March 26, 2023

‘I don’t think you should demonise people who have affairs.’ This was a message I got via Instagram last week.
It was from a woman who explained she had been in a loveless and unhappy marriage. She said that when another man showed her the affection and kindness that had been so lacking in her life, she grabbed it. Her justification was that everyone deserves to be in a happy relationship. She said she doesn’t regret her affair because it meant she extricated herself from a toxic partnership.
She follows me on social media, where, after writing about my own break up, I have amassed a legion of (mainly) women healing their broken hearts. She was doing so too, because she had split up with the new man but felt she couldn’t be a fully paid-up member of my gang because she had done the dirty.
Affairs used to be straight-up bad. Breaking one of the ten commandments. Morally repugnant. But they are becoming more socially acceptable. Counter arguments are gaining credence. Mitigating reasons are considered, while TV and movies glamorise them.
Marriage counsellors, from my experience and from that of my friends and followers, tend to talk about affairs being symptoms not causes. Famous therapists and relationship gurus such as Esther Perel often discuss them dispassionately, putting forward arguments as to why they are understandable. They say that nobody has an affair if they are happy and they often occur if someone’s needs aren’t being met.
When it’s your heart that has been ripped out and stamped on, it’s much harder to be logical but I do understand their point. And, in general, I like the fact that as a society we are more empathetic towards people who do ‘bad’ things. We understand that hurt people hurt people. That the thief was desperate. That the tax dodger really needed that extra yacht. OK, maybe not that one.
But how much can we really condone adultery – can it ever be OK? I put this question to my social media followers, the majority of whom have been cheated on, and their responses came in thick and fast.
A few understood the woman’s point of view. Some said they had done the same because they ‘felt trapped’ or because their partner ‘had repeatedly stonewalled marriage counselling’ or ‘refused to accept it was over’.
But most people told heartbreaking stories of the pain and trauma caused by someone you love cheating on you. Of how their partner had tried to legitimise their affair by saying they were a terrible spouse. One told me that when a professional counsellor appeared to do this too, it was positively crazy-making. Imagine it: you are in that grey room, your world upside down, and it feels as though you are being told the whole sorry affair is your fault.
Of course, counsellors just want to help you find a path through. Which means both parties understanding they need to change. But saying ‘it takes two’ can increase the betrayed person’s pain.
Some of the reasons my followers were given by their cheating partners would be funny if they weren’t so awful: ‘You were too devoted to the children’, ‘You didn’t earn enough’, ‘This sort of thing happens all the time’. It’s even more blindsiding if you haven’t heard your partner’s ‘complaints’ about you before.
The truth is, there is no explaining away the pain of being cheated on. Experts can intellectualise it but when it happens to you, it’s truly excruciating. It slays your sense of self, cuts your confidence off at the knees, breaks you into a million pieces.
An affair may be understandable but, to me, it is never acceptable.
One woman messaged me yesterday. She told me how her husband had an affair, then she did the same to him ten years later. She said: ‘I didn’t offer him excuses because there were none and there never will be.’
Read more of Rosie Green’s columns here
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