

How many times have you heard people say “it will never happen to us”? Maybe you have even said it yourself. It is widely thought that affairs only occur in bad or unhealthy relationships, but that too is a myth. Sadly, no one is immune to infidelity.

Monogamous relationships are what most people say they believe in and look for partners with the same beliefs and values. But having these beliefs and values does not prevent large numbers of people from having extramarital affairs, because many people don’t intend to have the affair in the first place.

Research has shown that affairs happen:

  • in both healthy and unhealthy relationships
  • more so in couples who had brief courtships
  • more so in ages 20’s and 40’s
  • when one or both partners work long hours
  • with co-workers in the workplace
  • with a friend or family member

It therefore appears that even the most unlikely couple is not immune from infidelity occurring in their relationship and the subsequent disruption to their lives and the lives of those they care about. Affairs happen to all kinds of people, in all walks of life.

Conservative estimates are that 60 percent of men and 40 percent of women will have an extramarital affair. Taking into account that affairs happen not only in marital relationships but “committed” relationships as well, there is compelling evidence that the incidence of infidelity is increasing.

Understanding the prevalence of affairs within our society helps gives us a more realistic perspective when trying to understand why our partner has strayed. Having an understanding of just how many others are in or have been in the same situation can sometimes alleviate feelings of isolation or failure.


With infidelity come consequences. Many people are impacted. If we were to step outside and look in for a moment, we may be able to see just how many people are affected.

Firstly there is the betrayer. He/she has learnt to be an actor in order to not be suspected. After being found out, feelings of shame, guilt, despair and confusion are evident. In most cases, the betrayer is forced into making a quick decision between two relationships. With that choice come huge impacts for the betrayer, including many of the losses described by the person betrayed.

Sometimes the power and control is immediately reversed in the relationship and the betrayer is denied choices. He/she finds themselves being punished by sleeping on the couch or not having access to the children.

The lover sometimes wins and sometimes loses. 50% of romantic affairs end in divorce or separation with 25% of romantic affairs resulting in marriage to the lover. 75% of these marriages end in divorce. This means that quite often, the lover often loses out, and quite often suffers in silence because the relationship was hidden or undisclosed in the first place.

If there are children involved, their young lives are instantly changed resulting in emotional and behavioural reactions. It is rare for the children not to become involved either indirectly or directly and in the case of subsequent separation, it is the beginning of a totally new lifestyle and environment for the child to encounter.

Lastly, there is the person who has been betrayed. The betrayed can experience several stages, which are called the stages of grieving (part 2 of this article will explore these stages).

Do’s and Don’ts

There are various losses associated with infidelity and various feelings which are individual to you at this time. Don’t expect these feelings to disappear overnight. Below are some Do’s and Don’ts that you might like to consider:

DON’T make any major decisions right now. This is not the time to end your relationship or sell the family home. It could however, be a good time to reflect on your relationship and see what issues brought you both to this. These issues could possibly be dealt with in counselling and assist with a brighter more rewarding relationship in the long run.

DO look after yourself. You may be experiencing some physical reactions as a result of the infidelity such as sleep problems, losing weight or lack of concentration. Pay attention to these reactions and visit your GP if they persist.

DO experience emotions. Recognise that each day will be different and so will your moods. Enjoy laughter when it comes and surround yourself with people you enjoy and who make you laugh. It’s OK to cry too. Sometimes people hold their emotions inside, thinking it wrong to show them outwardly. If tears don’t come naturally, try encouraging them with family photo albums and favourite songs.

DO speak with your partner about the infidelity. You have a right to the information you need in order to make decisions, but recognise that knowledge and details may not be useful. Understand that your partner may not always have the answers or reasons for the infidelity occurring in the first place.

DO start writing a journal of your feelings and emotions. Writing is one of the most common therapeutic tools used because it helps to get rid of unwanted bitterness and resentment.

DO tell your children that you will be okay. DON’T weigh them down with details and DON’T discredit your partner to the children. At the end of the day, you want your children to know and love both parents, despite mistakes and misdemeanours.

DON’T play the blaming game over who caused the infidelity. It is just wasted energy and won’t change anything. In most cases there are two sides to every story and it takes two people to fall in and out of love. This includes blaming of the other partner, the third party, and yourself.

DO think twice before telling others. Some people, including family members can be unforgiving and may hold grudges for a long time, long after you do.

DON’T try to get through this time alone. Surround yourself with positive people and seek the support of a counsellor if required.

DON’T get into a retaliatory affair or relationship too quickly. Recognise your vulnerabilities and safeguard your emotions.

Stages of Grief

The betrayed can experience several stages, which are called the stages of grieving. Each of these stages is explained below.

