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The Good News About Infidelity — Part 2: The Past

Rachel Alexander, E June 2, 2022

{8 minutes to read}  This article with our colleague, couples’ therapist Meredith Keller, LPC, ACS, continues the exploration of post-infidelity therapeutic intervention. Up until now, we have discussed the initial goals of therapy after an affair, specifically: working with the shock and hurt of the party who learned of the affair, rehabilitating rapport between the parties, and identifying ways that both spouses have withdrawn from the relationship.

Whether an affair occurs often comes down to one dispositive factor: choice. As social creatures with long life spans, opportunity and even desire may be impossible to avoid. Choice is where we retain some control.

For people in committed relationships, it is not a question of temptation or conflicted feelings, rather it is a question of which actions to take or refrain from taking.

This article brings us to the heart and soul of Meredith’s approach to couples.

Here we return to our players, Lane (the partner who had the affair) and Ryan. In order to arrive at this point in the therapeutic process, two things have occurred; (i) Lane has ended the affair, and (ii) both Lane and Ryan have agreed to move on as a couple. Now they can turn to relevant portions of the past to glean information that can move them forward.

The inquiry into the past focuses on such questions as What was the function of the affair? How did Lane feel when with the other person? The goal of such questions is of course not to cause distress, but rather to uncover critical openings for change and repair in the primary relationship.

There is usually something that is important to unlock regarding how and why Lane felt differently when with the other person. Some need was addressed in the affair that was unattended to, possibly unspeakable within the principal partnership with Ryan.

For example, in his marriage, Lane never let Ryan know that he had a particular sexual preference or fetish. Lane never expressed this because the risk of Ryan’s rejection or ridicule felt too threatening.  The sexual reveal could even rupture the relationship. Contrarily, in the affair relationship, Lane could explore this forbidden sexual terrain with relatively low risk. Note, in this instance, whatever Lane’s particular sexual proclivity, it is an important expression of his authenticity – not something frivolous that can be simply repressed for the good of the marriage. Lane’s need for a particular sexual experience represents an aspect of aliveness that needs to have a real-world, safe space to explore. Unexpressed, Ryan had no pathway to meet or address Lane’s need, so any exploration, whatever it would have been, never had a chance.

Another example might be that Lane felt pressured to be a certain prototype within the marriage, and this meant that certain important personal aspects were neglected. Lane understood and fulfilled his narrowly interpreted role as it seemed to serve the family and garner positive reinforcement. Lane saw his role as provider, reassurer, stabilizer. Verbalizing his insecurities about career or the family’s financial future would undermine who he was aiming to be. These exiled vulnerable parts, contending with doubts and worries, sought refuge elsewhere – in the affair relationship.

Notice there is no assignment of blame. To say Lane should have been more expressive and open or Ryan should have fostered a safer space for Lane misses the point. Each relationship has its own life, replete with fears, maladaptive and well-meaning defensive mechanisms. We are better served looking for openings for change than criticizing locked doors.

Without the skills, or assistance to gain them within the primary relationship, Lane might have used the affair as a place to hold the stuff that he determined (correctly or not) threatened the relationship. Ironically, an affair is often an off-the-mark attempt to protect the marital relationship. Lane can carry on as the strong, stoic one, provided there is a place for the more vulnerable, fearful part to seek refuge. In the affair, in connection with someone with whom his fate is not tied, with whom he is far less invested, he can speak more freely, and garner sympathy, understanding, and comfort.

The affair served as a place the disenfranchised part(s) can go. Like a neighborhood pub of sorts.

So, if the affair served a purpose, unearthing that purpose can inform what needs “building out” in the marriage. Now a generative process can begin, with inquiries such as:

  • How can the marital relationship be a place that can house much, if not all, of what is needed?

  • How can the relationship be made safer so each partner can reveal more of themselves?

  • What is in the way of exploring together?

  • What assurances, guidance, guidelines, methods, techniques, systems, language are needed to invite and contain more of the multidimensionality and complexity of both individuals?

And what is needed in the marriage so it can more graciously and creatively house both parties?

If the affair serves as an outbuilding for the marriage, the therapeutic goal is to help the couple renovate their marital structure so that ultimately no separate dwelling is needed — everything can occur under one roof without jeopardizing the unit.

How do we make and reshape the relationship and open things up, to be able to have the relationship be the proper home, to house, whatever is alive for both people, rendering outbuildings or affairs unnecessary? What needs to happen in the marriage to make space, to integrate, or invite these ousted parts into the relationship? How can the relationship make safe space for the hitherto segregated aspects of self?

Spoiler alert: both people usually know about the unspoken aspects of the other anyway, but neither party has the skill set to navigate this without outside, therapeutic help.

Usually, in Meredith’s experience, the spouse (Ryan) is willing to make space for Lane’s whole self. With the therapist’s help, the couple can begin to bring this unnamed aspect into dialogue and ultimately into the relationship.

So, this is rather wonderful!

Unsayable, important aspects of self that seemed unwelcome inside the relationship, that sought refuge in an affair, are invited into the marriage and out of the cold. The relationship is called to deepen and expand and be supported while it develops. If the affair can be understood as, among other painful consequences, has provided important information, the couple has an opportunity to invite intricate aspects of one another into the relationship and enhance their capacity for more.

Rachel Alexander

Rachel Alexander
Alexander Mediation Group

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