did I marry the wrong person?

Spouses who have not experienced an affair firsthand are usually very trusting. They don’t believe that infidelity could ever infect their marriage. I often hear, “My spouse could never be unfaithful—she has my utmost trust,” and “He has such strong moral convictions that an affair is unthinkable.”

When a spouse has an affair, it usually comes as a complete surprise even to him or her. That person often reports, “I had always regarded those who had affairs as selfish, misguided fools with no discipline whatsoever. I could not have imagined having an affair myself.”

But infidelity is something that doesn’t just happen on TV dramas. It happens in most marriages. Most marriages, you may ask? Yes, unfortunately, most marriages.

As common as an affair is in marriage, it is always devastating to almost everyone involved. It’s one of the most painful experiences that the betrayed spouse will ever be forced to endure, and it is traumatic for the children. Friends and members of the extended family usually suffer as well. But what most people don’t realize is that the wayward spouse and the lover are also hurt by the experience. They almost always suffer from acute depression, often with thoughts of suicide. With all of the sadness and suffering, why do so many people have an affair?

The answer is that, for the moment, it seems to be the right thing to do. Men and women are easily carried away by their emotions, making the worst mistakes of their lives.

One would think that at least the people with strong religious convictions and moral commitments would have special protection from extramarital affairs. Yet I have counseled hundreds of people with these convictions who were not able to resist unfaithfulness. Just observing the many religious leaders who have succumbed to the temptation of infidelity proves to me that under certain conditions infidelity is irresistible.

The truth is that infidelity doesn’t necessarily develop out of a bankrupt moral values system. Instead, personal values change to accommodate the affair. What had been inconceivable prior to an affair can actually seem reasonable and even morally right during an affair. Many people who have always believed in being faithful in marriage find that their values do not protect them when they are faced with the temptation of an affair.

It became clear to me early in my counseling experience that affairs were much more common than I had ever imagined. Now, after years of marriage counseling, I have come to realize that almost everyone, given the right conditions, would have an affair.

Most unfaithful spouses see an affair as enlightenment. They did not know what they were missing until the affair revealed it to them. In many cases a spouse is feeling depressed and unfulfilled, and the affair changes that. What had been missing in his or her life is found, and it’s a wonderful relief. What years of therapy can’t achieve is instantly accomplished whenever the lover is present—happiness and fulfillment.

Most betrayed spouses are blindsided by the affair. They trusted their spouse and their spouse betrayed that trust. Their feelings swing from wanting a divorce and ending all the misery to wanting to save the marriage at all costs.

The emotional impact of an affair on a betrayed spouse is incredibly powerful. Many cannot sleep for days and experience the worst depression of their lives. At the same time, they are on the verge of angry outbursts, losing their temper whenever they get on the subject of the affair. Their anxiety is also out of control as they panic over where this affair will lead. They see no hope of recovery, their lives totally ruined.

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The betrayed spouse feels pushed into a pit, crying out for help. The wayward spouse comes to the edge of the pit but instead of tossing a rope, hurls stones. Emotionally torn to pieces, the betrayed spouse can’t imagine ever trusting anyone else again, least of all the wayward spouse.

The Emotional Attachment Continuum

I will introduce a variety of ways that people have affairs. The best way for me to describe them is to show you a continuum that reflects the degree of emotional attachment in each affair. On one end of the continuum are affairs like Sue’s with intense emotional attachment—those involved consider themselves to be soul mates. But on the other end of the continuum are affairs with almost no attachment at all. The affair you confront probably falls somewhere between these two extremes.

The One-Night Stand

On one end of the emotional attachment continuum where there is almost no emotional attachment, the “one-night stand” is the most common example. It often takes place when a spouse is away on a trip, or when one has gone out partying without the other spouse. In many cases alcohol is a necessary ingredient for these affairs and it enables people to lose enough of their inhibitions to enjoy sex with a total stranger, or at least someone they don’t love. Alcoholics are likely to have many of these loveless affairs during their lifetime. In many cases, they can’t even remember who was with them for the night.

“If you’re not with the one you love, love the one you’re with,” is the guiding principle in these affairs. People often begin these short-term relationships in such places as bars and dance clubs. But they can also take place on the job, particularly when a spouse is on a business trip. What begins as a casual working friendship in the morning can end with being in bed together at night.

Soul Mates

At the opposite end of the emotional attachment continuum are relationships in which there is an intense emotional bond. They usually begin as a friendship, with no flirting whatsoever, and certainly not as a one-night stand. Over time the friendship becomes increasingly caring as the partners come to understand each other’s emotional needs and learn to meet them. As more and more needs are met with increasing effectiveness, this relationship often becomes so exclusive that it cannot be maintained along with a marriage. Those who separate from their spouse just to “sort things out” are often engaged in this type of affair, unknown to the spouse. The separation allows for the private and exclusive relationship the lovers desire.

Between One-Night Stands and Soul Mates

I have described the opposite ends of the emotional attachment continuum. One-night stands usually involve little or no emotional attachment while those who consider themselves to be soul mates are highly attached to each other. In between these two poles of my continuum lie the majority of affairs, involving various degrees of emotional attachment.

Marital recovery requires a complete separation of the wayward spouse and the lover, and the separation of “soul mates” is quite a challenge. They are usually the most difficult to separate. I won’t ignore one-night stands and affairs with less attachment, but those who engage in them are usually willing to end the relationship without much fuss.

However, whether an affair is a one-night stand, years of intimate friendship with sexual contact, or anything in between, the way to end the affair and restore a marriage is essentially the same. So even though my initial example is the affair of soul mates, the methods I suggest for ending an affair restoring the marriage should be applied to all affairs.

Adapted from Surviving an Affair, by Dr. William F. Harley, Jr.

Copyright © 2013 Dr. Williard F. Harley, Jr. Published by Revell, used with permission, all rights reserved.