You are currently viewing 198: Extramarital Affair Recovery

198: Extramarital Affair Recovery

Acting out in an affair are often signs of problems with the person’s life. A push / pull dynamic can fuel the infidelity. Join sex therapist and author Laurie Watson and couples therapist Dr. Adam Mathews as they talk about the causes and how to recover from the pain of infidelity.

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Laurie Watson:                  Adam, we’re going to talk about extramarital affairs today, a difficult subject and something that certainly brings up a lot of pain for couples, but we want to offer some hope and some new ways to think about it. Hello again, and welcome to Foreplay – Radio Sex Therapy. I’m your host, certified sex therapist, Laurie Watson, author of Wanting Sex Again, and blogger at Psychology Today and WebMD , and I have with me Dr. Adam Mathews, my co-host, who’s a couples therapist, psychotherapist, and President of NCAMFT. Foreplay is dedicated to helping couples keep it hot. Thanks for listening. Now, onto today’s topic.

Adam Mathews:               A tricky subject today on the podcast, affairs, extramarital affairs. It’s tricky for a lot of different reasons, right?

Laurie Watson:                  It is.

Adam Mathews:               People classify affairs in a lot of different ways, in how you label affairs whether, because then, a lot of people, it’s not just a sexual affair, it can be an emotional affair. Some people are going to define kissing somebody else as an affair. Somebody might even just describe not telling their partner about a relationship that’s forming with somebody that they’re attracted to as an affair, and so it’s wide-ranging and it’s one of the more devastating things to a relationship, right? I think it’s devastating in part because of how much it breaks the trust, the core trust in the relationship. It’s for most people, especially people in committed monogamous relationships, they believe that their sexual relationship is like the primary boundary that distinguishes their relationship from every other relationship that they have in life, and so that primary boundary gets violated and it gets broken, and so it’s very difficult to recover from something like that, but it is recoverable.

Laurie Watson:                  It is.

Adam Mathews:               There are ways that you can begin to move through a healing process in an affair.

Laurie Watson:                  And rebuild trust.

Adam Mathews:               And rebuild that trust.

Laurie Watson:                  Yeah.

Adam Mathews:               Right?

Laurie Watson:                  Yeah. I think that affairs happen for two reasons. One, an affair is a refuge from a relationship problem in the marriage, or in the committed partnership, but it also comes from a pain in a person’s life. There’s two forces often, or one or the other force that’s happening. The classic midlife crises is the person who, maybe there are marital stressors, but they’re facing aging, they’re facing disappointments in their career.

Adam Mathews:               Yeah.

Laurie Watson:                  There are many internal issues that they’re going through that caused them to act out and have an affair.

Adam Mathews:               Yeah. Yeah. I would call this the push-pull effect, right? If there’s relationship problems going on that can often be pushing them out of the relationship, where they turn to other things, or the internal that’s pulling them towards something that they’re wanting, that they feel like is lacking either in them internally or in the relationship, and so like recognizing that, those things, you then begin to just turn to something that you feel like is going to give you what you’re lacking in that, either that safety in the relationship that you’re not experiencing, the excitement, the attention, or it’s going to satisfy that kind of pain.

Laurie Watson:                  Right. That’s the push.

Adam Mathews:               That’s the push.

Laurie Watson:                  That’s the push out of the relationship, and the pull toward is what?

Adam Mathews:               Yeah. It is something that you’re missing internally in yourself, confidence, loneliness, meaning in life, feeling like there’s something that you’re missing out on.

Laurie Watson:                  And they’re trying to find that in a third-party.

Adam Mathews:               Yeah. Right. It’s difficult because those things, those things feel very real to the person that’s seeking them out, right?

Laurie Watson:                  Yeah, and I’m aware as we’re talking about this in a very methodical therapist-like way, we understand that if you’ve been betrayed, this is very painful.

Adam Mathews:               Yeah. Oh, yeah.

