Ecology of affairs

The system of illicit affairs

Infidelity is usually both incredibly simple and costly.

By action or omission, one makes a mistake once and then extends it a fraction. Then repeats that small shift out of a relationship boundary, again and again. The emotional costs rise inexorably like a gambling debt to the mob.

It occurs in a relationship system that is best understood as a reciprocal process and as a triangle. The couple and the other woman or other man grow a triangle made complex by secrets.

Infidelity triangles are unpredictable. They are likely to involve people who are peers. Affairs at work are more likely to exhibit power imbalances. One or both participants may be in a committed, primary relationship.

That could be two sets of triangles whose foundations are in lies and deception. The risks of losing control of the information rise exponentially with complexity – you can’t encrypt body language.

It also occurs in diverse cultural contexts. Some risk their freedom and even their lives to consummate an extramarital relationship or non-sanctioned affair.

Beginning and ending affairs are rarely the isolated one-off events the strayer might wish they and the betrayed would believe. Every action has a consequence, some unintended.

Example 1

Jack thought he could end it by simply telephoning his lover, a passionate clandestine affair of the past six months, and tell her that his wife Jocelyn had found out. That kind of naivety at the end was also present at the beginning. Jocelyn knew women a little better than that or so she thought, and knew it could not be ended by either of them with a phone call. She wasn’t even certain if there had been a phone call.

In order to be sure it was over she arranged to “bump into” the affair partner outside the latter’s office. She asked her about Jack. The other woman fled and later took out an AVO against the wife! The public humiliation of the hearing before a magistrate was nearly the last straw for Jocelyn. Neither could have imagined that as a consequence.

All and I mean ALL illicit affairs begin via a courtship of some kind, if only via a regular wink across arrival and departure lounges or long hugs at family or work gatherings, or a text or an email conversation. These leave a trail or others notice the frisson. These days you don’t need to be a forensic accountant to follow the trail. Just install the spyware on the strayer’s tablet, desk top and phone early enough, and you’ve got it all and in real time if you want.

Properly ending the affair and preventing relapse require the following steps:

  • understanding the process by which it arose in the mind of the strayer
  • understanding and building boundaries on the basis of that
  • making a primary commitment to each other’s well being
  • giving ongoing care and attention that is due a primary relationship
  • becoming mindful of relapse potential

In a sense a real end to an illicit affair will naturally follow a collaborative approach to each of the above. From those understandings and commitments will arise a best fitting closure. Jack and Jocelyn had not processed the first of those step above.

Example 2

One of my rural area clients involved herself with their only neighbour whose wife provided care for the couple’s children when the farm demanded they be out for a day. It was for them that I began writing these pages on infidelity with some urgency. In rural and remote Australia and Canada where isolation forces neighbours to rely on each other, the risks and the ramifications of an affair and its exposure are significant if not life threatening.

For a start the family lost their side gate, as it were, where they could be sure the kids would be looked after whilst they were stuck with a birthing crisis in the stud. Both families lost a safety net. Because of their need for each other in emergencies a no contact policy was not possible. The only closure they could imagine was if one or the other sold up and left the area.

Begin mapping the secret

Most people don’t realize it’s a bigger leap from a platonic relationship to the first romantic kiss than from a kiss to sexual intercourse. Shirley Glass

Exploring the map of an affair like a team on a mission, can unravel the seeds that flowered into a clandestine relationship. In this, both members of the primary couple are in the hot seat, opening windows into themselves for each other to look in.

The attitude of we’re in this together is the best way to allow this.

Refusal to join in this process is counter to the re-growth of respect and intimacy. This may indicate the affair relationship continues in the same or in another form. Or it may be that the strayer has decided to leave anyway, and hopes to keep the presence of the other relationship out of contention. Or it may be that the strayer’s freedom or their or other’s lives would be at risk were they to engage in this process.

Example 3

‘Nothing happened, we just sat and had a coffee and talked. That’s all.’

‘But I remember,’ she said, ‘you were different after that day, something must have happened.’

‘Nothing happened I swear. Let it go for god’s sake! It was months ago. What’s bloody wrong with you?’

