Arlene Brewster, PhD
Arlene Brewster, PhD


What Does It Mean: Affairs

I found out my husband is emailing a woman he knew in high school and met again at their reunion.  He states they are just friends and nothing is going on. I secretly checked his emails and the things they are writing to each other are both intimate and sexually suggestive. Now he is mad at me for checking on his emails, and I am mad at him for talking with her. We keep having the same fight over and over again.

Affairs are complicated and difficult to define. Can we call it an affair only if there is sexual contact?  Is intimate and suggestive talk an affair? Is watching pornography on line an affair? Is flirting harmless? Trying to define an affair is a confusing task.

Generally therapists divide affairs into two types: relationships where the couple is sexually involved, and affairs where here is no sex, but the relationship is highly charged and there is sharing of intimacies.  We call this relationship an “emotional affair”.  Although the participants involved in emotional  affairs will often deny that anything inappropriate is happening, these relationships involves keeping secrets from their spouses. (Many long term relationships do not involve marriage, but I am calling the primary partner “spouse” to avoid confusion.)

Whatever is involved in the couple’s interaction, an affair is perceived by the spouse as a betrayal of trust. It is the breaking of the implicit contract between two people that they will care for and watch out for each other.  Marriages can survive affairs, but it involves hard work and commitment from both members of the couple.

Several things need to take place if couple therapy is going to work after the discovery of an affair. First, the partner having the affair needs to give up the affair partner. While he or she is involved in an affair, the emotional energy is going in the direction of the affair partner and in trying to keep the secrets. The primary partner is excluded because the intimate relationship is with the affair partner. One of the major goals of therapy is the rebuilding of trust. This is impossible to do if the spouse is actively being cheated on. The second criteria for meaningful therapy is that the spouse having the affair is sincerely remorseful. He or she has to want to rebuild the relationship and not just regret getting caught. The third criteria for successful therapy is that the betrayed spouse be willing to look at how he or she needs to change the marital relationship. Affairs happen for many reasons, not just because there are marital problems.  But the discovery of the affair brings the marriage into crises. Crises always signals that change is needed. This can be an opportunity for the couple to relate at a different and hopefully deeper level .

These elements: ending the affair, sincere remorse, and looking honestly at the marital relationship do not need to be there at the beginning of therapy. In fact couples come into therapy angry, estranged, and usually arguing about whose fault the affair was. But if therapy to work, the emphasis needs to change from fault finding to trust building.

A good reference for couples is After the Affair: Healing the Pain and Rebuilding Trust When a Partner Has Been Unfaithful by Janis Spring.


© Arlene Brewster, PhD. All rights reserved.