How you can trust him again after an affair
Published 06/10/2010 | 05:00
The joy of texts and social networking sites have given rise to a new definition of infidelity -- the virtual affair -- and relationships counsellor Julia Cole has felt it necessary to update her self-help book, After the Affair, to reflect this growing trend.
"In the last five years, I found people were talking to me about their partners sending sexy text messages or pictures to other people and viewing porn on the internet," says Julia. "The partner would say, 'But it was only a text' and I'd reply, 'What effect did it have on your relationship?'
"Even if there is no physical contact, conducting a secret online relationship has the same devastating effects on a partner when it is revealed. Their trust is betrayed and they experience the same feelings of loss, anger, sadness and rejection that come when a physical affair is exposed."
It is also increasingly common, as Mia (all names have been changed to protect privacy) discovered when she found a series of no-holds-barred sexual emails her partner Alex had sent to another woman.
While Mia had been studying for an Open University degree, Alex had struck up an online friendship with a woman called Lucy. Before long they were having cyber-sex, describing in graphic detail what they would like to do to each other if they were face to face.
Devastated by the discovery, Mia was even more astounded when Alex argued there was no harm done, as he hadn't had any physical contact with the other woman. But as far as Mia was concerned, his virtual infidelity was as painful as the real thing.
"Technology has made communication so easy that people think it's okay to have intimate conversations on the internet or by mobile phone," says Julia. "Often it's not thought out. It's only when the behaviour is revealed that the person realises how hurt their partner feels."
Sadie was not just hurt, she felt sick to her stomach when she discovered the real reason her husband Liam had been spending every spare minute on the computer.
There, in a file he'd kept hidden for months, were hundreds of pictures of naked women, organised into categories such as hair colour, breast size or ethnicity.
When she got over the shock, Sadie made it a condition of their staying together that they attend counselling to try and repair their shattered relationship.
"The strong pull of the computer can cause an emotional cut-off from everyday life," says Julia. "If you have ever experienced the excitement of new love, you know how all-absorbing it can be. Affairs have this effect because the attention of the individual pursuing the affair is concentrated on the person they are pursuing -- and porn usage can be the same.
"The person using porn may say, 'It's only pictures, not real people. I haven't picked up somebody in a bar.' But this reasoning can feel like a hollow consolation."
The bottom line is how the activity affects the relationship. And while technology can make cyber-sex easy and accessible, it can't make decisions for a couple about whether they stick together or break up when the truth comes out.
A recent survey conducted by the UK counselling service Relate showed that two-thirds of respondents decided to stay together.
"Recovery takes time -- I tell couples it might be a year before the relationship recovers," says Julia. "It is important to keep your promises. If you say you'll never see your lover again -- in real life or online -- you must stick to that. The affair has got to be over. Then you can find out what caused it.
"An affair is never the cause of marriage problems, it's a symptom. If you unpick it and trace the relationship back, there is always a trigger. That's not an excuse. An affair is the worst response, and it's a risky game to play, because your partner might walk away."
When Julia started practising as a counsellor 25 years ago, most of the people she saw having affairs were married men. Now infidelity has become an equal opportunities activity.
'I see more women than ever before having affairs," says Julia. "The world is a more level playing pitch, women have the same opportunities as men and are not always at home with the children. Also, couples are under huge stress.
"Sometimes the only communication they have is about whose turn it is to cook, clean or fetch the children from whatever class or activity they have. They spend less premium time together and in that situation, when somebody at work seems pleasant and praises your contribution, you may feel a sense of reward that you're not getting at home.
"Of course parents want to be available for their children, but it's important to make time for just the two of you as a couple every day. It doesn't have to be for hours; it can be something as simple as switching the TV off for half an hour and having a conversation. You need to touch base with each other.
"People often have a romantic desire for somebody to meet all their needs, but even in a very happy marriage that is unrealistic. They want the 'Perfect One,' but it won't happen. No one person can fulfil all the needs of another. And we all change. I'm not the same person I was when I married 32 years ago. We all need activities and friends which are separate from our partner."
So long as they're not too friendly.
After the Affair: How to Build Trust and Love Again, by Julia Cole, is published by Vermilion (£9.99 Stg).