What is an Affair?
No one wants to face betrayal by a spouse. It’s probably the most painful experience one can go through. As a marriage counselor, I have heard many stories of heartache and tragedy that result in the relationships of the couples who come to see me. Some are easily redeemable, but most feel hopeless when I first meet them. Big feelings and much confusion comprise those moments.
It’s hard to know what to do because every affair is different. Each affair has its own story to tell. Miscommunication is rampant. Misunderstanding of emotions and actions produces irrational behavior and thinking. How are we to sift through all of this? I think we start with understanding what an affair is.
Definition of Affair
It is helpful to define what an affair is first. Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary defines an affair as a romantic or passionate attachment typically of limited duration. This definition is broad. Most people likely think of an affair as simply having sex with someone who is not your spouse. However, by using this broader definition, we can include other types of behaviors that contribute to hurt, trauma, and break trust. Over the last decade or so, we have broadened the terms that we use to describe cheating.
An emotional affair was not necessarily a term that people understood or agreed to use until more recently. Some people don’t even know what an emotional affair is. However, it is becoming more understood as a form of betrayal and can cause a break in trust. As we move into exploring more of what an affair is, we will talk about different types of affairs. For now, we simply want to state that an affair is any sort of cheating, betrayal, infidelity, or other form of behavior where one spouse goes outside their marriage to get their needs met by someone else other than their spouse, when those needs are supposed to only be met by their spouse.
Types of Affairs
Betrayal can take several forms. Some people say there are 5 types of affairs, other would say 6 or 7 different types. However, what matters more is that there is an understanding that different types of behavior can be seen as cheating or betrayal. It’s all based on how you look at it. The reason we want you to know the different types is to help you pinpoint when you might be out of bounds in your marriage or moving too close to that type of affair. This will help you set appropriate boundaries for yourself and your spouse, but also give you some way to describe why you feel hurt if this is already happening.
The type of affair most people recognize is the physical affair. Even a physical affair has different levels. Was it just a kiss, fondling, or full-on intercourse? How many times has it happened? These questions can dictate what type of physical affair it was. Another type would be an emotional affair. This type of affair happens when you become emotionally involved with someone other than your spouse and you start to have feelings for that person. Other types of betrayal tend to center around pornography or addiction.
Sometimes affairs are typed by why or how they happened. Was it predicated on revenge? Did it happen suddenly and on a whim such as a one-night stand? Did it come at the behest of a terrible marriage where one person wanted out? Was it just online or through text? Defining the type of affair, when it happened, and why it happened can help you and your spouse understand it better and move toward reconciliation sooner. No matter what type, it can be traumatizing, and we want to help you get as much understanding as possible.
It seems that not much research has been done on affairs since 2021. The Institute of Family Studies did a survey in 2021 that showed that in 20 percent of married couples, at least one spouse cheats. This is unfortunate and up from previous years when the percentage was as low as 14 percent. However, it has fluctuated and seems to average between 16 and 18 percent.
It is important to note that men tend to commit affairs more than women and that gap tends to grow as people age. Women become less promiscuous and men trend toward going outside of the marriage as they age. The rise of affairs later in life for men may be due to the length of time they are in marriage and the decline of the marriage over time. There could also be other factors. There are other interesting statistics out there about affairs showing demographic differences and gender differences.
All of this added up, it’s important to remember that the data shows that betrayal happens in every walk of life, sometimes more in certain areas than others. This data proves that we are not as different as one would think and that just because we might be one specific race or gender, we are not untouchable from the pain that affairs cause. I believe this is why it’s important to under what affairs are and ultimately how to protect a relationship and prevent potential betrayal from ever getting close to happening.
Effects/Consequences of Betrayal
Betrayal has some devastating effects on relationships and the spouses who are victims. However, we don’t want to leave out the cost of cheating when it comes to children, relatives, friends, communities, businesses, and more. Just like death, the far-reaching reverberations of an affair can be felt by many. Unfortunately, those who cheat don’t always think about the consequences of their behavior. They may not even care. Yet, like suicide, it can affect even acquaintances or friends of friends.
I remember a story one of my clients told me that impacted them when it came time for her fiancé to propose. She recounted how one of her best friends from high school received devasting news when they went off to college. Her best friend found out that her parents were divorcing because her best friend’s father had been having an affair for several years while my client and her best friend were in high school.
