How Could This Affair Happen to Us?

Questions This Week:
1. My spouse was a person of integrity and honor, who believed he/she would never be capable of having an affair. How could this affair happen to us?
2. My unfaithful spouse says they don’t remember when I ask questions about the affair. Is this true? Do they really not remember?
3. During the worst of my spouse’s affair, my spouse would find ways to deny hard evidence about his affair. I became so confused. Is this normal?
4. “I read in the book “Private Lies” that affairs are the result of unmet needs in a marriage. Is this true?

Question #1 – My spouse was a person of integrity and honor, who believed he/she would never be capable of such a thing.

Many of us fit into this category. As my husband wrote in the foreword of my book, two months before his affair, if anyone had told him he would one day have an affair, he would’ve sworn it was impossible. He was not that type of guy. (As if there is a type!) He was sure he could never do such a thing. When it happened, our friends were shocked, because they thought we had the kind of strong marriage, and morals. How could this affair happen to us?

We’ve learned good people have affairs too. What we don’t know does hurt us. That said, you don’t need to throw in the towel and give up on the concept of monogamy altogether. Many people live happily in their marriages for a lifetime and don’t have affairs. Others recover from affairs, learn the real reasons it happened, change and become better people, and most importantly commit themselves to real honesty and openness in their marriage. Peggy and James Vaughan enjoyed more than 30 years of monogamy after Jame’s seven years of affairs earlier in their marriage.

They never actually made a recommitment to each other of monogamy, but rather a commitment to honesty. Their commitment to honesty led them to monogamy. It’s part of growing up, to have enough self-esteem to realize that our spouse is likely to be attracted to others at times, and that is actually normal and human. Most likely we also will at times find someone other than our spouse attractive. This in itself is not wrong.

The wrong part comes in how those attractions are handled. Attractions in themselves are not threats to our marriage. There is incredible freedom in realizing that you do not need to be the most beautiful, wonderful, funny, enthusiastic, best homemaker, super career person or anything else to maintain your spouse’s love and affection. My husband loves me because I am his wife and the one he has chosen to spend the rest of his life with. No other woman can compete with that. Thank God I don’t have to be better than everyone else to keep his love!! And when it all comes down to it, neither do you. (And if you did, it would be indicative that your spouse is too shallow of a person to be worth staying with.)

Before my husband’s affair I was sure such a thing would never happen to me. On hindsight, this kind of blind confidence is nothing more than naivety. All marriages are vulnerable, and those who are “sure” it won’t happen to them are at a greater risk, because they are unaware and uninformed, as they float along in a false sense of bliss. Does this mean I live in fear today? Not at all. We know the incredible openness and honesty we’ve developed in our relationship, combined with our ongoing commitment to marriage education (and implementing what we learn) is our greatest security against future affairs.

However, for me, there is something even better than that: knowing my marriage is not my life. If my husband did make bad choices again in the future, I would still be okay. My happiness is not based on the choices of other people, not even my husband. I’m no longer stuck asking the question: How could this affair happen to us?

2. My unfaithful spouse says they don’t remember when I ask questions about the affair. Can I believe this?

This is a matter that requires discernment. There can be details that the unfaithful person can’t remember (especially if the affair was a few years past). However, without doubt, “I can’t remember” is often used as an excuse to get out of answering questions that the unfaithful person is afraid to answer (or finds too unpleasant to answer). Although they may have valid reasons, their attempt to avoid answering or to minimize the truth is a grossly misguided attempt at kindness.

Often the unfaithful person believes that if you knew the full truth about the affair, you simply wouldn’t be able to handle it. What they don’t realize is that you’ve already been hurt to the maximum amount that it is possible for one human being to hurt another. The one thing that can help you, and help restore trust in your marriage is for them to tell the whole truth.

If you feel like you’re not getting the truth, you probably aren’t. You know when you’re getting the truth. The best indicator that you are getting the whole truth from your spouse is when they sometimes give you answers to questions that you don’t want to hear. For example, you might ask, “did you ever tell the other woman/man that you loved them?” If your spouse answers “yes” they are probably being truthful, because “yes” is the answer they know you don’t want to hear. If they answer “no” to that question, it doesn’t mean they are lying. Maybe they truly never said that, but if they are being fully truthful you will get an answer to some question that isn’t what you wished it was. There is nothing as refreshing as knowing that your spouse is now being fully truthful with you … even if the truth hurts at first.