‘I know, I know but I can’t. It’s not about sex, it’s not about that, not yet anyway. It’s something else, something you’re not telling me’.

The probing went on for weeks, Emma couldn’t let up. It was alienating them both and all Dennis knew to do was keep insisting they were just work mates, they met once in the Ballina mall for coffee, that was all, it’s nothing, period.’ He had learned to choose words carefully. ‘Met’ was okay, but ‘went out’ she would end with ‘on a date?’

All Emma knew to do was keep teasing apart his words and testing the unfinished thought for a spark of new information. Dennis had learned the flat reply, and how not to appear to pull back a comma, a pause, which might reveal a hint of more. These just re-ignited her doubting questions – ‘and, and, and…?,’ she would say.

The process of both Emma’s cascading interrogation and his damaging silence, demanded echoless answers like a whisper deadened in deep space. They were damned if they did and damned if they didn’t. So they just kept going, often late into the night.

Finally, one morning around 2.00 am exhausted, exasperated, hiding in the bathroom and wishing it would all go away, he blurted it out, ‘Do you really want the truth?’ Emma nods, her eyes saying, ‘doorrh!’.

‘The truth is …. I felt something for her. Felt, not feel. FELT.’

‘And, and, and …’ completes Emma.

‘And … and … I hadn’t felt it for you in a while.’

‘What, what the f…k. What did you feel? What? Ever!?’, she screams.

‘But I left it there because it’s you I want, you’re the one I love,’ he says trying to calm her.

On the edge of discovery, Emma heard the excuse beneath his declaration, knowing that if his love were true then this conversation would not have dragged on over months.

‘Damn, damn, damn, I knew it, I knew it, I should bloody trust myself,’ she said to herself, praying to the ceiling, and then took a deep considered breath. ‘So … How can you go on seeing her every day at work and knowing those feelings are there and do nothing about it?’

‘That’s just how it is. I can live with that, Emma. I have lived with that. I have to live with that.’

‘I don’t believe you!’


In my experience as a clinical psychologist and couple’s therapist, the majority of committed relationships that I have worked with survive disclosure if the affair has properly ended. Many survive and thrive.

A lot depends on the prior history of the relationship; of their ability to have frank, honest conversations about values, sex and intimacy at the outset of the relationship and ongoingly; the strength of their own bond of friendship and the positive support of their friends and extended family; explicit understandings of each other’s core beliefs and values, and thus anticipating each other’s likely responses to breaches of those values.

In my experience, few couples recover from discovery of multiple clandestine affairs over many years involving close family, best friends of their partner and/or their partner’s grown up children. This is in part due to the aftermath of an humiliation trauma that cannot be overcome.

Exceptions and contra-indications to disclosure!

There are important exceptions to offering full disclosure of a clandestine affair or affairs.

For example:

  • Where you have reason to believe your and/or your children’s lives or the lives of others would be at risk if you disclosed. Humiliated rage is unpredictable when mixed with depression, marital breakup and suicidality. Just search ‘family murder-suicide’.
  • When the betrayed partner has a forensic pattern of memorizing everything that happens in the relationship and then later of mercilessly using it against you. This is an injustice collector pattern. A reasonably held fear of cruel retributions will straightjacket truth in any conversation. You are then damned if you disclose and damned if you don’t.
  • Where adultery is a felony and criminal penalties likely follow disclosure.
  • Where infidelity or even the suspicion of it might trigger culturally prescribed honour killing.

Where none of those apply, protecting the betrayed from the harm of disclosure likely continues to wound them. Especially if your intention is to stay and grow in the primary relationship.

If your intention is to stay without disclosure then you may be building a mortuary requiring a modus mortis to stay afloat. If your intention is to leave without disclosure then there are many factors to be weighed up in considering how much you disclose, if at all.

One offender steadfastly maintained a limited disclosure for the 12 months after he was caught. He believed withholding would limit his partner’s damaging, prosecutorial interrogation. He believed it was disclosure that would destroy the relationship. It took a while to show him that withholding the facts exhibited profound distrust of and disrespect for his betrayed partner. No one could move on.