My client recalled many afternoons and evenings hanging out at her friend’s house and never suspecting a thing. She told a couple of stories about her friend’s dad that impacted her and made her look up to and respect her friend’s father. So, when my client heard the news, she was heartbroken. Not only that, but she also questioned if she even wanted to be married. This led to a struggle with a commitment that she eventually worked through. Yet shouldn’t have even been an issue. This story shows how unsuspecting bystanders to relationship difficulties can be unfortunate casualties of someone else’s selfish choice.
Examples of the effects and consequences of betrayal
I will list some of the effects of cheating. There can be a long list, but I will try to keep it short. We can categorize them relationally, physically, emotionally, spiritually, and financially.
Relational effects are things like broken trust, divorce, disconnection, withdrawal and abandonment, increased arguing and fighting, broken friendships, and broken families.
Physical consequences of betrayal are possible STDs, sleep issues, and possible injury from physical fights.
Emotional concerns would be anxiety, irritability, trauma, depression, suicidal ideation, shame, guilt, anger, resentment, and hopelessness.
Spiritually a victim of betrayal might become angry at God, lose their faith, stop praying or reading their Bible, and even quit church. They may also run to God. The betrayer may be far away from God and run back to God.
Finally, financial consequences can be huge. Divorces cost so much money. Alimony, child support, paying for two households, and paying attorneys for years to come due to custody battles can devastate a family’s ability to support themselves. So much more can be said about the consequences of cheating. The above list is just the tip of the iceberg.
Healing and Reconciliation when it comes to affairs
When a partner cheats or commits adultery in some fashion, there is much pain and heartache for the spouse the receiving spouse. She or he will struggle with a deep break in trust, rampant intrusive thoughts, anger, fear, and most likely symptoms of trauma from finding out. It’s a spouse’s worst nightmare.
Healing and reconciliation do not come easy once these effects take place. Some of the aspects of healing and reconciliation take time and the couple will need to work through a process. That process can involve disclosure, repentance, putting appropriate boundaries in place, counseling, and eventually forgiveness and the building of a new healthy marriage that is based on trust.
After an affair, most spouses struggle with different types of questions. They may ask themselves “How this could happen?” or “Do I really know this person I have been with for all these years?” I have seen many spouses whose partner has cheated who can’t stop thinking about what happened. They also keep trying to ask the same questions over and over. Sometimes they try to catch their partner in a lie. Many times, they are just trying to understand.
A process of disclosure can help with that. A victim of an affair needs closure. They need to know what happened. Keeping them in the dark doesn’t help. That only fuels the fire to try to find out. Their ability to move forward is directly correlated with their understanding and acceptance of what happened. Holding back information only creates a cycle of dishonesty where trust cannot be rebuilt.
When an affair happens, an offending spouse needs to be completely honest and transparent so healing can begin. By going through a process to disclose most if not all the details of the affair, you allow the betrayed spouse to start to piece together the fragments of their understanding so they can at least try to make sense of what happened and begin to rebuild trust.
Repentance after adultery and cheating
Another aspect of the healing and reconciliation process that really helps is when the offender truly shows remorse and regret which drives them to repentance. Repentance is when a person takes responsibility for their wrong behavior and makes a hard decision to reverse that behavior by telling their partner their wrongs and making the effort to make it right again. They essentially do a 180-degree turn in how they are acting and living.
By owning up to the pain and destruction they caused in the relationship, the spouse that cheated opens the door for the healing process to take place. It’s hard to reconnect with someone who will not take responsibility for their faults. They aren’t genuine.
Who would want to try to get close to them again? If there is no repentance, the possibility of repeating the hurtful behavior remains high because you won’t focus on what you can do to change the behavior if you can’t say the behavior itself is a problem. Repentance helps show the hurt spouse that the offender is moving toward true change.
Appropriate boundaries after affairs
Without the implementation of healthy boundaries, trust is hard to rebuild. What’s to keep you from repeating your offenses if you don’t set up rules in your life to keep those behaviors from reoccurring? The cheating spouse should be willing to create rules and boundaries for themselves that will help them stay away from possible triggers that could open the door for repeat offenses.
Boundaries can be restrictive and permissive. Restrictive boundaries keep you from moving toward unhealthy behaviors. Permissive boundaries, as I call them, give you direction for what behaviors are appropriate and healthy.
For example, a restrictive boundary would be choosing to not take your phone in the bathroom. A permissive boundary would be choosing to read a book to help you figure out why you acted out. Any positive action that can help you with your growth and change would be considered a permissive boundary that you enact in your life.
