Can you survive an affair? I should know ...
My former partner had one and we couldn't get past it, leaving me an emotional wreck. For years we didn't speak. But there are ways to move on if you want to stay together
Is it possible to survive an affair? Ask Hillary Clinton. It's not likely you'll get an answer. Maybe, because she's embroiled in bigger issues than her own life she has a sense of perspective, a sense that one person is never 100pc to blame. What about Stacey Giggs. She's had to put up with revelation after revelation concerning her hubby, Ryan.
If the headline irks you, chances are you are a victim of an affair. I've been one. You're not only left, you're betrayed. For years I couldn't see my ex boyfriend, not because he had married the woman after me, because he started to see her while he was still going out with me.
Many of my friends have been hurt in the same way. My best friend's long-term partner didn't come home one Valentine's night and moved his stuff out on February 15: "You have to give a month's notice if you're in a lease agreement. We'd been together for years and I got less than 24 hours," she says summarising how callous and catastrophic being left for someone else is. Surviving her lover's affair put her in the arms of a better man and in a better life.
To survive an affair and still stay together is an achievement. Traditionally Option A for a host of pneumatic hurt WAGs, with more forgive-and-forget silverware than their sportsmen spouses, surviving an affair is now an option for those of us leading lives unlaced by millions.
Surviving an affair and staying together can amount to a political (Clinton) or commercial (any WAG with an under the bar IQ who knows her next gig is a bar job) decision.
But what if affairs do the opposite of breaking a marriage up? What if they show just how wrong it has been between Mr and Mrs Right and how much they have to lose? Can an affair save a relationship that might have unravelled at unnoticeable but irrevocable pace? I know people who say affairs are reasons for getting past problems, not for getting out of the relationship.
I listened, a few years back, to another friend of mine who was the classic Celtic Tiger widow. He's an enviable husband with his own business working hard for a living. Too hard. When Ireland got rich he got so busy he didn't have time to do anything but earn money.
They had their first baby almost to give her something to do. She has a clear memory of forcing herself to leave the house and go shopping with the baby. She saw her husband go into a lunch meeting at a Dublin hotel.
"It had taken me all morning just to get out of the house. I couldn't follow him, speak with him. He was laughing and joking with his colleagues. I felt like I was begging outside the place."
Her best friend had been seeing someone on the side and she began to consider doing the same.
My friend fits into a pattern defined by Dr Frank Gunzburg's How To Survive An Affair book. Dr Gunzburg sees a lack of confidence as a primary reason for women in particular to be unfaithful. They're looking for approbation they haven't got for themselves. When I discussed this theory she nodded: "I went for the first person who showed any interest in me. That's how desperate I was."
When I talked to her about her husband's response to finding out she wells up: "I couldn't stand the guilt, but I was terrified so I did it in the worst way possible, during a row. I blamed him for the fact I was seeing someone. The sex had only happened twice in the affair and it was rotten both times. I realised I was not interested in my affair but in my marriage."
The coming clean is what saved them. It gave him an opportunity to be the first to find out and the realisation that he had left his wife to cope with motherhood and increased isolation. It didn't make him any less bitter at first. They went into relationship counselling.
"The counsellor was trying to get me to accept guilt. So she was hard on me. But I was already drowning in it. I wasn't making excuses for myself. I can't remember ever being so terrified as to think I'd lose him and put my son's father outside his life by my actions."
The next therapist they tried worked with the idea that one had been unfaithful, but the other partner had also had an affair with his business.
"She asked my husband how did he feel to realise if we did split and had to arrange custody he would end up seeing more of his son than when he was married? She also got him to see me more clearly. When I told him about the day outside the hotel he began to forgive me. But it took two long years.
"We rarely slept together and we set time aside for each other, but dates were strained and often I thought we wouldn't make it. I know if it had been him I would never have forgiven him and I admitted it."
Today she describes their relationship in terms we can all learn from: "It's solid because we know that no relationship is rock solid, it's always at risk and the only way not to risk it is be honest. He had no idea I was so insecure. I had no idea he was so loyal. But he had a kicking from his own childhood so he didn't want the same for our son.
"If we hadn't had a son he would have walked. I am so glad he didn't. Our daughter was born last year and he's a different parent, totally hands on. I don't think he'd have understood there is more to life than provision for family. There's involvement."
The stages in their relationship rebuilding are identified by Gunzburg as:
Phase 1 -- Individual Healing
In this phase, a partner has to understand his or her personal feelings and sort through their emotions after the affair. There is no use trying to talk things over when emotion is running wild. A simple conversation will tend to lead to a shouting feud.
The first challenge a couple has to overcome is to get the images and negative thoughts out of their mind before reconciliation can begin.
Phase II -- Healing as a Couple
In this phase, focus is mainly on helping you to establish a healthy way to communicate with your partner. This is the stage when you should talk about the affair, approach forgiveness and protect your relationship from further harm.
Phase III -- Negotiating a Renewed Relationship
The final phase of Dr Frank Gunzburg's book is understanding how to rebuild and sustain a trust-filled relationship.
When you have reached this stage, your relationship will start to experience reassurance, attention, care, support and stability.
This is the stage my friends are at today. The affair removed the element of hypocrisy that many 21st-century relationships are riddled with: the notion we are entitled to 24-hour fulfilment, the idea we are all to be understood entirely, the unwillingness to accept the mundane parts of married life and share responsibility.
The affair was a hand grenade in their lives. It exposed hidden worries that could have been better dealt with, but they came out and both partners had to consider why and how it had come to this.
Rock bottom is a solid foundation. If there's enough talking there can be a way to realise reconciliation.
If there's a willingness to change, everyone is entitled to that chance once.