So if you get the answer “I don’t remember,” know that sometimes they really don’t remember. But when you’re getting truthful answers you’ll know. It won’t feel like something just isn’t right.

3. People who are caught up in affairs and all the lying that goes with it, will try to get you to believe the craziest things. Sadly, the whole thing is so traumatic; it’s easy to find ourselves doubting clear reality. One affair-survivor wrote:

Then being told that what you have in your own hand is not real, and the “computer must have made a mistake.” I sometimes felt I needed to be committed, because I got to the place where I wasn’t able to be sure what was in my hand. … Now I know, after this whole three years of hell, that there was risk EVERY DAY OF MY LIFE.”

Another affair-survivor came home to catch her husband in the act. As she walked into her living room, she heard a woman’s voice upstairs say, “I thought you said it was safe here.” Seconds later her husband came running down the stairs, still buckling up his pants. “Oh that was just the TV set you heard” he tried to tell his wife.

One thing affair-survivors have consistently told me, is that through this all they have learned to believe their own inner voice, not to doubt their gut feelings anymore, but to follow what their inside is saying to them. They have learned or are learning to believe in themselves. We pass that on to you. Believe in what your gut-instinct is saying to you.

At the same time we do need to discern the difference between gut-instinct and fear or obsessive thoughts.

4. “I read in the book Private Lies: Infidelity and the Betrayal of Intimacy that affairs are the result of unmet needs in a marriage. *Please note that the book “Private Lies” by Frank Pittman is among the best resources available for recovering from affairs.

This is one of the greatest myths believed by our culture today, that if a husband or wife meets all their partner’s needs, then an affair cannot take place. First of all this is craziness because no one can totally meet all of the needs of another individual, and to put such pressure on ourselves is insane and unhealthy. There are many, many reasons why affairs take place, but these reasons can fit into 3 basic categories:

1.  A PUSH out because of unhappiness in a marriage. (Unmet needs)

2.  A PULL towards the affair because of the enticement of a 3rd party. Even people who are happy in their marriages and having their needs met can find the subtle attentions of a 3rd party enticing. Even if I just had chocolate at home, I could be tempted by chocolate at work.

3. CULTURAL INFLUENCE. We become like the company we keep. People who work day in and day out in environments where “everyone is doing it” are at a high risk for being influenced by that behavior, even when they are very happy at home.

This is one thing both Peggy Vaughan and I have in common. Perhaps it is the root of our passion to help others. We were both outstanding wives when our husbands chose to have affairs. After hours and hours of discussion, our husbands say, our perfection as spouses could not have prevented their affairs. Their affairs were not about us or unmet needs in our marriages. My husband’s lack of understanding the truth about affairs was one of his greatest vulnerabilities. He thought the other woman’s lack of sexual appeal made her a safe friend. He stepped over the line long before he realized it, and long before sex had taken place, drawn in by the enticement of this 3rd party being so interested in him. (I was interested in him too.)

Peggy’s husband found the men he worked with and respected were all having affairs, until eventually the ongoing association and business travel led him to slowly convince himself that this behavior was acceptable.

Further comment received re: this question:

Hi, Anne, I just read the link on the newsletter about “Private Lies”…..and wanted to make a correction or a distinction.  I dont think in that book that he was saying it was unmet needs that drove people to have affairs, at least that’s not how I interpreted it.  He says it is unresolved issues that create a distance in a marriage, things that are basic to your personality, and how you want to live your life, maybe that equates to not fullfiling your own needs, but not necessarily, it might be that one of you is a spendthrift and the other is terrible with money, but it remains an issue that is unresolved and causes friction when the couple try to resolve it, therefore, you stop trying to resolve it, leave it alone until you find a solution.
His theory is that these things add up to a communication breakdown that creates distance in a marriage, and you can’t feel close to someone you are angry at all the time………
food for thought.