Denial: On discovery of the affair, there is an initial period of shock and maybe denial. This may include making excuses for the betrayer or believing only what you want to hear. This is a perfectly normal reaction except where the denial extends beyond a feasible time.

In cases where denial extends years and years, the betrayed person most likely has inwardly experienced all stages of grief silently and reached acceptance, but chosen to live a lie.

Anger: When the full impact of infidelity hits home, pure rage sets in. Anger can be directed to the betrayer or displaced to others including the children, work colleagues or even God. This stage is a difficult one to pass through, and often violence becomes evident in what was a non-violent relationship.

Bargaining: Bargaining is the beginning of the decision making process where one or both parties look at offering negotiations. These bargains can be made with each other, with self or with a higher being and may include statements like “if she takes me back, I will never do that again” or “if you tell me where you are going, I might be able to trust you again”.

Depression: With the reality of the affair comes the knowledge of problems within the relationship that either can or can’t be worked out. Either way, one grieves for the relationship that once was which was less complicated and affair-free.

Depression has been described as a heavy cloud over your head which makes it difficult to function, enjoy life and even get up in the morning. Depression should be carefully monitored and addressed by professionals if needed.

Acceptance: The final stage is that of acceptance. True acceptance comes when functioning has returned and having acknowledged the incident in its entirety. Many people reach acceptance by being able to forgive all parties including self.

Forgiveness is like freeing oneself from all the negative feelings associated with the infidelity and being able to move forward either within the relationship or external to the relationship. Forgiving is a difficult challenge for some and acceptance is not dependent on the ability to forgive.

Getting Through It

Let’s look at some ways to help you get through this. You will notice that some days are better than others and you may even recognise that you have passed through or are “stuck” in one of the stages referred to previously. This may or may not be obvious, but if you are able to identify where you are at, it can be helpful to gauge where you are now compared to where you want to be.

Below are some helpful suggestions and techniques for alleviating the stress associated with the shock of infidelity. Please be reminded that if your bad days outnumber the good ones, your best option would be to seek professional assistance.

Journal Writing: First, we are going to learn to “journal”. Writing our feelings does not always come easy however; once you start you will soon learn the benefits of getting words down and completely out of your system.

Practice writing about the stages you have experienced, and if useful, allow it to be the start of your journal of feelings throughout this time in your life.

Every time you identify feelings such as anger, fear or sadness, go to your journal and write. After each entry, your feelings will have a lesser impact on your daily life.

Thought Stopping: Is a process of interrupting obsessive thoughts as a means of blocking them from one’s consciousness. It works much like when a child puts their hands over their ears and sings loudly to block out what they do not want to hear.

It can also act as a way of deliberately turning negatives cues into positive ones. Below are three thought stopping techniques for you to practice:

  • Thought replacement. When an unwanted thought enters, immediately replace the thought with a healthy, rational one.
  • Yelling “stop”. When the unwanted thought enters, immediately yell “STOP”. The yell can either be out loud or in the mind. Continue yelling STOP until the unwanted thought goes away.
  • Visual image. If you tend to visualise negative images, replace that image with something positive and healthy. Now let’s see if this technique works for you. You no doubt are repeatedly thinking about the affair, your partner’s lover, or other details which upset you.

Depending on whether this thought occurs visually or cognitively (thinking only), consciously replace it with an image or thought that automatically brings a smile to your face. For example, if you were to think repeatedly about the other person and their face often comes to mind, learn to automatically replace it with a “snap-shot” of your children at their happiest.

Relaxation: It is extremely difficult to be “relaxed” after the discovery of your partner’s affair; however it is equally important to get adequate sleep and rest in order to function well.

There are numerous relaxation techniques readily available from bookstores and internet sites but we will go through an easy-to-remember technique useful for people finding it hard to get to sleep:

  • Make sure your clothing is comfortable and lie in a straight position.
  • Tighten the muscles in your toes, and hold for a count of 10.
  • Relax your toes and enjoy the sensation of releasing the tension from them. Flex the muscles in your feet, and hold for a count of 10.
  • Relax your feet.
  • Continue to flex and relax each muscle group as you move slowly up through your entire body, e.g. your legs, abdomen, back, arms, neck and face. Breathe slowly and deeply, and sleep will come.
  • Making a Decision

As discussed earlier, one of three events occur after the discovery of an affair. For some, nothing changes in the relationship and the affair is either ignored, denied, repeated, or continued. The affair can unfortunately also end a relationship depending on the intensity and length of the affair and the values of the parties involved.

For others, the occurrence of an affair can signal a reassessment of the existing relationship and provides an opportunity for change, growth and a more improved relationship.