There are no two ways about it – affairs can be hugely painful. Feelings of shock, anger and resentment can quickly set in and knowing what to do about them can seem torturous. The mere thought that your partner may be attracted to someone else or actively involved with them is tough enough, but knowing what to say or do about it is usually tougher.
Perhaps a starting point is to focus on what has made you suspicious. Do you have ‘facts’? Has someone said something to you? Has your partner become withdrawn or started making more of an effort with their appearance? Have things between you been difficult recently and you have noticed that they are talking more about a specific person, perhaps a friend or work colleague? Perhaps you are concerned about what they are up to online or have discovered unusual texts or emails. Any or all of these are likely to throw most people into panic.
Often, fears about affairs arise when there may be other problems. As a Relate counsellor, I see how family life stages like looking after young children, older children leaving home (or not leaving home), redundancy, ill health, becoming carers or extra work pressures can all wear down our resources and make us feel vulnerable and insecure. It is important to remember this, because any of them might lead to a partner being less attentive or available than before, but that does not mean they are having an affair.
But what do you do if you still suspect something is going on? Firstly, try and get clear what it is you actually do suspect. Is it sex, an emotional attachment, a cyber relationship or a friendship? Do not be tempted to go down the route of bugging your partner’s devices or using similar methods to track their whereabouts. This is unhelpful, possibly criminal and very unlikely to assist you to recover what you most want, i.e your partner.
Whilst it is true that it is good to talk, beware of telling all your friends and family about your suspicions. Remember, the more people who become involved, take sides and offer often conflicting advice, the more difficult it may be to start thinking about what the two of you want to do, if and when it turns out there has been an affair. Confiding in a trusted friend or family member can be useful to help you get your thoughts straighter and work out how to best tackle your partner about your worries.
Secondly, decide if you actually want to raise it with your partner. It is probably fair to say that many relationships continue for years with the suspicion of an affair, with nothing ever being said. Long term though, this is often a really painful option with years of resentment and feelings of abandonment building up that eat into your confidence and self-esteem. But fearing confirmation of any suspicion is powerful and it is understandable that we may try to put concerns to one side for as long as possible.
Thirdly, if you decide to raise it, choose a good time. Don’t raise it in the middle of a row about something else or when one of you is about to go out. Try and make sure you will not be interrupted. Most importantly, try and stay calm and tell your partner exactly why you are worried. Give them a chance to explain themselves but be prepared for the answer. Usually, we are hoping for reassurance that will reduce our anxieties about being left for someone else and you may not get this. The reality of having a suspicion confirmed by a ‘confession’ may come as a relief for some people but for most, it’s devastating.
However much you ask for information, your partner may not give you what you want. They may deny it outright, or tell you ‘it’s just a friend’. Either way you may be left feeling the matter is unresolved. Once it has been raised though there is often the overwhelming urge to come back to it time and time again, usually with the same outcome. Getting to this point is exhausting for both of you so it could be useful to get some professional help to try to find a way forward – whether that’s together or apart. Ultimately, if you keep suspecting and they keep denying, you may need support to help you make decisions about what to do next.
It is not uncommon for people to consider some form of revenge when they feel they have been betrayed by their partner. Some people might think it is a good idea to have an affair themselves for example, to damage the person’s property, or to name and shame the guilty party. While this may make them feel better at the time, in the long term not only do they end up having to deal with the hurt if it turns out there was an affair, but also the consequences of the revenge. If you find yourself wanting to seek revenge and even more so if you have not got all your facts straight, take a step back to recognise this is because of the level of hurt you are feeling at the time.
People tend to be pessimistic about whether their relationship can recover – indeed, Relate’s 2014 The Way We Are Now survey of over 5000 people found that only 33% thought a relationship could survive an affair. However, this was in stark contrast to the optimism of our counsellors, 94% of whom believed that a relationship can survive and potentially thrive after a partner has cheated.
So the good news is that many relationships recover from suspicions or confirmation of an affair. Despite the pain and anxiety, some couples say that an affair has given them the opportunity to examine all sorts of relationship issues and they feel stronger as a partnership afterwards. But this usually comes after a lot of soul searching and acknowledgement that no one has made your partner have an affair and that by doing so they have turned your world upside down.
Ammanda Major is a Relate Counsellor and Sex Therapist
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