Counseling for accountability and repair of affairs
When a couple has an affair that has affected their relationship, they likely need counseling to help repair the damage and to get accountability and help with a process to heal and rebuild. A relationship counselor or coach can be incredibly valuable to decrease the time it takes to heal.
I have had many couples come into my office months or years after the affair occurred. They were still dealing with the effects and seemed to be stuck in the same place they were in when the affair was discovered. Working through the correct steps can be so helpful in alleviating long-term struggles and rebuilding trust and healthy boundaries.
When a couple comes to couples counseling for a betrayal, they will get a third party who is neutral and can help them both heal and see their roles in the system of the relationship. This counseling will be able to see things the couple is having trouble seeing. They can also hold you accountable and be a mediator if needed.
A coach on the other hand may be able to educate you on helpful processes and ways to improve your part of the relationship. They can also help you define your goals and hold you accountable. They are more likely to help you set up step-by-step plans to grow and heal. They will be less likely to venture into your emotions and feelings about what happened.
Forgiveness when it comes to marriage betrayal
After some time, when all has been disclosed and the healing process has been initiated, a betrayed spouse may be willing to forgive their partner. Forgiveness is important because it allows the betrayed spouse to let go of the need to get retribution. However, a spouse who has been the victim of an affair can be fearful of forgiveness because they may think they are letting the betrayer off the hook. This is not what actually happens with forgiveness.
Forgiveness is an emotional and mental shift to letting justice take its place outside of you, so you don’t form resentment and bitterness. To do this, you may have to set up some safe boundaries in the meantime to make sure you don’t get hurt again. Setting boundaries does not mean you aren’t forgiving someone.
Principles of healthy marriage
As forgiveness takes place and healthy boundaries are set, it’s time to build a new, healthy version of your marriage. Some would ask: “What is a healthy marriage?” I believe healthy marriages have specific principles laid out to keep the relationship healthy. Some of those principles are as follows:
- Make the purpose of your marriage to become more Christ-like as an individual.
- Treat your spouse with love and as if you like them no matter what.
- Choose to forgive every time and learn to apologize correctly by taking responsibility for your wrongs.
- Learn how to love your spouse with their love language.
- Make it a habit and a choice to truly listen to your spouse.
- Choose to live in submission to your spouse.
If you work on just these 6 principles, you will have a good marriage. Other principles can help you have a good marriage, but these are, from my point of view, the most important. Once you have started to work on building a new and healthy relationship, align your actions and choices with these 6 principles.
Recognizing the Law of Priority and Defining Legitimate Jealousy
In marriage, one thing that can help us is to understand the Law of Priority and Legitimate Jealousy as defined by Pastor Jimmy Evans in his book Marriage on the Rock. He states that there is an ideal priority given by God because He is very orderly in what He does. He gives priority to himself, then to our spouse. This means that we should put no other gods before God and after Him, nothing else before our spouse.
He also defined legitimate jealousy as a spouse’s right to be jealous when something that is rightfully theirs is given to someone or something else. It’s important to define what is rightfully yours.
However, if the law of priority is a reality, then anything that we give away without checking in with our spouse and making sure they are okay with it would be breaking that law. Thus, your spouse has a right to feel jealous and upset because they were put behind something else. In essence, something else was more important to you in that moment than them. Keep the law of priority in mind and won’t be able to mess things up with your spouse.
Grieving is important during and after betrayal!
The final piece, but not at all last or in the right order in this article is the need for both spouses to grieve, especially the victimized spouse. Think about how much was lost. You lost safety, trust, purity, connection, the hopes and dreams of the relationship, and more. When we lose something, grieving is an appropriate action to take.
Grieving allows us to walk through the stress of the loss and what it means to us until we can come to some sort of closure and ability to accept the loss. This is so similar to what we need when an affair happens. The marriage had died and now we need to grieve the death of the marriage before we can build a new healthier marriage.
When to separate or divorce after an affair?
I would like to formally say that this topic is difficult for me. I have known clients who got a divorce. Some of my clients have worked it out and stayed together. Others have been through long-term separation that ended in divorce. A few have stayed in long-term separation.
Remember, I have been seeing couples for some years now. Most of the couples that have come to see me are still together. Many of them have asked me this question. It is not an easy answer and I believe the answer is very personalized for each couple. Only you can choose what you want to do with your relationship.
Separation after an affair
Is separation an option? I say yes. However, I stress strongly that it has a purpose. That purpose should always be to salvage the relationship, reset the emotions and thinking, and create a plan for reconciling and coming back together in a healthy way. I do not believe that separation should be used as a “trial” to see if “we are happier apart.” I have heard that as a reason that couples want to separate.
