It’s complicated

Affairs can lead to bitter fallout for all and regaining trust is not easy, writes Áilín Quinlan.

It’s complicated

THEIR eyes met across a crowded airport bar and next thing she knew she’d plunged into a sizzling love-affair.

Six years on, Aoife*, a mother-of-four who has been married for 20 years, is still seeing the lover she met when her Ryanair flight to Ireland was delayed.

Now they have sex in hotels around her native city of Galway — he visits the region several times a month on business.

“My marriage is a bit boring. There was never much fun,” says the human resources manager based in the West of Ireland, whose children range in age from 11 to 17 years.

Her lover is very different to her conservative spouse.

“He’s the polar opposite of my husband in every way. He’s very personable and very outgoing — but he’s not necessarily someone I’d marry.

“There’s great fun involved and there’s a sense of freedom and anticipation when we meet — I’m nobody’s wife or mother and there’s no baggage.”

Her partner is also married with children so they only meet during the working week, never on weekends or big family occasions such as Christmas or birthdays.

“I travel quite a bit for my job so it’s easy to tag on a half day at one end or the other. “We always pick places where we know nobody and we keep it very discreet. I don’t advocate it as a way to run your life — we have kids and I don’t want to upset them.”

Her husband doesn’t suspect anything. If he ever found out, she says, the marriage would simply be over.

“A couple of times I’ve stepped away [from the affair] and said let’s just leave it, because I can’t believe I’ve got away with it so long. I feel that something has to give.

“I do feel some guilt about it, but my consolation is that it’s not just me — he’s been having affairs for many years.”

Aoife believes the affair will continue “bar something major happening”, although she doesn’t see herself or her lover leaving their spouses and moving in together.

Clearly an affair can be thrilling from the moment you meet and experience that sudden electric charge.

Take the steamy affair between Kristen Stewart and Rupert Sanders which continues to grab headlines – her relationship with Twilight co-star Robert Pattinson is now over and Sanders is fighting to stay with his wife, model Liberty Ross, and children.

Yet affairs don’t usually come out of the blue, cautions John Farrelly relationship counsellor and author of The Good Marriage Guide, they generally happen because of problems in the existing relationship which result in a ‘push-pull’ effect.

“With most marriages 10 or 12 years in, there’s usually an issue of some kind,” he says, adding that one in five of the couples he sees for counselling, are seeking help following an affair.

The ‘push factor’ can be communication problems, lack of affirmation, or even the effect of the humdrum round of domestic duties which can take the gloss off any romance.

Meanwhile the ‘pull factor’ can be as simple as somebody praising you at work, on a professional or personal level.

“Generally speaking it’s the more unhappy person in the relationship who ends up having the affair,” says counsellor and life coach Mary Kenny.

“Affairs are less to do with sex than with emotional needs being met,” she says, adding that it’s often about looking for affirmation.

“The man could need to be made to feel worthwhile or important while a woman might need to be told she is intelligent, beautiful, etc.”

For many that spill-over into sex can be the point of no return says Relationships Ireland counsellor Bernadette Ryan.

“Once you put a plan in place — for example, book a hotel room — and the sex takes place, the affair takes on a life of its own,” she says.

For some, says Farrelly, the next stage can be the “sobering up” period when one or both lovers recognise that there’s nothing that special about the affair.

“I’ve only ever met three or four couples who married as the result of an affair,” he says, adding that, according to the statistics, 80% of married couples remain together following an affair.

“The reality of infidelity is often a mess. The secrecy can be very stressful. The unfaithful person will feel he or she is walking on eggshells — although ironically it is the secrecy and lies which often keep the affair going.”

However, he warns, for many cheating spouses, the tension builds to intolerable levels.

Unfaithful spouses can get very defensive about other people handling their phones, their pattern of behaviour changes, and they perceive threats that are not there.

“Men come to me absolutely stressed, out of their minds with worry, and they might only have been unfaithful once or twice,” says Farrelly.

About a third of his clients are men who have had a secret affair and want to put it behind them and get their marriages back on track.

“Infidelity is the most predominant fact in relationship breakdown in the cases I come across,” warns Dr Patrick Ryan, director of clinical psychology at the University of Limerick. Ryan sees the fall-out first-hand — he acts in a consultative capacity to the courts, assessing the impact of relationship break-down on children.

“Regardless of age, children struggle to cope with the fact that their image of their mam or dad has been shattered. It makes the child’s world very unsafe.

“The unit they saw as their parents is now gone. The children are part of the collateral damage — they get caught up in the grief and anger, the moving out, the rows, the allegations, etc.”

For partners or spouses, the realisation that their loved one has been having an affair results in a huge sense of betrayal.

“The responses can be different in that men might get angry whereas women can get sad and start crying.

“However, men and women both feel betrayed, their self-esteem takes a huge knock and they feel inadequate,” says Kenny.

“It’s very difficult to rebuild trust and it’s not easy to move on,” says Bernadette Ryan, who warns that while women who are betrayed may be more open than men to repairing the relationships — particularly if there are children involved — with men the response to the shock and the hurt can be one of walking away.

Sociologist Catherine Hakim, and author of The New Rules of Marriage, believes an occasional fling can be good for the marriage and advises couples to look to the French tolerance of cheating spouses.

Having an affair can indeed save a marriage says Ryan — but for a different reason.

“I’ve had situations where people say an affair saved their marriage because it made them focus for the first time on what was actually wrong with it. “I’ve known couples where an affair was a crucial wake-up call for the survival of their marriage — it made them realise the value of what they had together.

“If both partners are willing to do the work, it can be hugely transformative for the relationship.”

But, warns Farrelly, it’s hard work — first the unfaithful spouse must be prepared to end the affair and commit to the marriage.

“The unfaithful person must accept that the person who has been cheated on will go into a phase of grief and that there will be thousands of questions.

“The cheater must be able to answer the questions repeatedly.

“Then the person who has been cheated on must eventually be prepared to forgive. A lot of women with children who find their husband has been unfaithful once will often be prepared to forgive for the sake of the family but it takes time.”

*Name and some details have been changed

WAYS OF BEING UNFAITHFUL

There are varying degrees of straying from a partner:

¦ Flirting by text or online: No sex but if you’re going outside the emotional intimacy of a long-term relationship you’re still being unfaithful.

¦ Sexting: A big step up from texting, bringing sexual intimacy into the mix.

¦ The fling: A one-night stand or fling can easily happen during a work function or trip abroad and is often regretted.

¦ The romantic love affair: This can be a temporary six-week sizzler before the gloss wears off, or it can be more long-lived — and can be the most destructive for a marriage or relationship.

¦ A long-term affair: It can last for years or even decades.

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