Aftermath of an Extramarital Affair: Psychological and Relational Consequences

An affair can feel traumatic, but you can heal.

Have you even wondered if an affair could happen to you or to your spouse? Although monogamy is still the cultural norm in the U.S., as many as 25 percent of married men and 15 percent of married women report having had an affair at some time in their lives.  Most of these affairs happen at work, but some of them are with friends, relatives or strangers on the Internet. In other words, affairs have affected a lot of people, wreaking havoc in their lives and their partners’ lives.  Although extramarital affairs do increase the chances of divorce, it is important to note that the majority of marriages survive them.

People typically experience several psychological and relational consequences once an affair has hit the family.

Discoveries and Disclosures: A Traumatic Experience

Discovering an extramarital affair often results in a host of problems for spouses (including symptoms similar to those of post-traumatic stress disorder), such as shock, anger, confusion, disassociation from reality, flashback, nightmares, damaged self-esteem and a compromised sense of confidence.  These reactions are similar to PTSD in that they get triggered by a traumatic experience when one feels like the rug has been pulled from under him or her, and life has forever changed. Many clients have told me that realizing that their suspicions are actually confirmed is similar to getting a terrible diagnosis out of the blue at the doctor’s office or the feeling of losing of innocence.  Spouses often state that it would have been easier on them if the involved partner had died, rather than having to go through the heartache and humiliation of discovering an affair.

An affair can kill a marriage.  Relationship experts John and Julie Gottman have referred to it as “the marriage dies” when an affair happens.  Just like in the event of death, people feel a deep sense of sadness and depression after an affair. They can acutely feel a loss of dreams and a deep personal violation of the offended partner’s identity.

Anger is often a sign of this grieving.  Depression and anger both surface in the initial stages after a disclosure when both parties are exhausted emotionally, and sometimes physically, as a result of lack of sleep, arguments, worry and anxiety.

But as I mentioned before, the majority of marriages don’t end up in divorce after an extramarital affair. The “easiest” type of affair to overcome is when the male partner gives in to a highly available opportunity but is scarcely involved emotionally. The most difficult type of extramarital affair to overcome is a true “love affair,” with high male partner emotional involvement and female partners comparing or competing with one another.

Lifeline of Support

“You need the lifeline of an outside support network to get through the pain,” Shirley Glass says in her highly recommended book Not Just Friends, but Glass also cautions to leave family members (especially children!) out of it.  Reading doesn’t cure problems, but a notable book about affairs can help both parties to (a) reduce shame and stigma and to (b) instill hope that this issue of affairs has been studied and there are well-researched approaches in its treatment.

Getting professional support during this trying time is important.  When seeking professional help, ask any therapist you are considering if he or she has had specific training in treating cases of extramarital affairs.  When a couple decides to stay together, treatment will involve making meaning of the affair, building a strong trust bond and creating a stronger, more resilient intimate relationship.

Russ Schulte, LPC/CCSAS has specialized training and many years of clinical experiences in treating couples and individuals who have experienced extramarital affairs.

This is part 2 of a 3 part series on infidelity. Read the first part here. The third installment will focus on fostering forgiveness.