Usually it’s not the protected sex but the lying about it that does more damage. Casual, unprotected, extramarital intercourse is high risk behaviour. Blood tests will surely follow.

Benefits and costs of recovery

In some cases recovering from infidelity brings the first truly intimate, committed relationship either party has ever had.

If you decide to disclose to the extent that your partner wishes, you may expect recovery and then renewal of the primary relationship to take anywhere from 18 months to 4 years. The effects may be felt a decade beyond that, both for both good and ill. Time heals, injustice festers and secrets just have a way of getting out.

Some couples defy that predicted time frame, and clear the affair crap out of their system more quickly. Some take longer. Some relationships and marriages continue as affairs waiting to happen, until one partner finally pulls the plug.

The risks for non-recovery are of not growing, of repeating the pattern and of later ending the marriage, which may of course be the point.

Some strayers are so lacking in mercy, selflessness and self-honesty that they won’t help themselves or the partner to either mend or end the primary relationship. This pitiless abdication abandons the betrayed to carry the burden of ending the relationship themselves and thus releasing the offender, possibly to return to the affair.

Other primary relationships remain empty after an affair has ended, but without healing in the relationship – like the stuffing has been knocked out of them. In that impoverished emotional life, the primary source of intimacy may then become the children.

Using kids as surrogate partners and having a family driven by them can become divorce training for the next generation. Their model of intimacy is that it comes from outside the primary relationship.

In addition the authority normally held in the parental subsystem is undermined by the cross-generational bonding (parent-child).

This can establish triangulation as the norm for those children. As adults they may seek a triangle to normalize their marriage, in effect out-sourcing intimacy to their children or to a third party.

This continues intergenerational grief for another go around.

Worse than that kind of death of intimacy, is where the wounded partner stays in the relationship in order that the other never be allowed to forget.

Next crazy idea is where the offending partner hides in the marriage from the risk of wounding the other again or worse hides from fear of the rejection that the affair inflicted.

The betrayed can also decide to stay at all costs, hoping the problems will right themselves in the end. All great material for a play but a hideous way to sit it out in G-d’s waiting room.

Endorphin intoxication

Some folk are hooked on the agony and the ecstasy. Like a drug addict they keep hitting up on repeated infidelity or downgrading the risk of discovery by hitting up on web porn, cyber sex, sexting and/or chat rooms.

If it’s like that, then consider the possibility that you are dealing with a sex or romance addiction. Complete this screening quiz, careful to avoid minimising the behaviours under review. It compares your results to a clinical sample so you have to be really at the heavy end to get a confirmed sex addiction result.

These addictive behaviours may release endorphins (internal opiates) that medicate or numb the pain of some unresolved early life troubles, such as that inflicted by a violent, alcoholic parent or traumatic divorce of one’s parents where a child’s loyalties were mercilessly played upon.

Infidelity occurs in a relationship system that is defined by its interlocking circles. Each part of the system affects all the others. I recommend closing the exits to the affair and to those who knowingly kept its secret. These are circles you don’t need buffeting recovery, and then re-build the boundaries.

Expect anniversary reactions to destabilize any system. Typical anniversaries are the day of discovery or first disclosure; you and your partner’s anniversary rituals that were betrayed, for example the affair taking place in your honeymoon hotel; the day you threw their stuff onto the street; the day they reneged on their promise to end it, and so on.

Prediction and prevention

Pre-marriage education and relationship coaching are effective but little used by those who would most benefit from it – those who believe that marriage itself will solve all the present and future problems.

Affairs get in through or leak out of holes in the relationship. Life will find a way. Being aware of how ready you or your partner are for an illicit affair, however, is a smart way to travel the ups and downs of a committed relationship.

Here are seven issues, explored in detail below, that can alert you to those holes. Together they may show you how affair ready your relationship may have become. Each is important in recovery and none alone can predict infidelity.