Laurie Watson:                  Very, very painful, and so we don’t want to minimize the person who was in the relationship that did not step out their pain, but we also want you to think about this from two parts. I mean, this recruitment of a third-party actually allows stability to happen without real change, so the person maybe splits off and says, “Okay. I’m going to get my sex needs met over here. I’m going to keep my family intact, and that way, I can have what I need. I can feel stable without actually growing, developing, changing, or making the marriage better, or confronting the issues between myself and my partner, or in myself.

Adam Mathews:               Oh, yeah. Yeah. Yeah, I think it provides a sense of it’s safer, right? It’s safer than doing the hard work of addressing those things in the relationship or in the self, and I would say-

Laurie Watson:                  Temporarily say.

Adam Mathews:               Temporarily, yeah, and I think that oftentimes, when people, say the person that has been cheated on says that, “I was blindsided by this. I didn’t see this coming,” a lot of times, I think it’s an effect of that because for a while, it makes the marriage or the committed relationship more stable than it was, and so it feels like things are good, and it’s hard to see that, right? As a person that’s been cheated on, you’re feeling blindsided, you’re feeling run over, you’re feeling like it’s extremely personal, like it’s a reaction to you, and to a flaw that you have, or something that’s wrong with you, which is not true, but it’s hard to see that you didn’t really miss something. It just, that introduction of that third person into the relationship made it feel more stable, but that doesn’t last, right?

Laurie Watson:                  It doesn’t. Right, and it’s also false because the fantasy of who that person is includes you’re always dressed up, you always have time for each other, you’re not talking about the bills, you’re not talking about the stressors of your kids.

Adam Mathews:               Yeah.

Laurie Watson:                  I mean, it’s a fantasy, and there’s very little that competes with that gilded fantasy.

Adam Mathews:               Yeah. Yeah. I mean, there’s lots of research that’s just, might be helpful to mention too about the fact that affair relationships, people that leave their spouse for affair relationships, those relationships rarely last. Like the longest that they last, the top end is something like three years, so-

Laurie Watson:                  Wow, I didn’t know that. I believe that.

Adam Mathews:               Yeah.

Laurie Watson:                  I mean, I think the problem with an affair in terms of the person who’s acting out is they’re not developing and growing. They’re not changing.

Adam Mathews:               Right. Yeah.

Laurie Watson:                  Whatever dynamic was not working in the marriage, they haven’t fixed that.

Adam Mathews:               Right.

Laurie Watson:                  They haven’t confronted it, and so how can they kind of expect that they’re going to turn to another person? It’s a fantasy to believe that, “I’m just with the wrong person.”

Adam Mathews:               Yeah.

Laurie Watson:                  As it turns out, we bring ourselves to every relationship, and so we’re going to recreate similar problems.

Adam Mathews:               Yeah, your problems are going to follow you in those cases, because you’re not actually dealing with anything that’s significant, either in the relationship or within yourself, that’s going to change it, so you end up having those same problems in the relationship if you fully lean into the affair relationship, right?

Laurie Watson:                  Yeah. Right.

Adam Mathews:               That when, to be able to do that, most people … I am fully convinced that the vast majority of people do not go into their marriage or enter their long-term relationship feeling like they are going to have affairs, right?

Laurie Watson:                  Absolutely not.

Adam Mathews:               They’re not planning on having an affair, and so to get into it, you have to begin to demonize the person that you’re with to some extent, right?

Laurie Watson:                  Yeah.

Adam Mathews:               It’s either at the very minimum, it’s a belief, like you were saying, that they’re the wrong person for me, that I’m just not supposed to be with them, and so you have to be able to do that to be able to then be with the affair partner, and so then with the affair partner, you begin to build them up higher than they actually are, right?

Laurie Watson:                  Yeah. I was treating a couple who had an incredibly sustainable marriage. They had been good friends for quite some time, and I mean, really had a good relationship, and somehow or another, an affair had entered in. I think what had happened was they went from this good relationship, and the partner who was having an affair began to tell themselves, “Well, this person is not really going to be with me in the way that I really want them to be with me sexually.” The reason they denigrated their partner was because in their heart, the affair partner was truly monogamous, so the only way they could sort of justify what was happening was by saying, “But my partner isn’t going to meet my needs, therefore, I need a new partner,” because they were violating their own ethic.

