The Relational Trauma of Affairs

A Guest blog written by Ronald B. Cohen, MD, Bowen Family Systems Coach in Great Neck, New York. Dr Cohen is a Systemic Family Therapist sharing his views on how people with chemical dependence, and their families, can benefit from Systemic Family Therapy. For the complete article by Ronald B. Cohen follow the link below,

Every End is a New Beginning
Do affairs destroy marriages or do troubled marriages lead to affairs? Does an affair create an insurmountable problem or can a marriage be saved after an affair? When thinking systemically, the answer is almost always yes, not either/or but both/and, which leads to a qualified no on the insurmountable question.

Affairs are a symptom but a symptom of what? There is no single “affair story”. Intimacy avoidance, conflict avoidance, sexual addiction, and exit affairs each reflect a different message about what is wrong in the marriage. There are also any numbers of reasons external to the marriage as to why one or both partners may engage in an affair. These include family of origin issues, gender beliefs and stereotypes, forms of entitlement such as male privilege, vulnerability at times of particular life cycle transitions, and the “cluster stress combinations of all of the above. There are also multicultural considerations, as the meaning of an affair is very different in many Asian, European and South American countries.

The painful relational trauma of an affair necessitates a systemic resilience-based approach to healing. The “unfaithful partner” has to take one hundred percent responsibility for going outside the marriage in an ill-advised attempt to resolve relationship issues. The “unfaithful partner” needs to be truly remorseful and offer a full apology of (1) “I’m sorry”, (2) “I’ll never do it again” and (3) “How can I make it up to you” including any and all “high-cost behaviors” that may be asked for by the “hurt” partner.

Subsequently it behooves each partner to take responsibility for their contribution to the couple distress, generating a better understanding for both partners of their interconnected, but also separate, dilemmas. One thing we can’t say is where the self-reinforcing cycle of negative interactions began or who threw the first punch. As each partner is a player in the drama, there are no saints or sinners, no victims or villains. Either everyone wins or everyone loses. Relationships are not a zero sum game.

The relational approach provides a framework for the couple to recover from the affair and reinvest in their relationship. Each partner is one hundred percent responsible for his/her 50 percent of any relationship as well as his/her own emotional wellbeing. Janis Abrams Spring describes the traumatic effects and symptoms that typically result from disclosure of an affair. She gives an empathic account of both the physiological, psychological, spiritual, and relational changes that occur in the “hurt partner” as well as the grief, guilt, paralysis, and difficult choices of the unfaithful partner. ‘‘Not everyone who has discovered marital unfaithfulness is equally wounded, nor is every person whose infidelity is discovered equally affected.’’

The loss of trust and severe attachment injury of an affair forever changes the relationship. As with all major traumas one does not “get over it”. Life is always different in the aftermath. Forgiveness includes being kind and empathic with one’s self. Intimacy, connection and vulnerability are inseparable in adult love relationships.

An affair need not be the end. It can be a new beginning filled with mutual understanding, compassion, forgiveness and restored trust. Learning constructive communication techniques and being willing to use them is a risk well worth taking.

If you are struggling with an affair or its aftermath, please share your thoughts and experiences in the “Leave a Reply” box below. If you found this post useful, don’t keep it a secret. You are encouraged to click on the social media buttons to share this article with your own networks. Looking forward to continuing the conversation.

Ronald B. Cohen, MD
Bowen Family Systems Coach
1 Barstow Road, Suite P-10
Great Neck, NY 11021
(516) 466-7530

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