  • self-differentiation
  • self-esteem
  • boundaries
  • clear expression of wants and needs
  • romance
  • secrets and
  • forgiveness
Differentiation and mental maps

Differentiation is a natural process in committed relationships that involves developing more of a self while growing closer to your partner. Men often sacrifice their relationship to hold onto their sense of self. Women often sacrifice their sense of self to stabilize their relationship. Differentiation is about having it both ways: having a stronger sense of self and a stronger relationship. Schnarch

To begin differentiating you might start by observing the cognitive map that you have used to navigate your world so far. It is like an inner model of the outer world you traverse. It filters and colours what comes to your attention and also what is not noticed. Knowing your partner’s mental map as well as your own, supports good boundaries and self-differentiation. That knowledge is the stuff of real intimacy, vulnerability and tenderness.


The conviction that one is competent to live and worthy of living. Nathaniel Branden

Self esteem gets a bad press from observations of a generation of youngsters entering the workforce who were force-fed false praise and are not coping with real world competition and criticism. They suffer from high self-aggrandisement not high self-esteem.

External locus of control

External validation of esteem, one which is gained from other people’s high opinion of us is a bit like a mortgage. We have to keep paying for it and the bank can repossess our self worth any time we disappoint in our payments. Having a source of esteem given into other people’s care is a common vulnerability and necessary to socialization – except for psychopaths who don’t care what you think of them. But too much care about how others respond to you allows one to lose the sense of inner truth and follow another’s version of the truth. Desiring this validation is a psychological underpinning of both deviance and social control.

External validation is also described as an external locus of control. Often associated with poor health outcomes because of the belief that other people or events are in control of one’s life. But that doesn’t stop people from hungering for external validation even to the end of their health and family life.

A mid-life crisis is believed to have a kind of external source of control in the natural process of aging. Aging is something outside of our control. Maturity is within our control at any age. People give an affair external power as well. I don’t know what came over me. It was so out of character.

Internal locus of control

Self-worth resides in and results from a number of internally validating experiences. Validation is the meeting of actuality with recognition. It can be conditional based on what I do – ‘I’m only as good as the next goal’ and that is an external location. Or it can be unconditional and without reservation based on my very being – ‘I believe in myself. I am a good person’ and that is an internal, felt sense of my reality.

The foundations of an internal locus of esteem are with how the person was loved and cared for as a child. Failure to grow up leads to a denial of life, of lived experience and perverting the course of sex and love More on site about functional and dysfunctional families.

The first act of esteem in recovery from infidelity and betrayal is usually to differentiate being a bad person from doing bad things or omitting to do the right things. We do that by affirming the goodness at the core of our being. You are a good person who has done rotten things to the people nearest and dearest to you.

This can be distinguished from the self-aggrandizing, righteous belief in entitlement to the occasional fling and the self-justifying he/she asked for it by not giving me what I want/deserve or by being too busy with her/his career and so on.

All excuses.

Depending on others to feel good about ourselves, to feel wanted and desirable as an entitlement is an external locus of control. It requires growing up rather than more of that same, desperate search for it.

Depending on the buzz from the frisson of an emotional extra marital affair in order to feel attractive is a problem that belongs at home.

A shaming family (toxic parents) withholds expressions of affirmation, sometimes capriciously, often cruelly and often themselves dominated by what other people might think.

Numbers of my clients over the years have kept returning to shaming families hoping to get it right, just that once and each time come away hurting. Their partners wonder, why not just cut them out of your life, without comprehending the tyranny of seeking an esteem held hostage by one’s parents. Here are some steps to overcome the hurtful legacy.

Toxic shame is not helpful and can be a self-pitying indulgence or a slippery offloading of accountability, I couldn’t help it I’ve had a terrible life and I’d rather be dead. Or from the betrayed’s point of view – I don’t deserve any better, I’m lucky to have a partner at all.

Childhood sexual abuse survivor and infidelity

Childhood sex abuse is linked to infidelity and shame by the denial of the injury inflicted by the childhood sexual assault. Boys tend to deny the impact of molestation in childhood, more so than girls.

In surveys about the incidence of childhood sex abuse, most guys will not affirm a question like “Were you sexually assaulted as a child?” but the same guy will affirm one like “As a child did an older boy or adult interfere with you in an inappropriate way?”