Adam Mathews:               Yeah.

Laurie Watson:                  Their own ethic was one of being with one person, and so they couldn’t do that without suddenly, kind of putting on the sunglasses and seeing all the flaws of their partner, and also putting on the rose-colored glasses and seeing all the blessings and the excitement of the new partner.

Adam Mathews:               Right.

Laurie Watson:                  I mean, in order to resolve this cognitive dissonance, we have to do something on the inside, and this is what the partner who was having the affair was doing, was just making their partner bad. Affairs do happen in good marriages.

Adam Mathews:               Absolutely, but that cognitive dissonance thing is important because it’s very real, and it’s helpful for the injured partner, the spouse that’s been cheated on to understand that that is happening in the mind of the person that cheated, because it’s not … They almost have to … A lot of times in, when an affair is happening, the partner will go, “Well, it’s …” They become a different person, right? They become a person, “I don’t know who that person is,” and that is the resolution of that cognitive dissonance.

Adam Mathews:               They’re trying to resolve that, and in doing so, you have to almost become somebody that you’re not to be able to have that affair. You have to look at the other person differently, build up the affair partner, and then choose between the, justify these behaviors that for most people, are behaviors that they say they would never engage in.

Laurie Watson:                  Right. I mean, I think the difficulty is people say it’s, “The line in the sand,” which is a very weird metaphor to me. Like a line in the sand is very shiftable, but anyway, the line in the sand is, “I was going to leave my partner if they cheated,” and then they have their real partner cheat, and they realize, “But there’s all this good in the marriage,” and of course there’s huge injury, and if they don’t get help quickly, they can’t resolve that.

Adam Mathews:               Yeah.

Laurie Watson:                  An affair is basically a solution that doesn’t require the couple to face their inadequacies, in their relationship, and their sexual problems, the emotional distance or fusion, as we talked about last week, that result in a lack of eroticism.

Adam Mathews:               Yeah. Laurie, why don’t we come back after the break, and we want to be sure to tell you how we would deal with it in treatment, and keeping in mind that it is not an easy solution, but there is a solution and a way forward in relationship.

Laurie Watson:                  Okay. Yes, and there’s hope, we believe. We want to remind all of you that we are thankful for the way you’ve shared the podcast. We continue to grow. It is our greatest honor when you share with a friend the work that we’re doing and trying to help people so that they can make positive changes and strengthen their marriages and their partnerships.

Laurie Watson:                  We would like to invite you to our retreat in November. is where you find us, and I think the last thing we’d like to say is both of us are doing intensives, so if you would like to work with us, let us know and call our centers. You can find us at foreplay-radio-sex-therapy .com.

Adam Mathews:               If you like what we’re doing and want to help support us, we’d love for you to rate and review us on iTunes, so thanks for listening. All right. We are talking about affairs and how to move forward, believing that there’s hope even when an affair happens in a relationship for there to be recovery, even without the injured partner having to compromise or to lay down their values, or to lay down their hurt, right? That doesn’t have to happen. The affair partner doesn’t have to live in the dog house forever in the relationship.

Adam Mathews:               There’s ways to begin to move forward to have what I believe is actually a healthier relationship and a better relationship after an affair, if you’re able to put into the work and kind of sustain through the really grueling process of recovering from one.

Laurie Watson:                  Yeah. I see couples who, the affair does signify essentially a cry for help in the marriage, and they go forward after treatment in a stronger, more intimate, more trusting place than they could have really gotten to without this crises, and nobody wants to go through that or think, “Isn’t there a better way?”

Adam Mathews:               Yeah.

Laurie Watson:                  There probably is a better way, but we also think that, like sometimes, a bone that breaks and is stronger when it heals after an affair, your marriage can be stronger.

Adam Mathews:               Yeah. Yeah. What’s the first step for you when you say, “How do we begin to deal with it?”

Laurie Watson:                  Yeah. First, we want to deal with the impact of it.

Adam Mathews:               Right.

