3 Sides of an Affair: Infidelity in Dramas and in Real Life

When people have affairs they bring a third person into their primary relationship.  In the current Broadway production of Betrayal by famed playwright Harold Pinter, the director Jamie Lloyd has all three actors on stage throughout the show. This play involves several betrayals that like an electrical current, goes back and forth between all the characters in this particular triangle.  The lovers Emma and Jerry are depicted in the foreground at various points of their affair, while Emma’s husband Robert is holding various poses while tracing the back wall slowly with his changing positions, all the while watching the other two. In other moments the audience watches the married couple Emma and Robert talking to one another or kissing in the foreground while Jerry lurks in the background like a feral cat ready to pounce.

Deposit Photos
Source: Deposit Photos

And to finish the other line of the triangle, there are scenes of the two men who have been supposed best friends for years, having lunch while the wife/lover is slowly gliding, or protectively sitting in the distance. 

As a sex therapist and a couples counselor I have worked over several years with many couples in which one partner discovers their husband/wife/significant other has been unfaithful or cheated.   I have also worked with individual clients who are or have been involved in an affair or series of infidelities and come into therapy because they want to end their repeated cheating. They tell me they want to figure out why they kept an affair going, or compulsively hooked up with friends, strangers or sex workers and how they can repair their primary relationship. 

Deposit Photos
Source: Deposit Photos

As a Systemic Certified Sex Therapist I am always aware of the third person in the room, whether that is the lover, the spouse, the significant other or a child that will be affected by this affair. Like a stone thrown into a lake, the concentric circles that are created afterwards are the systemic reactions following an affair or non-consensual non-monogamy behavior. 

In the most recent and final season of the Showtime series The Affair, the audience sees the seismic impact of the original affair between Noah and Alison on every single character. Noah has broken the hearts and trust of all his 4 children and experiences the mixed rage/sadness/love in each interaction. He has not been able to sustain any love relationship since his marriage broke up due to his arrogance, lack of control over his anger and his narcissistic entitlement. Helen is still looking to partners to share her love of her family while also hoping for support her lifelong need to spread her own wings professionally. 

I ask clients to look inwardly to find the emotional spaces or holes that weren’t fed or nurtured when they grew up and/or in their primary relationship and which they are continually trying to stuff. I also invite them to look at the time of their life when the cheating began.

We look at the meaning of that period of life and what psychological tasks were being demanded like: expressing sadness over a partner’s lack of emotional connection, trying to adjust to balancing challenges of child-rearing, work demands and a partner’s desire for sexual playfulness. Frequently the unfaithful behavior has a compulsive repetition to it and may point to a traumatic history which a client stuffed down in order to survive but has never processed or healed. 

Other times, the partner who was unfaithful has fallen in love with the outside partner and is questioning whether they can renew an erotic or passion for their spouse/main partner.   

In the play Betrayal the scenes begin after the affair has ended and take the audience back in time to the very beginning of the infidelity.  Throughout this step-by-step down memory lane, the play depicts the way time, secrets kept and revealed, careers, children and abuse all shift the nature of relationships among all 3 of the main characters.  And in the show The Affair, the same scenes are told from different characters’ perspectives illustrating how people put their own meaning and take on the same interactions. The infidelity recovery work for a couple in sex therapy involved deep inquiry into the present/past and choices of futures a client and/or couple have.  

It involves an experienced therapist who can help each partner learn about the internal emotional landscape of the other while having the partner who betrayed their partner making significant efforts to reassure, re-establish trust bit by bit. While most partners have a myriad of questions about the third party of the affair, I ask them to write them all down and invite them to allow me to set some of them as priorities while set other aside in the immediate crisis of discovery.  

For those individuals who seek out sex therapy to stop cheating on their partners, I help them see their compartmentalized patterns as part of an effort to integrate their body, mind and spirit while living by the ethical compass to which they have always aspired. I work with clients who want to work their way back to their spouses and marriages for the sake of their vows, their commitment to their children’s stability and because most of them still love their spouses. 

In this fifth and final season of The Affair, the original deep friendship between Helen and Noah re-emerges and we see each character taking stock of what they lost, sacrificed and have learned on this perilous post-affair journey. 

And while the series has not ended yet (no spoiler alerts here), there are those partners who may reunite after an affair.  While recent research shows that the prevalence of infidelity in American heterosexual marriages to be between 20-40%, it is not clear what the actual number is since people who cheat are not the best reporters.  But not all couples split or divorce post-infidelity discovery. Based on a 2008 Gallup poll, 31% of heterosexual married spouses stated they would not divorce a spouse who was unfaithful.  

These are the couples and clients who come in for help to find a third way or a middle path to explore what went wrong within the relationship, themselves and at times their childhood histories so that they can embark on what my friend and colleague Esther Perel calls, a second marriage with your current spouse/significant other.  It is a challenging road to recovery for both the unfaithful partner, their spouse and most likely the third party to the triangle, the lover who is in the background, at times in individual therapy. But there is hope in regaining trust in oneself and in one’s partner, and embarking on repairing and renewing erotic and emotional bonds.

Shows like Betrayal and The Affair depict each party in the Infidelity triangle.
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Recent dramas depict the realistic impact affairs have on all three people involved in the triangle.
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Marín, Rebeca & Christensen, Andrew & Atkins, David. (2014). Infidelity and behavioral couple therapy: Relationship outcomes over 5 years following therapy.. Couple and Family Psychology: Research and Practice. 3. 1. 10.1037/cfp0000012. 

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