Childhood sex abuse confuses affection with sex in the adult mind, especially when the perpetrator was familiar to the victim, such as a grandpa, uncle, older sibling, teacher or parent. It also damages self-esteem.

Survivors tend to seek sex in order to meet their affectional needs, but feel ashamed asking for affection directly from someone familiar – their partner. Betrayal of their partner produces shame at having cheated. That shame is familiar when paired with sex and affection. One seeks the shame in order to feel oneself familiarly shameful. At times even when it hurts one more. This is like a re-enactment of the abuse in an attempt to master its effects as an adult.

Anger directed against the self or others is always a central problem in the lives of people who have been violated and this is itself a repetitive re-enactment of real events from the past. Compulsive repetition of the trauma usually is an unconscious process that, although it may provide a temporary sense of mastery or even pleasure, ultimately perpetuates chronic feelings of helplessness and a subjective sense of being bad and out of control. Gaining control over one’s current life, rather than repeating trauma in action, mood, or somatic states, is the goal of healing. Vanderkolk

Infidelity with re-enactment as a driver, tends to repeat until the cheater is supported and exposed and healing of their childhood sex abuse begun. But this is not a prediction of who will cheat and who will not.

Example 4

Alfred was the eldest child in his family. He and his siblings attended a community youth organisation weekly and for trips away from home. He was 11 yrs old when he was introduced to mutual masturbation and anal play by a 16 year old boy in the tents at night out on a bivouac. This went on for some time. It seemed normal, ‘it was okay at the time’ he said, but left him with ‘a bad feeling in his guts that hung around for days’. The older boy told him he should never tell anyone about this otherwise they would all get into trouble. The ‘bad feeling’ was healthy shame.

Alfred learned to shut the yucky feeling out and kept the secret. Still, he didn’t look forward to going on bivouac with the group and later found ways to avoid it by getting sick or injuring himself just before a jamboree. The older boy was an ongoing victim of a pedophile in his family’s church community. He was ‘obliged’ to keep a dark secret by threats from the pedophile These included that he would be taken from his family by the police if he told. He never told – anyone.

Neither did Alfred or his siblings talk about it. It was all to come out years later in a prominent case about about a Brisbane priest.

As a teenager and young man Alf was sexually precocious but not predatory. He had mostly forgotten about how he learned to masturbate himself and others but became very skillful at bringing others to climax. He was ‘much in demand by girls wanting safe sex’. Not all liked his interest in anal play but many were happy to share some of the pornography he collected. As an adult he collected that material, and the web turned it into an inexpensive ‘hobby’.

He met Simone at a sex and consciousness festival in Byron Bay. She had come from a similar family background and fortunately, or not, was very happy to share all his interests in the variety of sexual monogamy, and some of the porn. Simone described her sexual appetite as ‘voracious’.

He sometimes spoke about the youth group but dismissed it as having no significance in his life. Neither had understood the impact of early traumatic learning to keep sexual secrets and suppress healthy shame.

They married after a two year long, passionate honeymoon period. All this was fine until they started having children. One day Alf left inappropriate images on the computer screen whilst the eldest girl sat on his lap playing with lego on the desk. This freaked Simone out when she wandered in. He genuinely didn’t get it. His unconsciousness about it freaked her out even more. They started having fights for the first time and, as an aside dear reader, this is usually the best predictor of the time of onset for depression – a start to or a significant worsening of marital arguments. And so it was for them.

Thinking about the issue he didn’t put the two things together in his mind that would have made watching porn with a child on his lap as appalling as he later realised. He had numbed out the childhood sexual abuse to the extent that he didn’t even think of it as abuse. Like many trauma survivors he used to minimise stuff in order to cope with it.

She asked him to get rid of all the material in the house. He agreed but in fact continued in secret. Their marriage became rockier: unresolved conflicts; a big mortgage; trouble with the in-laws; sick kids; a car accident, and finally retrenched as a project manager in a large national building company. He easily found a new job but the secretive way in which the company went about laying off staff in Brisbane and in the rest of Australia unhinged Alf. The CEO had lied in a telephone hookup about his future the day before.

