When you first find out about your partner’s affair it is incomprehensible to many how they could not have known it was happening. This is reinforced by the media (ever seen an article along the lines of top 10 ways to spot a cheater!!) and even helping professionals who have never been through it and can't beleive that you could be in a relationship with someone and be so blind as to what is going on for them. My husband’s affair lasted 3 years and resulted in a child and although with hindsight I can look back now and see there were signs, I can honestly say at the time it was happening, I had no idea. But again with hindsight, when I looked at those signs later I just couldn’t believe that I didn’t know. And with that disbelief came a huge feeling of failure, foolishness and stupidity, as well as anger, loss of confidence and constantly questioning myself and ruminating: why didn’t I do this; why didn’t I do that; I could have stopped it… generally beating myself up. Worse I had spent many years working with families in crisis and here mine was and I didn’t even see it! I guess underneath it all was a feeling of shame – shame that this had happened to me; to us that somehow I hadn’t been good enough or done enough or been enough and I hadn’t even been aware enough to stop it.
In fact this was reinforced by the first counsellor we went to who said to me “you must have really lost yourself for this to have happened”. There was a part of me that knew it wasn’t about me – this was something Brett did of his own volition – but this was swamped by sadness and a huge feeling that I just wasn’t good enough. If I was good enough he wouldn’t have done it or at least I would have known and been able to stop it. But I didn’t even think there was anything wrong with our relationship. I thought we were happy. So I am delusional too and can’t really trust what I think and so the spiral of pain sucked me in.
So your soundtrack may sound slightly different but a common theme I have found with the many people who have shared their story with me is why didn’t I know/see it coming/stop it.
To make sense of this you need to pull it apart. There is firstly the unfaithful person and what they did and then there is secondly the relationship you were in with that person.
Firstly – the unfaithful person. In order to do what they did they built a complex fortress of deceit so strong it is extremely hard to penetrate. They are able to do this because they are protected partly by us and partly by their own skill at lying.
There are two psychological concepts that cause us to inadvertently protect their deceit. The first is the inoculation theory I have talked about before. A strong belief that essentially “inoculates” a person against arguments counter to that belief later on. This belief is that he or she would never do that to me or that would never happen in our relationship. Brett and I even had a deal that if we were ever attracted to anyone other than each other we would tell each and talk about it. The second concept is called Truth Bias where essentially until something happens to prove otherwise we basically believe that others are telling us the truth. This is strengthened by how close the relationship is to us – so we perform complex subconscious acrobats to believe people we love even when it flies in the face of reason and goes totally against our gut. I remember one Friday evening Brett was getting ready to go out with his mates and he received a text that I intercepted “Will I see you tonight?” signed off with simply her initial. He made up something about it being a new guy at work he was going to meet up with later and I didn’t think anything more about it. In hindsight Unbelievable!!! But there it is proving the theory.
The other part of the protection of the fortress of deceit is their own skill at lying. I was married to a master who had been finely honing his skill since he was very young – he could do it without batting an eyelid. I had seen him in action and actually marvelled at the skill as I can’t lie but I believed (truth bias) that he would never use it against me. I find other’s are not so good at it and it causes them a huge amount of discomfort and grief and they often have short lived affairs which end in confession.
Secondly – the relationship you were in with that person. Here it needs to be remembered that two people can be involved in exactly the same situation and experience it very differently. It is possible that one person can be happy in their relationship and the other miserable and this may be about the relationship or it may be about stuff that is going on for them as individuals. Different people have different expectations; levels of resilience; outside support mechanisms; communication skills; knowledge and understanding etc. And while we are all responsible for trying to meet our partner’s needs in a relationship we cannot do that if we do not know what they are. The biggest relationship myth I hear all the time is “If he/she really loved me they would know”. You could be a highly intuitive person but still not know a whole lot of things that go on in your partner’s world if they chose not to tell you or – as I have seen many times are not really aware of it themselves (they can’t share what they are not aware of).
Now perhaps in the relationship you were aware that things could be better and you didn’t do anything about it at the time. This is usually because you didn’t know what to do – you can’t do what you don’t know so even if this was the situation in your relationship it still does not make the choice to have an affair OK or make it your fault. Due to the reasons above we don’t think to ourselves "Oh dear relationship going through a rough patch lets have an affair" or "our partner can have an affair now". The fact that they would go elsewhere does not even cross our minds.
But it is different now. The affair has happened and whether the relationship has continued or not we now know everything I have just written about. The way we look at things like this will never be the same again – we are now aware and conscious. And this is a good thing.