Laurie Watson:                  The problem is, is that in the initial stage, it looks like the marriage is going to reorganize around the aftermath of the affair, instead of around the original problems that were kind of the push out of the relationship. We eventually, as a therapist and as a couple, you want to eventually get to the real problems. The difficulty with this is that the betrayed partner says, “You are saying it’s my fault. You are making me responsible for this terrible, hurtful thing that has happened to me,” and we’re not. We know that it is terrible and hurtful what has happened.

Laurie Watson:                  You are not responsible for the pin that your partner pulled out of the grenade in the marriage. You are not responsible for that. You are responsible for the marriage in general and the problems that the two of you have co-created up until this point.

Adam Mathews:               Yeah, and Laurie, I mean, I think there’s difficulty for me in that because I believe on some level, the partner that stepped out of the marriage has to take responsibility for their actions, right?

Laurie Watson:                  Yes.

Adam Mathews:               Nobody forced them to have an affair.

Laurie Watson:                  Right.

Adam Mathews:               Nobody forced them to cheat, or to step out, or to not talk about the problems, or whatever it was that they did. Nobody forced them to do that, right? There may be circumstances that were pressuring, that felt inevitable to them, that they didn’t fully understand at the time, but nobody forced them to kiss somebody else, so nobody forced them to have sex with somebody else, to share intimate things with somebody else, and so talk to me about that because I just, I feel like they have to, that one of the first steps that has to happen is that they have to express some remorse, right?

Laurie Watson:                  Absolutely. Absolutely.

Adam Mathews:               If there’s no remorse for the affair, then I don’t know how to go forward in it.

Laurie Watson:                  Right, and they have to stop the affair if the marriage is going to go forward.

Adam Mathews:               Yes.

Laurie Watson:                  I mean, you can’t be with somebody who is with somebody else, at least if that’s what you want in terms of monogamy and a sole commitment. You can’t do it, so yes, they have to stop the affair.

Adam Mathews:               Yeah.

Laurie Watson:                  They have to express remorse. I think for real healing, which doesn’t happen right away, but for real healing, that person has to deeply understand the hurt that they have caused.

Adam Mathews:               Right. Yes, absolutely.

Laurie Watson:                  I think it’s very painful in the beginning, because often, the affair partner is entitled. This is how they rationalize part of it, is they talk about, “Well, I have been hurt in this marriage, and this was my only path that I saw.”

Adam Mathews:               Oh, sure.

Laurie Watson:                  That may be true for them. It is their only path that they saw, and they don’t want to be labeled as a bad person.

Adam Mathews:               Yeah. Absolutely, yeah. Yeah.

Laurie Watson:                  The person who is betrayed says, “I didn’t deserve this,” and the person who stepped out says, “I’m not not a bad person.”

Adam Mathews:               Yeah, and I think maybe that’s the place that … Maybe that’s what you were saying before, is that to me, the person that’s been injured, that’s been cheated on has to eventually get to a place where they can separate what happened from the character of the person, that they’re not a bad person. They’ve made really bad choices for the relationship, they made very injurous choices for the relationship, things that were, don’t condone the affair or say the affair was okay. it was extremely hurtful, and we can sit with that while also saying the person that cheated is not a bad person. That in and of itself, I think takes some time, but I think it has to come as the person that cheated expresses remorse, and that remorse is heard and believed and genuine, followed by their actions of cutting off all contact with the affair partner, and then the person that’s been cheating on, being able to express very specifically how they’ve been hurt.

Adam Mathews:               I hear a lot of people come in, and somebody is cheated and all that and they say, “Well, they should know how I feel. They should know how hurtful this is.” Yes, like obviously, they should see that an affair is hurtful, but everybody’s gets hurt by it in different ways and specific ways, and so being able to express that hurt and for that hurt to be heard and validated, I think is very important.

Laurie Watson:                  I think pursuers and distancers have affairs for different reasons.

Adam Mathews:               Yeah, absolutely.

Laurie Watson:                  Often, a pursuer will have an affair as a way to get the attention for their partner, like, “I am starving, and this other person has met my need either sexually or emotionally, and now it has become sexual,” but it’s oftentimes rooted in a point in time in the marriage where the pursuer has given up. “On the marriage, I’ve tried. I’ve tried to get through to you. I’ve screamed and hollered. I haven’t been able to,” and now they’re in a distancing phase, and that’s oftentimes when they will have the affair.