Alf sought out other women, always the flirt this time he took it further and never told Simone. The discovery of this profoundly affected her trust in him and her own judgment of just about everything that mattered.

The marital healing of his serial affairs was held back by the part of his life he had frozen out as a child. The habits of denial and lying to himself that he had used to forget about the abuse. Simone struggled to believe another affair would not happen because he couldn’t give a full account of what he did with the other women. He could lie so well that she believed his lies until later they were exposed by the evidence. He tried to find ways to explain the evidence. He couldn’t bear to admit feelings of shame.

They both went into individual therapy in Brisbane with clinical psychologist specialists in trauma providing EMD*R on a GP’s Mental Health Care Plan. We continued in couple therapy at Ocean Shores. It took about 40 sessions of evidence based, trauma informed couple therapy over a two year period. I see them for bi-annual reviews. Now into their fifth year of recovery they are back on track. He now trust his body’s healthy shame response, and they have found a monogamous boundary around a variety of shared, unconventional, sexual experiences that work for them without porn.


People with broad self esteem and self respect do not generally put themselves, their partners or families through the pain of infidelity. There are many exceptions, so even high self-esteem is not insulation against cheating. Having low self-esteem like the feeling of being a piece of dirt also does not predict a non-sanctioned affair.

People with similar depth and range of self-esteem and self-differentiation tend to get together in a committed relationship – that is their sense of mutual recognition. It is rare to find a high self-esteem, well differentiated person partnered with a low self-esteem, poorly differentiated one. Such an imbalance would be a cause of concern even without an affair’s attempt to re-balance it, but that is not a prediction either.

It’s not so rare to find a high achieving, driven leader partnered with a comfortable, medium drive follower, where their communication, sex and romance behaviours grow out of that power imbalance. Wide differences in power, social or sex drives, however, also do not predict infidelity.

Power and esteem imbalances and incompatibilities do not cause cheating. It’s how we handle the incompatibilities that matter and that matters more than where we are compatible. It’s not conflict that is the problem but the methods used to manage it.

A conscious, committed relationship is one of the places we heal self-esteem wounded in childhood and learn how to differentiate ourselves from our origins. It is one place to harbour and nurture the soul. A secret liason might appear to offer soul food without commitment or seems to meet the ‘give it to me now’ impulse without apparent consequence. Yet at the same time it breaches the very conditions for developing self-esteem. It’s a cover up job, a plastering over of the wounded child that’s a bit like an anti-depressant, which removes the weight of hopelessness without teaching the cure.

Conversations and actions, which acknowledge and support esteem and worth in the relationship increases worth and esteem. Five positive interactions to one negative is optimal for intimacy and esteem.

However, the obverse and more usual pattern of five negative interactions or more to one positive is damaging to intimacy and esteem. This negative pattern has to be solved collaboratively. The pattern is sometimes used as part of the excuse for infidelity – my lover makes me feel good about myself.

In this context I have concerns believing that another can ‘make’ one feel or do anything.


The greatest problem in communication is the illusion that it has been accomplished. Davenport

Some exits from intimacy are secrets even from ourselves but well known to others who hardy know us but are on the prowl. How that works may be in the original attraction of the affair. If you’re not sure about what is meant by boundaries read this article and these articles on boundaries. Setting clear boundaries is part of a healthy relationship, of ‘prevention’ and of recovery from an affair.

Maintaining a friendship or a work relationship after an extra-marital affair has ‘ended’ is also a question about defining and navigating boundaries.

Infidelity breaches the boundary of a primary relationship much like some employment and employers, some in-laws, adult children or former spouses. Viruses breach the boundary of the immune system in an analogous way.

Unexplored conflicts or disagreements about where the boundary is and where it needs to be set and refusals by one person to set or discuss a boundary that would clearly exclude infidelity (don’t you trust me?) are best attended to early in a relationship. Apparently irreconcilable differences are best taken to a couple’s therapist early in the life of a committed relationship, rather than left to fester.

