When two people get together, they date and spend time getting to know each other. For some, the “falling in love” is intense and the decision to become a couple is easy. For others, it is far more difficult as they thoughtfully consider differences in challenging areas such as religion, culture, social class, child-rearing, or where to live.
Then the two partners decide to marry or live together in a committed partnership, and that decision draws a boundary around the “two of them” as a couple.
This decision, when done well, completes the initial bonding stage of a relationship and paves the way for a healthy, growth-promoting process of differentiation. In fact it is the clarity of the bonding/commitment that enables partners to initiate the challenging process of differentiation. The security of the bond provides a support for each partner's differentiation to unfold.
Most committed partnerships come with an expectation of sexual monogamy unless otherwise stated. Today many couples explore polyamory and open relationships, but the majority still live in monogamous partnerships. When one monogamous partner discovers that the other has had an affair, it is an assault on the bond. In fact, we define an affair as “one partner secretly violating an actual or implied expectation of the other's primacy.”
Usually the deception and dishonesty is much more disturbing than the actual sex. The commitment has been disrupted and the boundary has been violated. Now everything is open again. Inevitable questions surface such as:
- Are we going to stay together or separate?
- Will I ever be able to trust what you tell me again?
- Are we a couple or aren't we?
- Is this the end of the relationship?
- Does the affair partner know more than I do?
- Who else knew about the affair?
- Will you continue to lie and keep secrets from me?
Also all the questions that existed before the couple formed arise again. This time the challenge is intensified because there are many more interdependencies, as well as possibly having children together. Each partner must re-decide whether they want to start over and reinvest.
The disruption of an affair is the violation of dreams, goals and decisions. The interdependency, family, teamwork and partnership are all potentially lost. What once seemed secure is no longer secure.
One partner has made a unilateral choice to put an end to what was previously an equilateral decision and joint commitment. This new decision has disrupted the attachment and the question, “Will it happen again?” becomes substantial. Or, “Will there be other unilateral decisions that affect me deeply in which I will not have a say?”
This decision to re-commit is only possible after deep soul searching, intense dialogue and the confrontation of issues such as narcissism, neediness, lie-inviting dynamics, or trauma.
So why do I say it can be valuable to obsess about the details of a partner's affair?
Obsessing about an affair and asking questions about the details of the affair potentially enables a new boundary to be constructed. When even small truths are revealed, the obsessing provides a pathway to work through and understand the story of the affair. It is through this process that each partner decides whether or not to recommit to the partnership.
When the partner who had an affair answers questions truthfully without evasiveness, it helps the other put an end to feeling suspicious or crazy. When the evasiveness continues, it signals that the feelings leading to the affair still exist and that the primacy of the committed partnership does not.
Honest dialogue also helps put an end to distortion and blown up fantasies. Often when a spouse has “cheated,” it is common to assume that the other was younger, better looking, sexier or more caring. Examining some of the details of the affair may bring to light that the other was human and indeed they were not perfect!
Asking questions also brings to light what is lost and what in reality there is to grieve. It helps to discuss the affair including such issues as:
- How long did it last?
- How did it start?
- How many lies were told, and were they repetitive overt lies or lies of omission?
- What created the conditions for secrecy to be necessary in the primary partnership?
By reviewing the details, the primary couple has an opportunity to re-create shared meaning. For most partners who feel betrayed by secrecy and deception, developing shared meaning is an essential building block for recommitting.
So, to sum up the value of obsessing about an affair:
- Partners learn what is lost and what to grieve.
- Partners create shared meaning and re-establish a boundary around themselves.
- The betrayed spouse comes to understand that it is “not personal.”
- The obsessing provides a way of working through the trauma and creates a way to put an end to the deception and feeling of craziness.
- It stops projection and blown up distortions/ fantasies.
When obsessing about the details of an affair is not handled well, hostile, persecutory questioning and stagnated therapy may result.