Affairs and cheating have eternally been a dark feature of the romantic landscape. In a perfect world love would be shared consistently between faithful partners. The world is not perfect. Causal talk of affairs neglects the extremes of soul-wrenching devastation felt by injured partners and the soul-uplifting bliss of new-found love felt by unfaithful partners. With the widespread relaxation of ethics and morals, affairs share a similar air of a romantic right-of-passage along with now-common divorce; both signify insufficient partner strength to maintain a commitment. 

    After an affair becomes revealed an intense drama follows which includes permanently scarring traumatic wounds to the injured partner and inward conflict with guilt, shame and loss of the unfaithful partner. Couples who are in the throes of the fallout will assign blame, renegotiate their relationship contract and perhaps attempt to heal. They will endure emotional storm after storm on the insecure journey of uncertainty. Healing and repair can be tortuously slow. Couples repeatedly face the possibility of dissolution during their crisis of truth. Whether the affair was purely emotional or became sexual the pain of its wounding is just as sharp.

      Many lovers warn the other early in the relationship should the other cheat the relationship is finished; real life circumstances cause a majority of injured partners to deviate by choosing the route of forgiveness instead. The quest to resurrect love amid the scars and wreckage is marked with predictable and painful milestones. Successful couples are rewarded with a healed relationship that may be stronger than before with a renewed passion; an outcome that never justifies the infidelity.

     The unfaithful partner has a responsibility to right the wrong, demonstrate sorrow and pay the injured partner emotional compensation for the pain caused. Sorrow must be expressed in a thousand ways and a thousand times, accomplished by simply loving sincerely once again.  Reassuring that the other is important through practice of honesty, transparency and care heals the partner and the relationship. The purer the love the faster healing will accelerate. But rarely is the situation that simple. The burden is on the unfaithful partner to prove honesty and love so as to erase the strong negative message conveyed by the affair that the partner is neither loved nor good enough.

    Affairs typically are experienced by unfaithful partners as intensely pleasurable and exciting. Affairs do not feel wrong; the heights of love feel like a birthright. A truth is that it is rarely wrong to love another but simultaneously it is rarely right to hurt another. The unfaithful partner may be confused between contrary feelings. He or she may feel sorry and guilty for deceit, but also grief for losing passionate love. Compassion and love for the injured partner conflict with anger and dissatisfaction from the unresolved relationship problems which pre-existed the affair. Having so much internal confusion, unfaithful partners may be hesitant to step up with pure loving and healing efforts. Ongoing pain makes the unfaithful partners impatient with slow progress of healing. Eager for release from probationary restrictions, they are tempted to express without compassion that the injured partner should “just get over it.”

     Injured partners live with excruciating pain. The revelation of an affair rocks their world, putting into question all that which was previously known and certain. The injured partner may suffer a profound and traumatic loss of self in which rage, desperation and insanity may be mixed. Cycling up and down moods can feel and seem crazy. The choice to fix the relationship or end it is a large question as is whether or not the injured partner is a fool to repair it. What felt like a secure floor has been pulled out from under him or her. Desperate to make sense of it and feel in control, an injured partner asks hundreds of detective-like questions to investigate the infidelity. Each question exposes the unfaithful partner to wave after wave of guilt and shame. Flare-ups of pain triggered by sometimes innocent situations can return the couple to ground-zero.

    An injured partner’s anger is fully justified, but if it is chronically expressed to punish progress of healing will halt and may backslide. Couples who get out of the blame game, escape from the victim/criminal mentality possess a better chance to heal. The injured partner’s difficult task is to allow the other to re-earn trust and cooperate with healing, a process that doesn’t feel fair. For the unfaithful partner, he or she must unequivocally get back on the loving track. As pain subsides, couples may begin to explore what went wrong that initially made the relationship vulnerable. Repairs are only achieved by loving in all its infinite varieties. Andrew Aaron, LICSW is a sex and relationship therapist who practices in the New Bedford Seaport.