Intimacy is not compatible with surveillance and distrust

However, it may be worth your while to consciously define the boundaries of outside friendships in concrete terms rather than assume a shared understanding of what exactly constitutes intellectual/emotional/sexual involvements outside of the primary relationship.

It is worth while setting up a way of signaling the presence of the unspoken or the unspeakable that does not seek to blame the other or expose them to humiliation. Like a hand formed into a T for time out. Or a P for we need to process or using de Bono’s thinking hats method. Invent your own.

Some say if you have to ask those questions or raise those issues, there’s no point continuing toward a commitment or repairing breached boundaries. That could be another cop out. It could also be brinkmanship: if you keep hassling me about the affair you will make it impossible for me to stay.

I also know the objections to codifying anything as subjective as intimacy. However, even a little trip down this path early on can alert you to differences in points of view or misunderstandings about how far friendships and work place relationships can go and what a committed relationship needs to flourish. They are easily and innocently cleared up early in a relationship. They can make a hell of a mess re-defining them later on under the pressure of suspicion, guilt and shame.

Examples outside the mainstream: a sex worker has the limit of no kissing with her clients thereby not betraying the one special thing she has with her partner; a swinging couple agrees on no private sex at the couples swap venue and no sex away from the venue, otherwise everything else is okay; an open marriage is okay as long as one does not ‘fall in love’ with lover or leave home for a fling.

The variations are limitless, almost anything can be negotiated but it still forms a kind of moral contract that bind two people in trust, in a covenant. When that is breached for any of the couples at the extreme, it is just as devastating as it is for the couple who has a water tight, no exceptions, monogamous relationship contract under God.

Wants and needs

There are many legitimate needs we have for closeness, affection, appreciation, community, love, trust, understanding and warmth that we often have to live without and this is most difficult, though most people do find coping strategies to alleviate the pain of not satisfying these core heart needs. If we loose touch with these needs completely though we end up out of touch with our real self that has these real needs.

Wants are negotiable. Strictly speaking needs are not.

The heat of an affair feels like a need, whilst the partner betrayed feels unwanted.

It helps to have a language and permission to explore and differentiate desires, needs and wants. Where they are met and where they are not. Which needs, wants or desires were or might be met in illicit relationships.

In common usage ‘I need a coffee’ describes a very different map of what constitutes ‘need’ from ‘I need a hug’. That is different again from ‘I need a good night’s sleep’. I need somebody to love? I need somebody to take care of me? I need to be understood?

Some of these are not needs but wants raised to the level of a survival necessity by framing it as a need.

If you are unsure here’s a little bit more info and here an exercise to differentiate needs from wants and decide those that are both.

Communicating clearly about our wants and needs is a challenge. Even saying ‘I want…’ as an adult can be difficult if we have been taught that we should wait until we are given.

Judgments, criticisms and interpretations of each other are sometimes alienated expressions of our desires. What we are criticizing in the other we may be asking to receive ourselves.

For example, ‘you’re always looking after other people’ – could be a request for quality time or to be looked after.

‘You know what your problem is, you’re lazy’ – could be a desire to do nothing themselves or get permission to be lazy or just to hang out with the other.

Where intrinsic needs are out of awareness, unfulfilled or not acknowledged in a primary relationship they may press for external resources to satisfy them. Our primary relationship cannot be the only source of fulfillment of all our needs. The question is about appropriate transactions that outsource our unmet wants and needs.

Peak experiences occur when a fully functioning person experiences a moment when the world seemed utterly perfect. These experiences permanently alter the way the person sees their surroundings. An affair can provide the illusion of that moment, whilst furtively it damages self-esteem – ‘I’ve become a liar and a cheat and that’s not me’.

This undermining of esteem sets in train the grounds for retreat from an inherently esteem damaging affair. Then esteem recovers in everyday activities supporting self-worth and one is then pulled back into the affair to burn up more esteem. This is the agony and the ecstasy of advance and retreat. It is the dynamic of infidelity and it is the drug.

