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  • Writer's pictureTravis

Affairs: Danger Signs in Your Marriage

Updated: Jan 3, 2021

Why do affairs start in the first place?

For some partners, they want to end their marriage or love relationship, and feel like an affair is the only way of getting out. Other partners or spouses chase after a “rush” that comes from the novelty of new situations. For most couples, a partner or spouse becomes more vulnerable to an affair after living for perhaps years in an emotional desert. When attention from another person is lavished on them, it may feel like their drought of caring and love is getting drenched for sometimes the first time in years.

How are affairs defined?

The meaning of an affair can differ for couples, as some partners may accept a more open stance of flirtation from their mate. For most couples, infidelity is experienced as an emotional and/or sexual connection that is a threat to the primary relationship. The hurt partner often experiences trauma symptoms that studies show are nearly as harmful as physical abuse in a relationship.

If a marriage or love relationship is going to survive after an affair, the hurt and damage caused by the betrayal need to be addressed and resolved, or the relationship will stay stuck in a repetitive pattern where the hurt partner’s attention can’t move beyond the pain.

In my clinical practice, I have worked with couples where an affair from 20 or 30 years ago comes alive in the room as if it were still happening — not surprising considering how most partners experience a betrayal as a loss of trust that is traumatizing.

When a marriage or love relationship is in a secure state, both partners know that their partners think of them throughout the day, and that they can rely on each other to be there for them when needed. When trust is broken, the affair can threaten the existence of the relationship. Partners who have been betrayed often go into separation protest, pursuing a connection with the betraying partner while also falling into anguish and despair from the intense hurt resulting from the betrayal. The violation of trust between partners can question the entire relationship’s validity, and until the injury of the affair is addressed, the hurt partner most likely will not be able to move forward in the relationship.

Partners who experience betrayal face an intensification of anxiety, sadness, and often shame. They struggle to regain a sense of stability, when the partner they may have known for years suddenly feels like a stranger. This person broke their trust. Is the entire relationship negated? The betraying partner’s reaction to the discovery of the affair can make a dramatic impact.

With couples, I ask specifically how the affair was discovered. Did the betraying partner disclose the affair, or was it an unexpected discovery that most likely shocked the hurt partner? Does the betraying partner take responsibility for their actions? Do they reach out and respond to the betrayed partner in a way that shows a deep understanding of the pain the hurt partner may be experiencing?

What predicts separation in a marriage or love relationship?

Though sustained hostility ranks as the highest factor predicting separation in a relationship, affairs are intensely painful. Hurt partners can’t just “forgive and move on.” The brain won’t allow for such a simple process when survival feels like it is on the line, and simple phrases often minimize and dismiss the betrayed partner’s experience. Images of the affair can overwhelm the hurt partner, often appearing in their nightmares.

As painful as betrayals can be, partners who have caused the pain through acts of betrayal can sometimes face even worse judgments when they arrive in an office for marriage or couples therapy. Some therapists may show contempt for the betraying partner through subtle looks or explicit words that shame them. As hurtful as affairs can be, an experienced couples therapist also knows that affairs rarely happen due to random occurrences or through chance. In fact, research shows there are 24 precursor steps that lead to and predict future betrayals.

The common stages that lead to affairs include:

1. Poor conflict management skills: hostile or avoidant styles of engagement with conflict in the relationship

2. Loneliness: negative patterns of engagement lead to a sense of being alone

3. Opportunity: the lonely partner meets a nice, warm person at a conference or at the gym

4. Comparison: the new, nice, warm person is a caring listener who laughs at jokes and comforts when needed

5. Plunge: the other partner in the relationship is left behind in the betraying partner’s mind as they fall for another person

While many couples may shift into loneliness or dissatisfaction at times in their marriage or love relationships, many do not shift into negatively comparing their partners to other potential mates. The key factor that leads to the final step into an affair is when the betraying partner believes “the grass is greener” elsewhere. The tumult of betrayal is established, and a cycle of hurt and pain ensues.

PTSD and the betrayed partner

Betrayed partners often experience symptoms of Post-traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), similar to veterans returning from war, living in a state of hyper-arousal as enemies may lurk behind every tree. Not uncommon for betrayed partners, every waking hour is preoccupied with pouring over emails, texts, instagram feeds and receipts as they search for signs of betrayal. Betrayed partners often experience images of their betraying partners with the affair, bringing waves of rage, pain, anxiety, and numbness, rising into panic and sinking into depression. Insomnia and nightmares may persist, as the trauma of the affair hijacks their central nervous system. This is one of the reasons a hurt partner struggles to accept an apology from the betraying partner. Attacks, incriminations and interrogations may continue by the betraying partner until the affair is effectively addressed.

Symptoms of danger in a marriage or love relationship

Partners in marriages or love relationships typically share daily updates, including excitement and stressful complaints in their personal lives. These exchanges help wall-off threats from others. However, when emotional hurts occur that are often subtle, partners stop confiding in each other, withholding daily stories and avoiding discussions about the relationship that could address problems. When the “friendly” other person suddenly appears, the partner is susceptible to their charm, and a connection can develop, usually starting with joking or storytelling that grows into deeper confiding and even complaining about the primary marriage or love relationship.

Is the betraying partner just a bad person?

Research from John Gottman of Gottman Method Couples Therapy shows that affairs do not occur because of a weak character or an immoral personality. Untamed lust or overwhelming temptation are also not the key factors leading to affairs. instead, affairs are caused by a progressive erosion of trust in the marriage or love relationship that begins long before the affair. Trust breaks down in small, subtle ways in the beginning as partners turn away from each other. Actions of thoughtfulness dissipate in the primary love relationship, while negativity seeps into how each partner sees the other.

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