The emotional needs of affair partners often go unnoticed.
Published in Psychology Today by Stacey Freeman
When an affair is revealed, the majority of attention typically goes to the betrayed spouse, then to the spouse who cheated. Less often are the feelings of the affair partner considered, despite this individual having emotions of their own arising from their role in the infidelity.
This is especially true when the unfaithful spouse ends the affair abruptly. An affair partner can feel blindsided and deceived, like the aggrieved spouse. The difference is the affair partner usually gets less support.
It doesn’t mean the affair partner’s emotions aren’t valid or that they’re not also in need of encouragement and direction. However, given the tendency for others to blame an affair partner or chastise them, they may need to be more proactive about their healing.
Lauren LaRusso, MSEd, LMHC, LPC, a psychotherapist specializing in extramarital affairs, says, “An affair partner is often more aggressively shamed and blamed for the affair than the spouse who was unfaithful.”
Anger and fear, LaRusso explains, block any possible empathy or curiosity for the affair partner. And, while societal norms and stigma reinforce the common typecast of the affair partner as the “homewrecker,” the reality is that affairs result from a myriad of complex contributing factors.
“The unilateral outrage at the affair partner,” says LaRusso, “prevents anyone from understanding the intricacies that led to them getting involved with a married person in the first place and the pain they may have endured in the relationship.”
Although you might not get a free pass or much empathy as an affair partner, there is a clear path forward by employing the following tips.
Acknowledge and accept your emotions.
Moreover, LaRusso says, “The stinging shame, guilt, and confusion of being an affair partner can block the most healing strategies of all: acceptance and self-compassion.”
To work through these emotions, it’s important to recognize that each is a natural response.
“Acceptance, the practice that allows us to quiet our inner turmoil and distress, and self-compassion, the ability to offer ourselves the same support and empathy we would a good friend, are necessary for making sense of an affair and recovering after it’s over” LaRusso says.
With no timetable for how long it will take to heal since everyone grieves differently, it’s important to work through your emotions in a manner not detrimental to yourself or others.
Build a support system.
If you find yourself without a support system, begin building one. LaRusso says, “It can be a tremendous relief to disclose the affair to someone else.”
She recommends choosing a safe and supportive person you can trust. This person may be a therapist.
“A therapist,” LaRusso says, “can provide empathy, compassion, and safety as you process the relationship.”
Reflect on past choices.
No one gets to where they are by accident. Reflecting on the choices you made can inform your healing, giving you agency over your situation and where you go from here.
LaRusso suggests taking time to understand how you might have compromised yourself to accommodate the affair dynamic.
“Unless being an affair partner wholly worked for you,” LaRusso says, “chances are there were many junctures that required self-abandonment in order to be in the affair. Use those to give you insight.”
Learn from the experience.
Using the experience to springboard reflection and growth can be healing for an affair partner. LaRusso suggests identifying patterns or behaviors that contributed to the affair and working on developing healthier coping mechanisms, boundaries, and communication skills.
“When you take a challenging situation,” LaRusso says, “and use it to make yourself better in ways that will serve you in the future, you find meaning in what otherwise could just feel like a loss or a source of shame and self-blame.”
Establish a rule of no contact.
Committing to having no contact with the person with whom you were involved can be a game-changer. This applies to their spouse as well.
LaRusso says, “Being an affair partner can disconnect you from yourself. But now, it’s time to disconnect from the drama and turmoil of the affair.”
Having no contact helps sever emotional ties. It also provides space to heal without interruptions that could cause further pain and setbacks.
“This is your time,” LaRusso says, “to focus on reconnecting to yourself.”
Set boundaries for affair talk.
Overly focusing on the affair can make it more difficult to heal and move forward.
“It’s important to balance processing the affair,” LaRusso says, “and getting busy living a full life."
Establishing clear boundaries can make a difference. LaRusso suggests expressing gratitude for the support you receive while emphasizing your need for privacy and opinions only when requested. “The last thing you need is negativity from those in your circle weighing in with unsolicited advice.”
LaRusso advises cutting off conversations, even with those who mean well, that could undermine your recovery and avoiding situations where you could be exposed to unflattering commentary or gossip.
LaRusso suggests doing everything you can to tend to yourself physically, emotionally, mentally, and spiritually.
Affairs are exciting while they last. Not only do they provide an escape, they offer promise. When one person takes that away, it can hurt.
“The end of an affair can be devastating because there was often so much hope sustaining the relationship,” says LaRusso.
She advises shifting hope back to yourself, redirecting the energy you gave the affair to your future. “Being able to envision an aligned and healthier future is an essential milestone in healing.”