Perel wrote of one such couple, Claire and Julian: She was often stressed and rarely in the mood for sex; his overtures were turned down more often than not. “With so many no’s ringing in his ears, Julian welcomed the resounding yes from Emma, whom he met on a business trip and continued to sleep with for a year and a half,” says Perel. “It wasn’t just that he wanted more sex: he wanted to recapture the feeling of playfulness and freedom that sex used to allow him.”
Claire was distraught when she discovered the affair, but she also didn’t want to lose him. “So she reached out to him, and they talked with each other as they hadn’t done in years, sharing feelings and thoughts that had long been tucked away,” writes Perel. “As the conversations evolved and they began to narrow the distance between them, they felt awakened into a new experience of connection, in which they felt both great pain and excitement, as they never had before.” Five years later, things are looking up: “The affair was a shock that forced us to get unstuck,” Julian told her.
One of the crucial characteristics common to couples who manage to leave the affair in their dust is that they look at it in terms of “what it meant for me, what it did to you and what it will be for us,” she told me by phone. “It becomes a story of ‘us.’ They do not stay stuck in the language of ‘perpetrator’ and ‘victim.’” Instead, as she explains in her article, “Each one takes appropriate responsibility for the deterioration of the relationship, focusing not only on mending the breach produced by the affair, but on rebuilding the emotional foundation of the marriage,” she says. “Such couples tend to identify the affair as one event — but not the definitive event — in their history together.”
Perel says that it’s vital for both partners to engage in this introspection — it isn’t just the cheater’s responsibility. “People who’ve been able to see that maybe there were other kinds of betrayal that were not just about the affair — there was neglect or indifference or contempt or sexual blockage,” she says. “They are able to look at how an affair can be a betrayal for one person and at the same time an expansive experience for the other.”
Janis Spring, a psychologist and author of “After the Affair: Healing the Pain and Rebuilding Trust When a Partner Has Been Unfaithful,” says that understanding why it happened is crucial. “It could be an underlying resentment that ‘you’ve never been gracious to my family’ or ‘you’ve always made me feel less than you,’” she says. “Maybe one person felt ignored and lonely in the marriage and never spoke up about that or maybe his wife has never really taken his grievances seriously.” By understanding the “why” of the affair they can learn where their vulnerabilities lie and help prevent it from happening again.
Sarah, co-founder of the online support group Survive Infidelity, says that she rarely sees couples recover from an affair unless there’s “virtually full disclosure within two to three conversations” — no fibs to protect the other’s feelings, or one’s own image. But Perel emphasizes that “trust isn’t knowing all the details.” Sometimes, in fact, it means “living with what you’ll never know.” She says, “It’s the people who are able to switch from a detective mode to an investigative mode who are successful. It’s not, ‘What did you do, where did you go, what bed did you sleep in, how often did you fuck him and what position?’ but more, ‘What did it mean for you? What did you find there? Why did you think you were able to experience that there and not here?”