I believe this is only an excuse to slow-walk a divorce and set up a spouse’s plans for being divorced financially or in other ways, so they don’t have the stress of a full-on divorce now. I could be wrong in some cases, but if you are unsure of whether you want to leave or not, what’s the harm in doing a separation to relearn each other and reset instead of focusing on leaving?
If you want out and have already decided within yourself, why are you leading your spouse on? It’s not going to hurt less later. I do understand there are circumstances where if both spouses agree that it would be better for them both financially to not legally file yet, but if that is not the case, please don’t continue to hurt your spouse.
Divorce after betrayal
Now I am in no way advocating for divorce. I do not believe children are better off without a parent in their lives. I do believe parents need to get healthy and do the right thing. I also understand that sometimes unhealthy parents need to go get help, so they don’t continue to hurt their children. This can all be done in separation. I also understand that some spouses are unwilling to get help. At this juncture, I believe that there may be grounds for divorce after much prayer, consultation, and putting forth every bit of effort to try to make it work. After all, your vow and covenant were till death do us part.
God does not hold us to this covenant that Biblically. You have a right if there is adultery to divorce your spouse. However, that is not God’s highest calling for you. He gives you that right but does not say that this should be your choice. Jesus is quoted saying you should “forgive 70 times 7.” The book of Hosea in the Old Testament demonstrates how God can work through those who choose to keep loving their spouse despite massive rejection. The parable of the lost son who leaves home and eventually returns shows just how we should welcome back those who have rejected us and gone off to do hurtful things against us.
God is all about love, forgiveness, and relationship. Yes, there is the choice to divorce. You can contact your lawyer. You have a right when it comes to adultery. Yet have you done your due diligence to seek the Lord’s face and hear his calling on your life and about your relationship?
Reasons People Cheat
Some couples who have had affairs wonder why the affair happened. The reasons that an affair occurs are very important for rebuilding a marriage into one that is healthy. However, at the beginning of working through affair recovery, stressing the reasons can make it feel like you are getting excuses from the betrayer.
Let’s be clear. When someone cheats or commits adultery, it is a choice! There was a decision that was made despite the reasons. They could have made a different decision, but they didn’t. They must accept full responsibility for the harm that was done to the relationship because of that choice. Without this full acceptance of responsibility, the reasons for how the affair occurred will never be heard or considered and shouldn’t!
However, once remorse has led to full repentance and the beginning of the healing process, then a couple can start to explore the reasons behind a betrayal. There can be many things that bring about an affair. A couple needs to consider everything. They need to consider what problems they had before the affair and how long were those problems going on. When did they start? What were the negative cycles that slowly over time broke down the relationship? At what point did the betrayer start thinking about going outside the relationship? What needs were not being met on both sides? Were there negative actions that took place that were never reconciled or apologized for? So many things can be a part of the process of an affair taking place. It can start even before the relationship begins.
It can be so helpful to understand the history of the relationship and how each choice and behavior along the way assisted in the eventual outcome. I have always said that there is a reason for each situation that we find ourselves in. The problem is that we struggle to be able to trace things back. However, once we do, we now have a blueprint for what not to do. We can now find answers in how to have a healthy relationship and keep an affair from taking place again because you know how you to the affair in the first place. Changes can be made at that point to help create a healthier relationship that will work and not lead to cheating.
How do guilt and shame play a role in affairs?
Guilt and shame are normal when a betrayer is acting out. It compels them to continue to act out. It’s a negative cycle that is often seen in addiction. The person who committed the affair acts out the first time and then feels guilt and shame, but also enjoys the dopamine hit they had. It was exciting, fresh, and new. Their guilt and shame drive them to depths of feeling terrible and sometimes a betrayer feels that the only way out is to act out again because it felt so good and because they have already screwed up so what does it matter if they act out again. I agree these are irrational thoughts, but guilt, shame, and depressive thoughts can lead you down that path. It’s still not an excuse as we said before. They can still choose to come clean.
Although guilt and shame keep the cycle in motion, they don’t have to. Some people are driven to repentance immediately because of how bad they feel. Others are fearful of the ramifications if they come clean. They may not tell anyone because they are truly afraid of losing what they want most, a true and connected relationship with their spouse. This seems contradictory because they are destroying that relationship even at that very moment. Yet, our feelings and desires are mysterious.
