It's not 'just' an affair
Sustaining an affair involves the emotional manipulation and psychological control of another person. A person who trusts and relies on you. At the beginning, it’s constructing and controlling an alternate reality, where you aren’t where you say you are and you’re not with who you say you’re with. Then it progresses to smoke-screening: “we’re just friends”, “there’s nothing going on” or “I wouldn’t do that to you”. And then, at the risk of discovery, desperation creeps in and it becomes mind games: “no, you must be imagining things”, “don’t be silly”, “you don’t know what you’re talking about” or “you must be crazy”. At this point you might also pick fights or find fault with your partner to create conflict or emotional distance so you can justify to yourself the feelings you are developing for someone else.
But your words don’t fit right, don’t make sense and you can’t look your partner in the eye. Its little signs such as these, a change, a ‘differentness,’ a ‘not rightness’, that your partner has noticed. At first they dismissed them, preferring to trust you, but then their intuition started setting off warning bells. They ignored these for a while, because they wanted to continue believing you. And then there were some clear signs they just couldn’t ignore any more, the item of clothing left in the car, the newly purchased underwear, the late night phone calls. Maybe they confronted you and maybe you denied it, maybe this happened several times, but at some, final point they are forced to make the world-splitting choice: am I going crazy or are you having an affair? Am I losing my mind or am I losing you?
Cultivating an alternate reality so an affair can continue undiscovered destroys, amongst many other things, the cheated party’s perceptiveness, intuition, confidence and, more than their trust in you, their trust in their own senses. Trust is the foundation of relationships. It is also the foundation for mental health and emotional wellbeing. In sustained affairs, sex is not the hardest thing to get over; it’s the deeper and more long-term affect of having to put the pieces of your intellect and your shattered self-esteem back together and learn to trust yourself again.
Both mind games and emotional manipulation are forms of domestic abuse. Sustained affairs are covert, insidious abuse that has dire consequences for families and yet it’s also the sort of abuse that can be minimized, condoned or even glorified in the media. It’s the sort of abuse that is commonly ‘blamed on the victim’: it happens because of a woman’s “declining interest in sex”. Psychological and emotional abuse are forms of domestic violence and include humiliation, contempt and controlling behaviours. Affairs involve all of these. Acts of omission are also included in one definition. In Hurting Without Hitting: Non-physical Contact Forms of Abuse, Laurie Mackinnon lists: withholding necessary information, refusing to communicate for extended periods, ignoring the other person’s attempts to interact, failure to confirm the other person’s feelings or needs and failure to show appropriate affection or love.
Mental and emotional abuse has an effect on physical health. Infections and stress related illnesses are commonplace as are driving accidents due to distraction. One woman I know of recently went though a red light – with her two children in the back seat - after her husband had just disclosed his affair. Those who are psychologically abused are at risk of anxiety and Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. Emotional abuse in the form of rejection leads to feelings of shame and the powerlessness that comes from losing control of your life to helplessness and depression. I know of both women and men who have thought about or attempted suicide after they found out about a partner’s affair.
Having sex unknowingly with a trusted partner who has been having sex, protected or not, is a sexual violation, a form of sex abuse. When they find out, many women feel as if they have been raped by their partner; had they known of the affair, there is no way the sex would have been consented to.
If the “third party” is knowingly involved in the affair, then they are collaborating in the mental, emotional and sexual abuse of another. If they do not know that the person they are involved with is leading a double life, if they have been informed the person is “separated” before the partner they are supposedly “separated from”, then they are being abused also.
All affairs leave marks, particularly those that entail psychological and emotional control and manipulation. You might not be able to see them, but they are black and blue.
Elly Taylor is a relationship counselor and the author of Becoming Us, Loving, Learning and Growing Together, the Essential Relationship Guide for Parents.