In the aftermath of the recent Ashley Madison hacking scandal, many couples are suffering from the shock of learning about their partner’s infidelity.

The incident has also caused distress for couples that have already worked hard to recover from previous infidelity in their relationship by triggering and opening old wounds. Infidelity is a deep and complex topic. Most of us expect monogamy to be a normal part of marriage or any committed relationship. At the beginning of a conventional relationship, monogamy is mostly assumed and the topic of attraction to others outside of our primary relationships (which is a normal human behaviour) is feared and ignored until there is a discovery or disclosure of infidelity forcing couples to face the reality of the infidelity or to further avoid it. The first question most people ask is, “why?” and the typical reaction is blame on the betrayer and our social conditioning is to harshly judge the betrayer. The third party is also a tempting target. While we all have a responsibility for our behaviour, the decision to have an affair does not take place in isolation; it is influenced by many factors. Research by John Gottman, suggests that the number one reason why men and women have affairs is because the friendship in the primary relationship has broken down. From this perspective, infidelity can be, but not always, conceptualized as a “we” problem.

Getting to the “we” part of the problem requires a tremendous commitment to the practice of responsible honesty, patience, acceptance, skillful communication, and taking responsibility. There must also be a willingness to learn and get some professional help as couples typically do not have the knowledge and skills to navigate the healing process on their own. The betrayed and the betrayer in the primary relationship experience different sets of emotions, which can be equally as difficult. The process of healing requires a deep understanding of how the betrayer and the relationship created betrayal and distrust. Sometimes the shock of discovery or disclosure can be overwhelming and the willingness to consider forgiveness (now or in the future) and begin honest hard work together might seem impossible. Changes are neither quick nor easy and developing a new and healthy relationship is possible provided both partners are willing to deepen their understanding and attempt to make rational rather than emotional decisions. Infidelity can be, but not always, a new starting point to grow stronger and secure as individuals and as a couple.

In addition to professional help to navigate the healing process, there are a number of excellent resources that I recommend in my practice with couples. One such resource is Peggy Vaughan’s book titled, The Monogamy Myth: A Personal Handbook for Recovering from Affairs. Vaughan gives an honest, balanced, and insightful perspective for understanding human behaviour in the context of extramarital affairs. Vaughan does a masterful job at bridging the gaps in our knowledge of the psychological, emotional, sexual, and social implications of affairs. Vaughan also addresses the important and fearful (to many) topic of human nature in the context of attractions to others outside of one’s primary relationship. Vaughan questions the origin, substance, and trajectory of these attractions and discusses why the vow of marriage, the deepest of love, commitment, children, and adoration do not stop these attractions. How we respond to these attractions and temptations is the product of personal history, psychodynamics, and relationship climate, rather than morality. So, as Vaughan proposes, it makes sense to vow to honesty rather than to vow to monogamy. Vaughan proposes that the best hope for monogamy lies in rejecting the assumption that marriage automatically means monogamy and to quit seeking assurance of monogamy via threats as to what one would do if infidelity occurred. There is a strong and recurring theme that this book delivers: hope for monogamy is a conscious choice that involves a commitment to honesty. Without discussion of attractions, and, in the case of an affair a partner’s full disclosure, and a sincere attempt for both partners to understand, Vaughan questions the health and path for the primary relationship to continue. The bottom line and the pearl of Vaughan’s wisdom is that “the truth does set us free”. Vaughan discusses the experience of suspicion and confrontation, the pain of knowing, the healing process, living with the decision to stay or go, and culminates with a new and intelligent understanding of affairs. This book is pitched from a non-judgmental position and Vaughan generously and compassionately shares her own front row experiences of being the betrayed in an affair situation.

“As long as we don’t talk honestly about the reality of what’s happening, people will continue to pretend that monogamy is the norm and that society supports monogamy. And, as long as this belief persists, people will continue to suffer alone with their sense of failure and shame. All kinds of people have affairs, not just certain types. Anyone is vulnerable to having an affair” (Vaughan).

Natalie Slect
Clinical Psychologist (MAPS, CClin)