Let's start with the idea that the point of marriage is emotional connection. A long lasting marriage needs to foster trust and acceptance of each other's emotional tender spots. No wonder they say marriage is work. We get tired of our own issues, so why not tired of another's?
Enter an affair. If a couple can't manage to keep up the trust and the caring listening, then monotony builds, partners feel discounted, disconnected and one or the other buckles. Does that mean rotten marriage? Divorce? Let's look again.
You walk too long, too far on a too-tight shoe and you build up a boil. Don't amputate the foot, lance the boil. In marriage an affair is the symptom of chafing. It means it's time to pay attention to the relationship and stop obsessing about work, kids, money and all the rest.
You can imagine how many times as a therapist I have heard one half of a couple say, "I always believed that if she ever had an affair, that would be the end. Well, here I am with her. We want to make the marriage work if we can."
An affair is a virtual relationship. It can feel exhilarating, but it's still virtual. There is no day-to-day life to challenge the myth of it. Secrecy romanticizes it. Marriage, on the other hand, represents knowing the other person from the top of their glory to the bottom of their bad smells. A husband is a relative, for better and worse. A wife is the one who knows your insides and picked up the shards when you fell hard.
Here is what is known only to those who have survived an affair:
1. If you call it a symptom you can learn what went wrong and make it right;
2. The spouse who strayed is a good person who must learn to take responsibility for the harm inflicted and then forgive self;
3. The spouse who was betrayed needs to speak about the harm done and then learn to forgive;
4. Both can heal together when they learn new ways to be together.
Emotional intimacy is how we describe the moments when we let each other know our vulnerabilities and find out that the other gets it and cares. It isn't pity. It isn't even sympathy. It is a kind of knowing that is accurate and safe.
Many couples follow up an affair with a desire to be honest and start a new way of relating. With time and effort they get there. It is then that I've heard them say it took the affair to learn to be more emotionally intimate than either had thought possible.