Knowing and trusting each other well enough and with both willing to share deeply at that level of vulnerability where true wants and needs reside, is part of the contract for a conscious committed relationship. As we grow our needs change and our partner’s knowledge of that keeps pace with us as we grow. The mental map is then adjusted to the change.

When knowledge and willingness to be vulnerable and share at this level are present equally, the relationship can be oriented better and ongoingly to fulfil those needs without recourse to a third party or some other compulsive activity.

These are an idealists view since in reality, it is only the cost of not sharing at that depth that leads to the awareness of how important it is to share so intimately.

Do you remember how you thought you understood something you had heard or saw or felt and years later you experience it again and realize you missed something pivotal the first time, which turned what you had understood on its head? It is important to learn and discover again how to listen actively with all your senses awake and to assert yourself in the intimate realm, with your body and with your heart.

This works well if each clearly indicates the emotional, romance and sexual wants and needs they are aware of. Mind reading does not work so well. Openly negotiating a mutually satisfying way for these to be met within the ever present differences and incompatibilities works well. Review it regularly.

In the crisis following discovery of an illicit affair Maslow’s hierarchy is thrown out the window. Nothing in it measures up. The only thing that matters is to make sense of what has happened – to make some meaning out of the damage and to review the beliefs that have been shattered in betrayal trauma.


Some re-romancing events are the simplest rituals. Just one hour a week for each other, without distractions. Take a walk.

Some folk find romance tough going and have complained to me that they don’t have a sentimental bone in their bodies. Here are 60 ways to have an affair with your partner. It is a no-brainer list of some easy and some hard things to do for romance.

Re-romancing a relationship during and after recovery from an affair is a necessary courtship process. Failing to do so will raise other issues to be explored such as taking the initiative in expressing affection and of the sincerity of commitment to relationship growth. A persistent refusal to even consider re-romancing may indicate romance remains invested in the affair.

That’s an inner way to continue the affair after it has ended by building a shrine to its stolen moments.

Secrets and privacy in a committed relationship

Commitment may imply a devotion to honesty and transparency but it is not always democratic. It can take decades to develop deep democracy in an intimate relationship. Committed relationships of over 30 years duration may describe an intimacy and sexuality not possible in their earlier years.

There is forgiveness in this observation for those of us who find all of the foregoing an unbearable burden on our imperfections, but it is not permission to go ahead and do the wrong thing. For more on privacy and secrets continue onto the Fidelity 3


Forgiveness is the accomplishment of mastery over a wound. Beverly Flanigan

Fiercely holding on to the past; resenting past wrongs and unable to let go; blaming yourself or others for their part in it; trying to bargain with your partner for behaviour change – all represent something unforgiven.

There are layers and layers of forgiveness. One person was told by her parents at the outset that her partner was wrong for her and that the relationship would end badly and it did, in an affair. So not only did she have to forgive herself and her partner but also herself as a teenager for going her own way and her parents for being right.

Forgiveness does not lead to forgetting a wrong nor giving permission to offend again. You can both forgive and leave the situation. A premature forgiveness or a hurried departure can rebound painfully on the betrayed. However, when it is time and all is said and done, you will forgive yourself and maybe some of the others, you will let it go and live on.

Professional help

A dirty little secret is that couples therapy may be the hardest form of therapy, and most therapists are not very good at it. But most discussions of marital problems occur in individual psychotherapy, where a lot of the damage to marriage goes on.

Good counsel is expensive, poor counsel is more expensive especially when navigating the complexities of disclosure. Professional help is likely to be less expensive than divorce, interruption to a career path or paid for sex, if the latter was part of the history you are now dealing with.

However, individualistic therapy approaches to couple problems can be hazardous to an enduring relationship.

Depression, substance abuse, bereavement or anxiety problems before or after the affair in either person may require one-to-one assistance integrated with and yet separate to couples therapy.

Word of mouth referral and a telephone chat before making an appointment are usually good initial indicators of the potential for a working relationship. Theoretical models are not as useful as the ability to engage you and your partner in changing behaviour.

Eventually information also has a use by date, when both people have enough of it to get on with the work of repairing and growing again or not.