Laurie Watson:                  You would think that withdrawers wouldn’t have affairs because they don’t have that much pull to do it, but ironically, I see lots and lots of withdrawers having affairs, because I think its conflict is scary, intimacy is very difficult for them, and so they hide from that conflict in the primary relationship, but that reduces sexual feelings and eroticisms between them and their partner, and so they split that off into the affair partner.

Adam Mathews:               Absolutely.

Laurie Watson:                  “I’m going to have sex over here because I can’t risk the intimacy that real sexuality in partnership demands of me.”

Adam Mathews:               Yeah, it’s too much.

Laurie Watson:                  “It’s too much. It’s too intense, and so I split these two things apart.” You would think that withdrawers wouldn’t do that, but they do, oftentimes have affairs, so-

Adam Mathews:               Yeah. Well, it’s just a move outside of the relationship, so for withdrawers, it’s a-

Laurie Watson:                  It’s an absolute step away.

Adam Mathews:               Yeah. For withdrawers, it’s the ultimate withdraw from the relationship. For pursuers, it’s the ultimate pursue, because you’re looking at-

Laurie Watson:                  You’re finally caught.

Adam Mathews:               Yeah, absolutely.

Laurie Watson:                  Somebody catches you. You chase, and they catch you, and that’s so exciting.

Adam Mathews:               Yeah. Well, and the hope of pursuers is that the distancing partner is going to see their affair and go, “Oh my gosh, I had neglected you. I should come towards you and move towards you in that.”

Laurie Watson:                  Right. You are valuablae, because the pursuer often feels like they’re not valuable to their partner, and so they’re trying to get some of that with their outside partner.

Adam Mathews:               Yeah. Yeah.

Laurie Watson:                  Yeah.

Adam Mathews:               I think after, as you-

Laurie Watson:                  I think the withdrawer is trying to avoid.

Adam Mathews:               Yeah, but you’re dealing with that impact. You’re dealing in that first step. You’re dealing with the hurt. You’re dealing with the remorse, but then, moving on to try to … You call it finding meaning, right? I call it dealing with the decline of the [inaudible 00:20:39], whatever was the decline in the beginning, identifying that push-pull of what was happening before that both people are then responsible for, right?

Laurie Watson:                  Right.

Adam Mathews:               There’s hard on both sides on the things that happened before the affair.

Laurie Watson:                  Yeah, and as we’re learning sort of EFT, the languages, they’re identifying their toxic cycle, right?

Adam Mathews:               Right.

Laurie Watson:                  How did they push and pull with each other? How did the pursuer chase, perhaps criticize, and that pushed the withdrawing partner away? The pursuer wasn’t in some way soft enough or safe enough for the withdrawer to really talk about what was going on inside them, or how did the withdrawing partner make their pursuing partner so frantic by their withdrawal that they couldn’t get it together, and that this pattern is repeated over and over in many aspects of their lives, certainly sexually?

Adam Mathews:               Yeah. Yeah.

Laurie Watson:                  I mean, people don’t necessarily have affairs simply over sex. I mean, there is a sexual component, but often, the toxic cycle, and then healing that in the secondary phase of recovery is really important to understand what was going on at the time, where it is the affair fit into that cycle, and can they begin to see that this pattern may not work for them?

Adam Mathews:               Yeah. Yeah. This is often-

Laurie Watson:                  It doesn’t work for them.

Adam Mathews:               Yeah. This is often … That part is often the hardest for the person that’s been cheated on, right? The first phase of treatment for somebody in an affair, it’s the partner that’s done the cheating. It’s hardest for them during that first phase, and it’s harder for the partner that’s been injured because talking about the cycle that happened before the affair often feels like condoning the affair, and it can feel like to them-

Laurie Watson:                  Or blaming them.

Adam Mathews:               Or blaming them for the affair, and so, and both things are not true, right? You’re not blaming them or condoning the affair, but you’re saying, “This is what was happening.” Right? This was what was going on in your relationship. Your relationship was not the best before this.

