The View From the Wasteland

Posted on September 21, 2020


One of the things that often brings couples into therapy is the discover/disclosure of an affair by one of the partners.  There are many ways we can examine the impact of affairs.  I had considered alternate titles to this blog such as “Advantage: AP” (noting that the affair partner always has the advantage over your spouse in that you aren’t dealing with the realities of life together).  I had also considered “It’s not Real” in that what you experience in the affair is not real life.  And also, “Making Sense of It” in that to really heal from the affair a couple needs to make sense of it within their story.  This is not to say that the betrayed partner is ever at fault for the affair.  That would be blaming the victim.  It is to say that the affair did not happen in a vacuum; it happened in a particular context of what was happening in the relationship.  To heal from the affair and restore trust that it won’t happen again, we need to understand how we got there so that we don’t end up back there again. 

Spoiler alert: I was recently reading a novel, Scandalous Risks, by Susan Howatch.  The story is about the development of an affair between a young single woman and an older married clergyman as told through the eyes of the young woman.  Near the end (remember, I gave you the spoiler alert), after the affair has come out, there is a conversation between the young woman and an older woman that rang true to what we see in therapy.

“One of the most baffling aspects of the whole affair is that I never really knew him.  I just knew a persona, a mask.  He claimed it was the real him, but I suspect there were acres and acres of the real him that I never traversed at all.  I suspect I just saw one corner of a vast field.”

“Oh that’s a very common feature of love affairs.  Romance and fantasy fence off the cosy corner and leave reality out in the cold beyond the pale.” 

“But what was the reality here?  How do I come to terms with it?  How do I sort it out in my mind when so much of it is either unknown or a mystery?…” 

“…Yes, I do understand what you mean, but all you can do is concentrate on the facts which are beyond dispute: he was married; the two of you became emotionally involved with each other; he brought you to breakdown.  Then you can expand a little on those basic facts with some degree of certainty…”

[Later]  Faith had been wrecked, trust destroyed, love annihilated.  Now indeed we all stood in a wasteland which stretched as far as the eye could see.

When you are standing in this wasteland, it causes one to wonder if you can ever recover from it.  Can a garden ever grow again in that wasteland?  The short answer is, “yes, you can heal from this.”  Whether you will is not certain, but you can.  If this were not the case, all of us therapists would just chase you back out of our offices and tell you to get a divorce and move on.  Couples really do find healing from affairs, but not all couples find healing from affairs.  There are some things that help.  Since blog posts need to be short, let me just touch on a few (particularly for the partner who had the affair).

If you’re the partner who had the affair, you need to get your own mind wrapped around what happened.  Your mate will want to understand it and you can’t help him/her with that if you don’t understand it yourself.  “It just happened” is not the full reality and not helpful.  “I was drunk at the time” is similarly not helpful.  There was something going on with you and the relationship that caused you to let someone else in.  You can’t really promise that you will never do it again until you understand yourself well enough.

The next task for the partner that had the affair is to grieve the loss of the affair.  Though it was not real life, this other person became an important person in your life and you had to abruptly remove them from your life when the affair was discovered.  There was some purpose that the affair was serving for you, and you need to come to terms with the loss.  Your mate cannot help you grieve this loss.  To ask him/her to do so would be cruel.  Part of this grieving process may also be embracing the reality that what you experienced in the affair was not real life.  The affair partner always has the advantage over the spouse in that the whole affair is an artificial construct. 

Where you and your mate need to grieve together is the impact to your marriage and the loss of trust caused by the affair.  It is normal that you will both grieve this. 

One of the most powerful things for healing is going to be how you cope with your mate’s ongoing distress.  When your partner expresses ambivalence or confusion about staying in the marriage, don’t panic, don’t defend.  This is a confusing time for your partner.  He or she is coping with the pain of the betrayal, and the person they would normally turn to for comfort (i.e. you) is the person who hurt them.  Who can they share this with?  Who can they tell?  Will someone judge them for staying?  Are they being a fool if they stay?  How do they know you won’t do it again?  These are normal questions that will plague your mate.  In this regard, there is some emotional restitution that needs to be made on your part.  I am not suggesting that you need to be on the receiving end of abuse, but do expect that some of this will come out as anger and require an empathic response from you rather than responding with your own anger.  

This may seem an odd instruction following all of the above, but stay out of shame.  This is not about us all agreeing that you are a horrible person for having done this.  If when your partner is distressed, you go to shame, your partner is left alone in his/her pain.  Shame is self-focused at a time when your partner needs you.  Fortunately for all of us, we are not defined by our worst moments.  The affair does not define you.  It doesn’t need to be the defining moment of the marriage. 

It is much harder to recover from this alone.  You both need treatment for your injuries.  Find a therapist who can help.  If your partner isn’t willing to join you, go by yourself. 


Howatch, S. (1990). Scandalous Risks.  New York: Alfred A. Knopf, Inc.