The Upside of Infidelity

Can an affair save your marriage?

In the hands of the right therapist an affair can be what saves a marriage.Cheating helps?
In the hands of the right therapist, an affair can be what saves a marriage.

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A young couple walks in to the therapist’s office. They sit on the colorful IKEA couch across from her chair, and the particular way they sit gives her a first clue about what kind of couple they are, and what emotional state they are in. In this case, a polite distance away from each other, far enough so that no parts of their bodies are touching but not jammed into opposite ends of the couch.

Within a half hour the therapist learns some things about them. They’ve only been married a few years. He’s in the military, and, while he was on a recent tour in Afghanistan, she had an affair. “Why?” the therapist asks her, and she answers,

“I don’t really know why.” The couple has a brief exchange in which she apologizes to him and he says he still can’t believe she did that while he was away. They don’t scream or fight or even express that much emotion in front of the therapist. By the end of the first session the therapist still hasn’t gotten the wife to articulate a more satisfying explanation.

A painful affair, a diffident wife, a husband who can’t find his rage: To an untrained eye, this looks like some pretty meager material for any therapist to work with. But the therapist, Emily Brown, who directs the Key Bridge Therapy and Mediation Center in Arlington, Va., and is an expert on affairs, reads this situation as hopeful. In her taxonomy of affairs, this type—the “conflict avoidance affair,” generally found among couples whose arguments never escalate into screaming matches—has a prognosis for resolution of “very good” and a “low” probability of causing divorce. The affair, in Brown’s eyes, is a “wake-up call,” not the “disaster” the couple sees now “but a real opportunity for them to go on a different route and deal with the issues between them.” In the hands of the right therapist, Brown says, the affair is what could save their marriage.

Family therapists are perennial optimists, but when it comes to affairs the optimism had to stay muted, at least in public. An individual therapist might sense that a couple could come out stronger after an affair but she wouldn’t necessarily turn that hunch into a theory and write it up in a paper. Why? The profession as a whole wouldn’t embrace that view. Therapists might be a libertine bunch but as a group they generally defer to the Puritan country—the United States—they live in, where affairs are still taboo no matter how many people actually have them.

But recently, a handful of therapists have started to push the idea that affairs can rescue a marriage and to define exactly in what instances that might be true. “People shriek and cry when they are confronted with an affair,” Brown writes in her essay, “The Affair as a Catalyst for Change,” which appears in the book Infidelity “Almost never do they realize that it might be the best thing that ever happened to them.”

Last year’s annual conference of the American Family Therapy academy allowed a panel about affairs called “From Trauma to Transformation,” which was the first time that idea officially entered the lexicon, says Esther Perel, author of Mating in Captivity and a couples therapist who is writing her next book on affairs. It was public and professional acceptance for the idea that an “affair doesn’t necessarily end a marriage and can possibly make it stronger.” For her research, Perel herself followed up with couples she had treated who had stayed together after an affair, and categorized them. In her paper, “After the Storm,” she describes the types: Some constantly relive the trauma and bitterness of the affair, some just revert back to the stasis they had before it, and for some couples, she writes, “the affair becomes a transformational experience and catalyst for renewal and change.”

Brown became a couples counselor in the early 1970s after her own protracted and difficult divorce process—she had to cross state lines several times with her two children to escape her ex-husband. Early on in Brown’s counseling career, affairs were not much mentioned in the family therapy literature and the attitude about them, even among therapists, was fairly conventional and judgmental. Treatment focused around an almost Catholic confessional model. The betrayer—and back then it was almost always the husband—would be coaxed to apologize to the betrayed and then encouraged not to repeat his sins, she recalls. But then in the 1980s and 1990s a new generation of therapists raised in an era of exploding divorce developed more complex ideas about affairs that were more clinical than judgmental. In his best-selling 1989 book Private Lies, Frank Pittman was one of the first people to categorize types of affairs and pin many on men’s fear of true intimacy with their wives. Shirley Glass (mother of Ira) collected data about the different motivations that men and women have for cheating. Other therapists started to suggest that the person “at fault” might not just be the one that had the affair, but that both parties created a space for infidelity.   

Now the focus is less on blame and more on the underlying emotions exposed by an affair. One common philosophy views adult relationships under the “attachment” model used to explain the bonds between mothers and infants; when it ruptures both people feel profoundly unmoored and insecure, and therapists, rather than placing blame, need to help patients deal with those insecurities. Another common model draws from PTSD literature. Affairs are treated as a trauma that causes obsessive behavior and upends a person’s basic sense of security in the world. Brown’s approach, outlined in several books and articles, is decidedly more practical. Her main innovation is to parse out different types of couples and their relative likelihood of recovering from an affair.

In her “Catalyst” essay, Brown divides affairs into six different types. A “conflict avoidance” affair generally happens among younger couples. The affair is brief and not all that emotionally entangling. The betrayer feels guilty and the betrayed is “angry but extra nice,” at least on the surface, to avoid any conflict. An “intimacy avoidance” affair, by contrast, generally happens among screamers. They yell and fight but never connect. Their dynamic is “angry and chaotic” but skirts the real issues. Edward Albee’s play Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? captures these two types well. The self-effacing Nick and Honey are the conflict avoiders, and George and Martha are the screamers.

The “split-self” affair is an older model although still shows up now and again. It’s generally a man living a double life, who values the comfort and appearance of a long-term marriage but also has a mistress, maybe even another family. Brown gives a “poor” prognosis for resolving issues that come out of these affairs, but a “low” probability of divorce—perhaps the most depressing combination. Then there are the sex addicts, a dysfunctional category of their own, and “exit affairs”—ones in which the affair is an excuse for getting out of the marriage, and generally works. Her newest category is “entitlement affairs,” a byproduct of Brown living so close to Washington, D.C. for so long and being interviewed by the press about the affairs of John Edwards, Mark Sanford, Nicolas Sarkozy—men who are hard working and successful and used to getting what they want.

Now, back to that couple on the couch, the military husband and wife, classic “conflict avoiders.” In stage one, Brown gets them to acknowledge and articulate basic emotions. The method is not that dissimilar from what a child psychologist would use with an autistic boy who does not easily express the full range of human expression: Where in your body do you feel the tension? You look scrunched up. What’s the emotion that goes along with that? The therapist is teaching them, from scratch, how to feel and express their emotions. With the intimacy avoiders—the screamers, she has to unteach them the bad habits first. But with the reserved couples, it’s like teaching a baby how to walk. This blankness is what gives the conflict avoiders the best prognosis for recovery, Brown says.

Next, Brown has to quickly move the affair off center stage and get to the underlying issues. This is the tricky part, because opening the box of emotions means risking rage and helplessness and crippling guilt and obsessing over details of the affair. But Brown tries to delicately reframe the affair as a situation not just created by the wife but also something the husband allowed to happen.

Eventually the feelings start to shake loose. The wife talks about how alone she feels when he goes away. She has no friends here, and no one to talk to. He says he understands that she feels lonely, but has trouble comprehending why she would turn to another man. This is progress—he is reaching out, asking her a question instead of just blaming her. In the end game, Brown will try to get the husband to acknowledge his wife’s genuine pain at having hurt him. She does not want the marriage to end, and neither does he. Forgiveness, in this method, comes last, not first. If they can both give it, their marriage has a shot at being stronger than it was before the affair. In other words, affairs can be good.