Response: I agree. No doubt unresolved issues contribute to vulnerability to affairs as you describe above… but still, there were no unresolved issues in our marriage when my husband had an affair, neither unmet needs. We had a great relationship when Brian had his affair. This is why it was so shocking to me.His reasons for having an affair had nothing to do with our marriage.

There are many cases where unmet needs or unresolved issues “contribute to vulnerability” to affairs. I use this phrase for a reason. Unmet needs don’t cause affairs. Neither do unresolved issues. Plenty of people have either or both in their marriages and still never have affairs. There are healthy ways to resolve unmet needs or unresolved issues in marriages, and happily many people chose the healthy way instead of having affairs. Usually these are people who have taken the time to take marriage education classes, other communication or conflict resolution workshops, or who simply had exemplary role models to learn from in their childhood homes.

It also might be noted that many marriages have unmet needs and unresolved issues where no one has had an affair, but I don’t doubt they are very vulnerable.

There is a problem when people believe there are always unmet needs or unresolved issues when affairs take place. The bottom line is an affair can take place with none of the above, as it did in my marriage and Peggy Vaughan’s. As long as people believe that there MUST be something wrong or lacking in the marriage when an affair takes place (and many experts believe this), then couples like myself and my husband will remain extra vulnerable, because we assume it can’t happen to us exactly because we are so in love, so close and things are going so great. Wrong. Affairs can happen in marriages where there are no unmet needs and no unresolved issues too.

Security comes in:

1. Learning to be totally open and honest, first with ourselves (self-awareness), and then with our partners.

2. Being educated and aware about affairs and relationship skills.

3. Recognizing that even when things are going good affairs can happen. We need to have our guard up at all times and be in tune to subtle things that can slowly sneak in and begin to steal intimacy from our marriage. Pride comes before a fall. If we recognize we are vulnerable, and know what to look for, this awareness and safeguarding ourselves against affairs can prevent affairs. This is something only we can do for ourselves. We cannot do it for our spouses.

Happily many couples enjoy monogamous marriages, and when they are committed to continually work on the above, most likely will stay that way. When you and your spouse are informed, real, and committed to doing the right things you don’t need to live in fear of affairs. On the other hand, some of you are married to spouses who are none of the above. If this is the case, you have valid reason for concern.

Sure, unresolved issues contribute to vulnerability to affairs, but affairs can happen without them too.

Comment back: (When I received this response, I had to share it. It is probably one of the best written descriptions of the point I’m making above.)

So well done, Anne.  I really love it that you ( & Peggy Vaughan) are educating people on this issue, and actually, I was doing a super job, too, at the time my husband had an affair.

I remember a day in particular, where I worked a four hour shift as a nurse, went home and did some laundry, put dinner in the crock pot, went to the office and did payroll, my husband called me to join him at the job site to stand trusses on a house, so I had to get up three stories in the air and hold a nail gun, to nail boards up to hold up the roof trusses, got done with that, ran home and did homework and dinner dishes with the kids, then hubby calls and says I am bringing home a dinner guest from out of town, so I ran to the store and made a second dinner that night for adults, salmon with dill butter, and even whipped together a fruit torte, put the kids to bed, did a late night dinner party for the adults, cleaned up the kitchen at midnight, and then my husband wanted sex.

I was so complete, at that moment,  being able to be good at so many things, and fullfill so many roles, that I was so proud of myself.

I felt that I had come full circle, being able to be a nurse, a wife and mother, a business owner, and office manager and construction worker, and finally a hostess and a lover, all in one day.

so whatever else happened after that, I knew my worth………which is what kept me from being shattered irreparably, I could mend, because I was confident that I could do whatever I needed to do, in the aftermath.
It didnt feel that way at the time, though, I wasnt sure I would ever recover.
but….we do, we all float.

Great quotes by affair survivors:

“We were in marriage counseling for years, and in some weird way it became a crutch. The ‘knowing’ didn’t cut it. It’s only the application of the knowledge that can result in a loving marriage.” – Hollis, Idaho

©Copyright 2005 Anne and Brian Bercht. All rights reserved.