Adultery is a love triangle in which a third party is willing to have a surreptitious affair with someone in a sexually exclusive relationship. Evolutionary psychologists call the affair partner a “mate poacher” because the aim might be to steal someone else’s lover for oneself. Sometimes affair partners are just looking for casual sex with someone who seems to be emotionally unavailable. Other times affair partners are looking for a long-term relationship. Sometimes that mating strategy is successful as the unfaithful partner and the affair partner may go on to have a successful lifelong relationship. But frequently, that mating strategy is unsuccessful and may end with considerable heartbreak for the affair partner.
Extra-marital affairs are often seen as symptoms of a troubled marriage. Recovery from infidelity therefore requires eradicating the symptom (i.e. terminating the relationship with the affair partner) and addressing the underlying marital problems of which the affair was symptomatic. As a consequence, affair partners are sometimes “dumped” unceremoniously as unfaithful partners try to reconcile with their betrayed spouses. Affair partners may be heartbroken if they had viewed their unfaithful partners as their eventual life partners once their unfaithful partners left their betrayed spouses for them. How do such individuals recover from their heartbreak?
Jackie (a composite portrait), a single woman, came to see me as she had been having an affair with a married man for the last five years. Her affair partner, Gerald, was the love of her life. Gerald was married with two young children. He claimed he was unhappily married but was just waiting for the right time to end the marriage. Jackie came for therapy because all her girlfriends thought she was foolish to continue the affair and had grown tired of sympathizing with her plight. Jackie found weekends and holidays to be both lonely and humiliating as she followed Gerald’s family on Facebook where they posted pictures of one big happy family always having a great time. Jackie only saw Gerald weekdays after work when they had a few drinks together and went back to her apartment to have sex.
In listening to Jackie’s story, I thought what all her girlfriends thought. Gerald seemed to be just using her for casual sex with no intention of ever leaving his wife for her. He seemed to be an alcoholic as well as a liar, so it was not entirely clear what his appeal was as a life partner. Yet Jackie felt that if only others knew him in the more intimate way that she did they would appreciate his finer qualities. I wondered if that were wishful thinking and that Jackie was in deep denial. I worried that Jackie would just get angry at me if I tried to burst her bubble. Eventually, Gerald’s wife, Linda, discovered the affair when she found credit card bills for jewelry that Gerald had bought as gifts for Jackie. Linda demanded that Gerald immediately end the affair and go for marital therapy which he did without giving it a second thought. Jackie got a call from Gerald explaining the situation. To prevent further discussion, he added that he owed it to the mother of his children to give the marriage a second chance so that it was for the best if they completely cut off all contact with each other moving forward. Jackie was stunned and disbelieving. Like a bolt out of the blue her life had fallen apart, and all her future dreams were now shattered. How could she go on in life? Jackie told me she was feeling suicidal but reassured me she wouldn’t do anything.
Listening to all of this I privately thought “good riddance” as I didn’t think Gerald was such a great catch and I thought Jackie could do much better. But I knew it might be construed as unsympathetic at this point to disclose what I really thought because Jackie felt she had just lost the love of her life. Recovery in such a situation is biphasic: First, it means overcoming a serious loss just like any other serious loss of a loved one. One has to take the time to grieve and then move on. Secondly, it means coming to terms with the reality of the situation that one’s judgment was impaired by wishful thinking. That requires facing the fact that one had been living in a fool’s paradise in a very self-defeating way. Years of one’s life have been wasted in a doomed relationship when one could have done much better if one had been better able to face the unpleasant reality:
- You’re Entitled to Grieve: Yes, affairs with married individuals are forbidden but you were in love and your heart was broken. Your grief is real even if others aren’t sympathetic. Take your time to grieve.
- Admit to Wishful Thinking: Yes, some unhappily married individuals leave their spouses to live happily ever after with their affair partners. But unfaithful partners that lie to their spouses might also be lying to their affair partners about their true intentions. Don’t let yourself be fooled again.
- Become an Advocate for Honesty: You were a partner in crime. The unfaithful partner was living a lie and you participated in that. You’ll feel better about yourself in the future if you forgo secret relationships with individuals in sexually exclusive relationships. In the future, be on the side of honesty rather than deceit. If a married person wants a relationship with you let them separate from their partner first so that everything can be out in the open.
Ironically, a year later Gerald separated from his wife and wanted to resume his relationship with Jackie on the assumption that it would lead to marriage and family. Yet by this time Jackie had lost interest. She had become disillusioned with Gerald and now saw him as a self-centered person who felt entitled to having everything on his own terms and on his own timetable regardless of her needs and desires. Gerald was no longer the sort of person she wanted as a life partner. Jackie was confident she could do better.