This is part one of a four part series on affair recovery. Chances are good that either you or someone close to you has been affected by a relational affair. Not only do we hear about these stories in our personal lives, we see them play out in movies, on TV, and in the music we listen to. Infidelity is rampant. Yet, none of us stand in front of our spouse on our wedding day thinking "I'm sure I'll have an affair one day" or "I'm sure I'll be cheated on by this person at some point". It's just not at the forefront of our minds. So we vow to be faithful and go on with our lives.
Part 1: How did this happen?
One of the first questions that usually comes out of a betrayed partner's mouth is "How did this happen?". It's typically such a stunning revelation because we aren't looking for it. We are going about our lives believing that everyone is ok and that our marriage is in tact. Sometimes couples are connected when an affair is revealed and sometimes they are not. Regardless, when an affair is revealed, the betrayed partner's world is turned upside down and nothing is as it seems. "How could my partner cheat on me?" "How did I not see this going on?" "How could my spouse love me and still do this?" "How could they not think about me and the kids when they were with their lover?" The list goes on and on. The amount of time that a betrayed partner can spend trying to answer these questions is immense.
In John Gottman's book The Science of Trust, he outlines what he calls "cascade towards betrayal". He explains that typically, one does not just wake up one morning and say "I'm going to have an affair today". It's usually a series of steps that are taken that continually cross a boundary until a full blown affair is happening. There are 24 steps in this cascade, but I will summarize them here:
24 Step Gottman-Rusbalt-Glass Cascade Towards Betrayal
Steps 1-8: Beginning to turn away from your partner (emotionally and physically). Higher conflict. Secrets and deception increase.
Steps 9-19: Less dependency on the primary relationship to get needs met. Making negative comparisons (lover does this so much better than my spouse) and trashing spouse to others (the "story of us" becomes negative). Anti-relationship thoughts start to creep in.
Steps 20-24: Starts innocent meet-ups with other person to deal with loneliness. Keeps more secrets from partner and actively turns towards the other person to get needs met. Boundaries are crossed and real betrayal unfolds.
It can sometimes take a year or more for someone to move through these steps towards betrayal. It's typically a slow process of crossing boundaries and moving away from their partner. In order to keep the affair relationship in tact, there needs to be more and more secrecy. It takes both vulnerability within the person having an affair (some sort of dissatisfaction within themselves) and an opportunity (someone willing to engage in crossing the line) in order for an affair to happen. Slowly, the betrayer has secured themselves in a bubble of excitement, invigoration, secrecy, and newness and all of these feelings become worth the cost of losing their entire built life with their spouse. They become masterful at compartmentalizing and justifying their actions in order to keep up the secret.
Once an affair is discovered, the betrayed partner often vacillates between anger and confusion. It's extremely difficult to reconcile what you thought you knew of your spouse and what they have done. It's important for both the betrayer and the betrayed to understand how the cascade towards betrayal played out. It doesn't take away the pain of the wound, but it does help stop the bleeding and begin the journey of healing. Once we can accept that a betrayal is now a part of the DNA of our marriage, we can think about how to slowly move forward and create a new story.
Affairs can be powerful detonators. They can invigorate a marriage that is flat, jolt people out of years of complacency. Fear of loss rekindles desire, makes people have conversations they haven't had in years, and takes them out of their contrived illusion of safety.