Kate, forty-four, thought her life was good. The family had just moved into a beautiful house in the best part of town and her two daughters, twelve and ten, were doing well at their new school. Her husband Mike, forty-five had a well paid job and they been together since they were sixteen and seventeen. ‘Beyond a rocky patch, when Mike was away at university, we’ve always got on really well. I truly thought we’d got each other’s backs.’ So when she discovered the receipt for an expensive piece of jewellery in his pocket, she wasn’t suspicious. ‘We were coming up to the anniversary of when we first met. We didn’t normally celebrate it and I wouldn’t describe Mike as romantic but I actually had an awh moment: he’s turning into a softy in his old age.’ However, the anniversary came and went and no present. Kate turned detective and uncovered nights at expensive hotels, meals out and flowers. ‘I still couldn’t believe he would have an affair. He is too honourable and I suppose sensible.’ But when she challenged him with the evidence, he broke down and told her about a younger woman – in her twenties – who worked for him. ‘The complete cliché,’ said Kate, ‘and when I asked him why and what was wrong with our marriage, he told me “nothing” but he’d wondering if he was “settling” and thinking “isn’t there more life to life than this”.’ What upset her the most, and what she couldn’t get her head round, was Mike was willing to throw it all away for a bit of excitement.
As the autumn nights draw in, stories like this might sound all too familiar to some. This month has seen the return of BBC psycho-drama Doctor Foster - about the fallout from a husband’s fling with a much younger woman. Midlife Manchester comedy Cold Feet, which largely centres around the daily struggles of the characters to keep it in their trousers, is also back on our screens. Meanwhile, in the real world, footballer Wayne Rooney has been charged with drink driving after being stopped in the car of a woman he met in a bar.
Not to mention that September is the biggest month for couples to file for divorce, post summer holidays - a significant number of whom will cite infidelity as the cause. After all, the opportunities to stray are greater than ever before. Research by Illicitencounters.com - the UK’s leading extra-marital dating website, which had 100,000 new members in the last 12 months - found that 2016 was the biggest year ever recorded for affairs.
There are three common responses to discovering that your partner has been unfaithful - physically or emotionally, or both. The first is to blame yourself, forgive them almost immediately and beg them to return. The second is to freeze the cheating spouse out; making them sleep on the sofa, or packing them off to their mother’s. While the third - and perhaps the most titillating, certainly when it comes to making good television - is revenge.
As a marital therapist who has spent 30 years helping couples cope with infidelity, and written two books on it, I have seen these reactions in spades. So what are the up and downsides of each, and is there a ‘right’ way to respond to cheating?
The causes of infidelity are complex. I have a formula for them, which I apply to my clients: Problem + Poor Communication + Temptation = Affair.
The ‘problem’ could be something that lies squarely with your partner – they lost their job or a parent died - a major life event that they allowed to act as a trigger. Equally, you are not responsible for keeping your partner away from temptation. But when it comes to poor communication, there can be shared responsibility. It is helpful to ask: why couldn’t my partner talk to me about their problems?
To them, you might have seemed pre-occupied with children or work. To you, they might have made excuses not to talk or hidden behind jokes.
It is fine to take half the blame for poor communication - but not all of it. Heaping blame on yourself only allows your partner to minimise his or her bad behaviour, not face the full extent of their betrayal - or learn from their mistakes. It might seem like the path of least resistance, but it only gives the illusion of being in control and can leave you feel resentful. As one client told me: ‘I wanted it to be my fault because that way I could fix things. I could fix me. I could fix him and I could fix us.’
When it comes to revenge, however, there is no such danger. The advantage – especially if you only think about getting your own back – is that your natural rage is on the surface. There is no risk of you sweeping your feelings under the carpet.
The problem comes when a person acts on these desires.
I had one male client who - when he discovered his wife had been unfaithful with her personal trainer - called the man’s employer and had him fired. Unfortunately, this only pushed his wife closer to her lover (she felt responsible for his predicament) and made it impossible to save their marriage.
One wife threw her husband out for having an emotional affair, telling him ‘to never darken her door again’. In case he hadn’t got the message, she threw an ashtray in his direction. Believing his marriage was over, he went straight to the ‘other woman’ for comfort and was then physically unfaithful too – which made it harder to re-build bridges with his wife and turned a relatively straight infidelity into a roller-coaster that took eighteen months in therapy to resolve.
Revenge can all too easily become a race to the bottom. Another man decided to have a tit-for-tat fling on a work trip to show his cheating wife that he had ‘other options’, too. When he told her, she shrugged her shoulders and said: ‘you’ve proved that we can’t make each other happy’ - not the outcome he had wanted.
In Doctor Foster, scorned wife Gemma has been seen delivering mystery packages to her love rival and stuffing syringes in her purse - who knows where that will end?
Arguably, a better approach is to freeze your cheating partner out; the response - if you believe tabloid reports - that Coleen Rooney has chosen. This is clever, as it reduces the risk that you will say or do something you might later regret. It also buys you thinking time. And if you leave the marital home, staying with family or friends, you are surrounding yourself with allies who - should you wish them to - will later go into battle with you.
It is also a very private reaction; where revenge - in all its ‘I don’t care who knows’ fury - is almost always public. This can be damaging for children, who might otherwise not have found out about an affair, or who might be drawn into inappropriate roles like peacemaker, or pushed into taking sides.
But whether you forgive, freeze out or wreak revenge, each reaction comes from the same place: pain.
It can be so great that you want it to go away immediately, but there is no magic solution - even if it feels like dousing your husband’s sports car in paint will help. Simply, it takes time to go through all the seven stages of recovery (below) and you will have setbacks.
The key is to accept your feelings (‘I’m really hurt’) and challenge your most negative thoughts (‘it doesn’t mean our marriage is doomed’); you will discover that you can cope today and possibly tomorrow.
You will learn a lot about yourself, your partner and how to communicate better. That’s a recipe, not for putting a sticking plaster over your old marriage, but for creating a new and better one.
And if you are the unfaithful partner? Don’t minimise what you’ve done – ‘it was only a kiss and a cuddle’. And don’t hold back any information to ‘protect’ your partner - or more likely so you don’t have to face their full wrath - because getting the truth is dribs and drabs is infinitely more painful.
Andrew G Marshall is the author of ‘How can I ever trust you again: Infidelity from discovery to recovery in seven steps’ (Bloomsbury) £9.99. Andrewgmarshall.com
7 steps to recovering after an affair
1. Disbelief: Even the unfaithful partner will be in shock. The walls between the different parts of your life have collapsed and you must face the full enormity of your, or your partner’s, actions.
2. Questioning: You stay up half the night trying to make sense of what happened, what it means and why.
3. Decisions: Only when the shock has worn off and you have all the information, can you make an informed decision whether to stay or go – don’t be pressured into deciding too soon.
4. Hope: For the first time, it seems like there might be a way forward, but it feels fragile.
5. Attempted Normality: You want to believe that the crisis is over but it feels like you’re putting on an act.
6. Bodies Float to the Surface: Long term issues between you and your partner – for example, your dislike of their mother – become urgent. After all the pain, there are no longer any ‘off-limits’ topics.
7. Learning: If you use this stage to learn to communicate better, you could turn infidelity from the worst thing that’s happened to your marriage into one of the best. ...
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Every time you and your partner have a disagreement, you have two basic choices.
Firstly, you could blame, grab control, dismiss, shut down, shut your partner out or get revenge. Secondly, you could take a deep breath, tune into your emotions and those of your loved one, take a risk, reach out, confide in or hold your partner. Which one are you going to chose?