When Josephine* discovered that her husband, Hock*, was having an affair with their domestic helper, she was devastated. The IT professional, who is in her mid-30s, happened to notice salacious text messages from an unknown number on his phone, and confronted him.
“At first, he denied that he was fooling around behind my back but, after seeing how upset I was, he came clean,” shares the mum of two preschool-age children. “Then I got the full story from our helper, who’s been with us for three years.”
Shocked at the betrayal, she found out that his affair began after the birth of their second child. “My hormonal balance was out of whack. I was also busy trying to juggle work with raising my baby and my eldest daughter, who was two years old at the time,” she says. Hock is also an IT professional in his mid-30s.
“I didn’t pay much attention to my husband, but I assumed that he would understand,” she says, never expecting that he would seek emotional and sexual satisfaction elsewhere.
According to a Straits Times report earlier this month, divorce is becoming more common among couples who have married recently – 16.1 per cent of those who married in 2003 had dissolved their marriages by 2013, a figure double that of statistics in 1987.
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SLIDING INTO AN AFFAIR
When a couple enters into a marriage, there is no expectation that either spouse will stray. Because of this, many couples do not think it is necessary to protect their union. But even the strongest resolve to make a marriage work can give way to the demands of daily life. This is what American marriage counsellor Dave Carder calls “sliding into an affair”.
“Most adulterers do not deliberately decide to violate their marriage,” he explains. “Rather, they slide into trouble, unaware and not acknowledging their feelings until they are blindsided by an irresistible infatuation. Initially embarrassed, most put up a doomed resistance until they wear out and give in.”
Marital satisfaction gaps between spouses do add to a sense of vulnerability that may lead to an affair, but there are several other factors that may contribute to infidelity, says Dave, who is also the author of Torn Asunder: Recovering From an Extramarital Affair.
Among them are unusual and sustained stress, specifically in the couple of years prior to the onset of the affair; pregnancy and the first year after delivery, which is an especially vulnerable period for first-time fathers; contact with old flames; and alcohol, which lowers inhibitions and may lead to one-night stands during business trips or corporate training events.
Over half of first-time infidelities occur between “friends” – that is, individuals who have shared experiences over long periods of time, Dave adds.
Affairs are not just physical or sexual; they can be emotional, too. “A platonic friendship moves into the stage of emotional infidelity when three criteria are met,” says Dave.
“First, it becomes mood-altering. That is to say, communicating and being with the other person change the participant’s mood for the better. Second, the conversation moves from non-personal to personal. And third, both participants begin to hide the relationship for fear of workplace, social or spousal reprisal.”
A few years ago, Thomas* suspected his wife of 14 years of having an emotional affair with her former boyfriend. “We’d been fighting for a long time about money and, over the years, we just drifted apart,” says the business manager, who is in his mid-40s and has two sons, aged 11 and 10.
It’s a slippery slope for Thomas and his wife, who seems to be infatuated with her ex. And Dave says that it is this kind of infatuation that drives affairs: “It’s a heady feeling, the kind that the participant experienced when he or she first fell in love with his or her spouse, and it can change everything. This emotional state becomes both a comfort and a distraction for the person having the affair.”
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SAVE YOUR MARRIAGE
Infidelity need not lead to divorce. As long as both of you want to stay married – but not out of duty or obligation – then it is possible to recover from the hurt and betrayal.
“Adultery breaks a marriage, so now both spouses have to choose each other again,” says Dave. “Once they make the decision to stay together, they have to change the way they approach the marriage, since the first pattern failed. And they need to give each other time to heal.”
To make sure that the affair does not happen again, two conditions need to be met. First, the partner who cheated must fully disclose the infidelity and both spouses must attend counselling together to work out how to make the marriage more satisfying.
“Failure to do both these things can generate emotions that undermine even the strongest resolve to never cheat again,” Dave warns.
For the healing to begin, the cheating spouse must ask for forgiveness. Forgiveness means different things to each spouse and that understanding is critical to the couple’s recovery, but it is only from forgiveness that respect can grow. From respect comes trust, and this creates the right conditions for love to flourish again.
At the same time, the betrayed spouse must also make it very clear how he or she has been hurt; this can be done with the help of a “Betrayal of Trust” forgiveness letter.
“This letter should have a detailed list of wrongs,” Dave explains. “The list should then be ranked from easiest to forgive to most difficult to forgive. Each wrong should be accompanied by two or three feeling words reflecting a ‘best guess’ about how it emotionally affected the betrayed. Then, the letter must be read to the betrayed spouse with a clear request for forgiveness at the end of each individual item.”
Josephine says that she contemplated divorcing Hock after uncovering his affair, but she knew her life wouldn’t be the same without him. She chose to stay and work on their marriage, even though there was a risk
that she would not be happy. Hock also wanted to give the marriage another shot.
Since attending Dave’s Torn Asunder counselling programme, which is conducted in Singapore by Reach Counselling, their relationship has improved. “We’re still learning, but our hearts are more open now,” she shares.
“The programme taught us to listen to each other, to focus on the positives and not be so quick to react to the negatives. We’ve realised that, although we are very different, we can still make this marriage work. We seldom have conflicts anymore.”
REBUILDING THE FAMILY
It’s also important to be aware of how infidelity affects children. Both of you must first agree before telling them anything. “If it is a first affair and both of you are working on saving the relationship, then sit together facing the kids,” Dave says.
“Present a united front. Don’t blame each other, and don’t lie by promising more than you both agreed to. Of course, the older the children, the more information you can – and probably should – share. The truth is very important, especially if your kids are teenagers, because older kids have a tendency to make up their own theories.
“If Mum and Dad are going to be talking more and working on their counselling homework, then give your kids a heads-up. Of course, always reassure the children that this is not about them and that they will always be cared for,” he adds.
“However, some spouses don’t want the marriage and abandon the family. In this case, the kids need more reassurance than ever from the remaining parent. They don’t need all the details, but they should be given the freedom to talk about it if they have any concerns or questions.”
3 WAYS TO AFFAIR-PROOF YOUR MARRIAGE
Dave shares tips for keeping your relationship strong:
1. Privately list the eight greatest moments in your relationship You can include the time you dated and your honeymoon, but your wedding day, the births of your children, and the experiences with your children are off-limits. Consider only the times that involved just you and your spouse. They don’t have to be elaborate, but they must be good, strong memories.
Compare lists when you’re both done. Together, list the matching experiences first, and then alternate the experiences until you have a combined list of eight. Many couples find themselves in trouble because they neglect their relationship and start taking each other for granted. The experiences on your combined list must be repeated throughout your lives together to maintain the romance and connection.
2. Discuss your satisfaction with the relationship periodically A marriage changes over time and needs attention. Every year, review your relationship and work out the areas that need work or growth.
3. Figure out how to have fun together, without any responsibilities and without access to your gadgets and social media.
(*Not their real names)
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