We can want contrasting things at the same time, but the question is which is most important to you? In the moment, your choice may not reveal that, because emotions and dopamine are strong and persuasive. You may choose something you don’t necessarily want to get a quick release over something that you do want that would take you a while to have. True intimacy and trust take a long time to build and often the process is difficult and does not feel good.
What does the Bible say about adultery and affairs?
There are many things the Bible has to say about sexual immorality. It sometimes uses the word fornication for different forms of sexual actions that happen outside the confines of marriage. I know that this doesn’t actually apply when sometimes fornication can implicate couples having sex before marriage. However, it has a lot to say about the pitfalls of sexuality. Paul in the New Testament says to flee sexual immorality (1 Corinthian 6:18) and at least once he says it is shameful to even speak of what was done in the dark or in secret (Ephesians 5:12). He says in 1 Corinthians 5:11 to not associate with people who commit evil deeds and one of those behaviors is fornication.
The Bible is trying to emphasize that sexual behavior if used in the wrong way is very damaging. That’s why it confines sexual intimacy to just a marriage covenant where 2 committed people can experience the wonderful aspects of sexuality in the safety of the relationship. To venture outside of that safety would cause hurt and pain. The Bible demonstrates how serious this is because it equates adultery to a big enough problem that it deserves stoning in the Old Testament.
How serious is God about keeping both people safe and healthy? He would allow stoning (Leviticus 20:10-12) for the damage that one person does if they go outside the marriage. This was to be a warning for everyone else who was even thinking about committing such a sin. Does this not keep many more people from being hurt? Sexual immorality and adultery were taken more seriously in Biblical times than we take it now. They also took spirituality and God more seriously. Our culture has become too prideful and full of ourselves to the point that we think that we can have what we want. However, if you believe in God and the truth is that He exists, the warning still stands. God does not take lightly the harming of one of his loved ones. He does not want you committing adultery. However, if you truly repent and turn from your ways, he has enough grace to cover the sin.
How do addiction and impulsiveness play a role in affairs?
In my view, addiction and impulsive behavior do not give someone an excuse for cheating on your spouse. It takes effort and time to find someone to have sex with or talk to. Addiction and impulsive behavior come into play once the affair has started. It drives the continuation of the behavior of cheating, whether emotional, physical, or pornographic. At this point, it can be hard to stop due to the dopamine and adrenaline that surge when there is a desire for more excitement or just a lift-up in life.
However, in no way is this still an excuse. Addiction is a real thing and impulsive behavior exists. Yet, an effort needs to be made to stop these behaviors and create a new, healthy lifestyle that does not support addiction or impulsiveness.
Do cheaters suffer pain from the affair?
We know the victim of an affair has pain and suffering. A few of the things they go through are a break in trust, feelings of betrayal, trauma, worthlessness, anger, resentment, loneliness, fear, and more.
Cheaters have pain too. This is again not to justify the choice they made. Yet sometimes their feelings drive them to do things they wouldn’t normally do. They may be feeling anger, misunderstood, have unmet needs, lonely, disconnected, worthless, not good enough, and more. Having an affair is obviously not the healthy way to deal with these hard things. It would be important for anyone going through a tough patch in their life to seek healthy outlets to feel better and get help to cope where they can.
In this review of what an affair is, we have discussed many topics. I tried to give you a very in-depth overview, but there is so much more. What seems like a little explanation at first balloons to many branches of information that can cover so many areas. The bottom line is that an affair is a serious issue with far-reaching implications. If you are thinking about having one, take my advice: DON’T! If you have had one, please keep working on the process. It takes time. It is painful, but growth, love, connection, peace, and much more goodness is possible. Don’t give up. You can overcome if you decide to keep your heart open and trust God’s will for your life. He will guide you into all understanding. He never wanted you to be facing this, but he will help you through it.
If you desire help beyond this point, please contact us so we can help you take your next steps. Don’t wait for things to get worse.
Blessings to you! I hope this has been helpful. If you have questions or need help, please call me (For Coaching: 706-955-0230, For Counseling: 706-916-6740) and set up an appointment or check out some of my other BLOG POSTS.
Brandon Coussens, LMFTBrandon Coussens, LMFT | Marriage Counseling and Sex Therapy
Brandon Coussens is a Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist and owner of Legacy Marriage Resources, LLC based in Augusta, Georgia. He specializes in marriage counseling and sex therapy. You can schedule a counseling appointment with him through Legacy Marriage Resources. He also offers Christian Coaching, Marriage Coaching, Financial Coaching, and Life Coaching to those who live outside the state of Georgia. To learn more about him, go to his Bio page.