It is often said that cheating is a symptom of something else that’s wrong in a marriage.
While that can certainly be true, it’s not always the case, and allowing this belief to settle unchecked into our collective subconscious can make it even more painful and difficult for people to deal with the aftermath of an exposed affair. Learning how to forgive and move forward after an affair is a process, not a miracle.
Sometimes there is nothing wrong with your relationship and nothing you could have done to prevent it—and almost always, the reason for the affair is wrapped up in the emotional and mental health of the person who had the affair. Working to understand why affairs happen in good marriages is often the first step toward reconciliation as a couple.
Whether or not you want to continue the relationship, it’s important to learn how to forgive and move forward after an affair for your own mental health and well-being. A lot of that forgiveness–of the other person and of yourself–comes from time and understanding.
Affairs: Why They Happen
There is seldom just one reason for an affair. The state of your relationship, the stresses and pressures of your life (finances, kids, job loss, depression, etc.), and your personal belief systems can all influence your vulnerability to an affair. But before you dive into recriminations and discussions of “why” with your partner, it’s important to remember two things.
First, a happy and fulfilling relationship does not protect you from infidelity–it certainly helps, but it is not an impenetrable shield.
Second, you are only responsible for you and your own actions. There is nothing a person can do to prevent infidelity in their partner. We know it’s almost impossible not to take it personally, but you are not responsible for someone’s infidelity, and you should never be made to feel that way.
With these ideas firmly in place, you can start to explore the why of the affair. Everyone’s exact reasons are unique, complex, and completely contextual. But there are a few central themes that we see pop up over and over as relationship counselors.*
*Please note that we are excluding the rare but valid case of a narcissist who is cheating over and over just because they can, as well as people suffering from mental disorders and illnesses that cause compulsive behavior, like sex addiction.
1. People Fall In Love With Their Own Fantasies
It is surprisingly rare that someone is truly in love with the person they are having an affair with. What they’re “in love with” is the fantasy of another person–an idealized image that they’ve created in their mind. When you don’t live with someone and know them inside and out, there’s a feeling of mystery and excitement. It’s like being a teenager and believing that your crush is the most perfect person in the world–it’s an impossible ideal, but you’re drawn to it.
It’s common that, to reconcile their cheating with their image of themselves as a good person, a person having an affair will try to convince themselves that they’re in love with the other person. But often, after introspection and counseling, it’s pretty easy for them to see it was never real love.
To back that up with stats, over 75% of relationships that began in infidelity end in divorce—a much higher rate than the 39% of marriages that end in divorce today.
2. People Crave Validation and Attention
Who doesn’t love being flirted with by someone they find attractive? Being flattered, validated, and told that you’re valued and sexy is a rush that can be addictive. This is another case of falling in love with an idea–but in this case, falling in love with a new and exciting version of themselves. A version that is attractive and wanted and young again.
Again, this doesn’t mean that they weren’t receiving attention and validation at home. As humans, we’ve evolved to crave novel experiences because they tend to set off feel-good hormones. The more often you experience something–like your partner saying “I love you”–the less exciting it becomes.
3. Hooked on Hormones
When a new romance or flirtation begins, hormones flood your brain. Dopamine, norepinephrine, and serotonin flood your system and it’s all you can feel, all you can think about. Dopamine is also activated by substances like nicotine and cocaine, norepinephrine is adrenaline, and serotonin is known as the “happiness hormone.” Throw in the illicit excitement of pursuing the forbidden, and you have a recipe for a psychologically addictive thrill.
Remember, almost every affair is about the person committing it. These feelings of love, desire, and passion aren’t about the person they’re cheating with–they’re directed at themselves and how they get to feel around them.
How Long Does It Take to Get Over an Affair?
Unfortunately, we don’t have a one-size-fits-all answer to this question. It’s completely dependent on the circumstances and the couple. Generally speaking, short-term affairs or one-night stands are easier to work through than long-standing affairs that last for years. Likewise, a one-time occurrence is often easier to forgive than a repeat offense.
But that isn’t true for every couple. It’s going to depend heavily on your personal beliefs, the state of your marriage, your communication styles, and your desire to make it work. The good news is that, with the right marriage counselor, you can rebuild trust and set new parameters in your marriage. While adultery is never a good thing, we often see couples come through the aftermath of an affair stronger and happier than they were before.
How To Forgive and Move Forward After an Affair
This subject has been the subject of hundreds of books and scholarly articles. There are so many therapies that couples can pursue, but in the end, it all comes down to two things: Desire and Communication.
If you both want to stay together and you’re both willing to put in the work to communicate with one another and accommodate one another’s feelings and emotional needs, you’re going to be able to move on. It’s a long road, and it can be a painful one, but it can also lead to growth and an understanding of your partner that allows you to love them even more deeply than before.
Affair Recovery Little Rock, AR
If you are seeking marriage counseling, or you would like to pursue learning how to forgive and move forward after an affair in your marriage, contact Arkansas Relationship Counseling Center. We offer marathon sessions, concierge sessions, discernment counseling, and hopeful spouse counseling.