Adam Mathews:               Right? I think a lot of times, you look back when something like an affair happens, and you romanticize, or you look back through rose-colored glasses on history, and you rewrite history a bit and go, “Our relationship was great. Our relationship was fine. Why would they ever do this?” Sometimes you can recognize the difficulty of it, but oftentimes, you look back and go, “The affair should never … It doesn’t fit in that cycle,” which is not entirely true, and so you have to understand what was happening and finding that meaning, understanding that cycle so that you can begin to move forward and break that, right?

Laurie Watson:                  Exactly. In that recovery, we want the couple to basically find safety with each other so that vulnerability becomes possible again, sexual vulnerability, but also emotional vulnerability.

Adam Mathews:               Yeah.

Laurie Watson:                  The person who stepped out has to see how painful it was to their partner, and the partner has to see the binds and the difficulties that their partner who betrayed them was feeling, which is really hard work.

Adam Mathews:               It’s such hard … Yeah. Hard work.

Laurie Watson:                  It’s such hard work.

Adam Mathews:               Yeah.

Laurie Watson:                  I know that one growth pattern for a man that I was seeing who’d had an affair, he said, “Well, my wife just isn’t very creative sexually,” and I said, “Do you share with her your sexual fantasies?” He’s like, “Nope.” I already knew that their sex life was pretty boring. The married couple’s sex life was pretty boring, but his complaint was also without his vulnerability and sharing what he wanted and what he thought about, and all that kind of stuff, and so he just split that off, had the affair.

Adam Mathews:               Yeah. We believe that it is possible. We kind of given you just a start. I mean obviously, this work needs an outside party. You need a therapist to help work you through this, preferably one that deals with affairs a lot.

Laurie Watson:                  I think you do.

Adam Mathews:               I mean, I think most couple therapists do, but finding one who kind of has a good framework for how to kind of help you move through it, and doing that work, it’s difficult, it’s hard, but there is hope for rebuilding your relationship. It takes a lot of time. I wish that this is not a quick process. Affair recovery is not … It’s slow, and oftentimes it feels like you’re going backward.

Adam Mathews:               Part of the moving forward is really dealing with the flare-ups that come from what I classified as grief. Like it’s, you’re grieving the relationship that you had, and you’re really building a new one, so a lot of times, those emotions flare up, especially for the injured partner, like it comes up randomly through very strange things, things that seemingly may not become-

Laurie Watson:                  Right. They get triggered.

Adam Mathews:               Yeah. They get triggered-

Laurie Watson:                  A politician in your city has an affair, or there’s an affair on the movie that you go to see together.

Adam Mathews:               Oh, yeah, or you’ve somehow find yourself listening to the country station on Pandora, and every song is about an affair.

Laurie Watson:                  Right. Right, exactly. It’s easy to get triggered.

Adam Mathews:               But you have to kind of be, learn how to deal with those triggers in your relationship and move forward, so really, just encourage you, if this is something that’s happened in your relationship, don’t ignore it. Please don’t ignore it.

Laurie Watson:                  Yeah. Don’t sweep it under the rug.

Adam Mathews:               Don’t sweet it under the rug. It’s a big deal.

Laurie Watson:                  And don’t believe that your only choice is bitterness, that you just have to swallow that this is what happened.

Adam Mathews:               Absolutely. Yes.

Laurie Watson:                  We believe in forgiveness that there’s a way, and it doesn’t mean that you forget or that you look the other way. It’s a way that you truly work through.

Adam Mathews:               Absolutely.

Laurie Watson:                  Thanks for listening.

Adam Mathews:               You can now call in your questions to the Foreplay question voicemail. Dial 833-MY4-PLAY. That’s 833, the number four, play, and we’ll use the questions for our mailbag episodes.

Laurie Watson:                  Hey, help us stay on top here at Foreplay. We’d love it if you would subscribe and share it with your friends, and please take one sec and rate and review us. Thanks so much.

Adam Mathews:               All content is for entertainment purposes only, and should not be considered as a substitute for therapy by a licensed clinician or as medical advice from a doctor.