An affair throws a grenade into a relationship; what follows is a matter of trust
The relationship you knew is over; it’s time to let a new one begin, if you can
Common outcomes to an affair include the end of the marriage or an attempt to rebuild the relationship. Photograph: iStock
We don’t know what percentage of married Irish people have been unfaithful.
A 2012 survey of 1,000 people by Millward Brown Lansdowne suggests a figure of 40 per cent.
An affair throws a grenade into a long-term relationship and the question that inevitably arises is whether the relationship can survive it.
The answer may well be that the old relationship can’t survive as it was. But the couple can build a new relationship with each other and this is more likely to be successful if they acknowledge that the old relationship has been ended by the affair. That’s the view put forward by Cork-based psychotherapist Brendan O’Shaughnessy writing in the current issue of the Irish Journal of Counselling and Psychotherapy.
O’Shaughnessy has worked with couples for nearly 30 years so his views, I think, carry some weight.
Common outcomes to an affair include the end of the marriage or an attempt to rebuild the relationship. Over the years, O’Shaughnessy – who has worked with the Cork Marriage Counselling Centre for 27 years – has become convinced that the way forward isn’t to rebuild the old relationship. Rather it is to accept that the old relationship is dead and for the two people to decide if they want a new relationship with each other.
If so, their task becomes to build that new relationship. If they don’t want a new relationship then they will, of course, move on, but he strongly recommends that each person makes the time to grieve for what they have lost, including the dreams they had for the relationship.
His views on the regaining of trust are, I think, very sensible and reality-based. It isn’t really up to the injured party, he points out, to do all the work of building trust in the one who injured them. Instead, it is up to the one who did the harm to earn the trust of the injured party.
“The most important measure of remorse is not the statement of repentance, but the actions that follow,” he declares. Such actions as going back to work in the same department as the person with whom you had an affair is not a convincing statement of repentance. As O’Shaughnessy says “remedial actions are the true measure of remorse”.
Naming, talking about and experiencing the pain and devastation caused by the affair is also a vital step towards recovery.
Accepting that the couple’s old relationship is dead actually acknowledges the impact the affair has had
It seems to me that this is often not acknowledged sufficiently by the person who has had the affair. They can become impatient with the injured party’s endless questioning about what went on – but they need to accept it is the other person who was injured and that regaining that person’s trust is not the work of a week, a month or maybe even a year.
O’Shaughnessy believes accepting that the couple’s old relationship is dead actually acknowledges the impact the affair has had and that this acknowledgement is good for the future.
It means they don’t have to get stuck in trying to rebuild an old relationship that doesn’t exist any more because it was broken by the affair.
If they then decide they want to create a new relationship with each other, they are free to to work out what needs to be different. “All couples I worked with reported that this was more positive and led to a better understanding of their individual needs and expectations within the relationship,” he writes
As I said above, having an affair throws a grenade into a marriage or into a long-term relationship. The late Peggy Vaughan, a psychologist who specialised in work around the impact of affairs, wrote that outcomes include: recovering personally from an affair but at the expense of the marriage ending; keeping the marriage going but at the cost of their own happiness; or both parties recovering personally and making their marriage a good one.
- Padraig O’Morain (@PadraigOMorain) is accredited by the Irish Association for Counselling and Psychotherapy. His latest book is Kindfulness. His daily mindfulness reminder is free by email (email@example.com).