The Affair, Part 2
Its Effect on Children and the Co-Parenting Relationship

Shonnie Brown, MFT

Through my years of work with divorcing partners I've reached the conclusion that many couples do not share ongoing differences and disappointments, resulting in a polarization of roles and a private escalation of dissatisfaction. An emotional or physical involvement with a third party is a symptom of a relationship in trouble. Sometimes couples are able to see an affair as an "acting out" in an unhappy relationship and begin working within that relationship. Otherwise the affair is often the catalyst that puts a unilateral exit strategy in motion. The belief of the acting out partner is that a new attachment will bring fulfillment of unmet needs.

When I work with couples or individuals who are trying to save a relationship thrown off its foundation by an affair, there are certain beliefs that I examine with them. Since validation is essential in a healthy relationship, I inquire as to each person's ability to self-validate as opposed to placing that expectation always on the other. And I inquire if each partner is taking responsibility for consciously acknowledging, offering encouragement and validation to the other as well. I also address each person's ability to tolerate their own feelings as well as their partner's appropriate expression of feelings. Do they respond or react to each other? Do they routinely listen? Are they able to contain feelings, choosing an appropriate response instead of escalating? Are they able to make their needs known to their partner in a non-blaming, nonjudgmental direct communication? And, most importantly, what does each believe is the source of one's happiness?

Sherry's husband (see Part One) believed that someone "new and fresh" would make him happy. Their relationship had become polarized and he could no longer view Sherry as fun, flirtatious or seductive. And she no longer viewed herself that way. Years of mutual collusion in the unspoken agreement that Sherry was "not sexy, too serious and lacking in spontaneity" had eroded Sherry's self-image.

But what worried me most about this situation was Tony's "throwing the baby out with the bath water." Shame and guilt combined with an eagerness to distance himself from Sherry as the source of his unhappiness resulted in his increasing distance from the children as well. This emotional and physical withdrawal exaggerated Sherry's role as the overwhelmed and overly responsible parent. It also fueled a loyalty bind and acting out symptoms in the children.

It is not unusual for children to be the ones to act out the symptoms of family dysfunction or unhappiness. In the case of Amy and her daughter, 11 year old Sara was deeply depressed about her parent's separation, confused by her Dad now being with Mom's former friend, and so protective of her mom that she didn't want to add to Amy's grief. Adolescent and preadolescent children may often share things online with strangers rather than speak with a parent. Mom and Dad assumed that everything was fine because Sara never expressed her feelings. Some exploration with Amy revealed that both she and her husband knew almost nothing about appropriate expression of feelings and were therefore unable to model healthy self-expression for Sara.

Interestingly, many adults will also open up to a stranger before they will express their feelings openly and cleanly with a spouse, as in the cases of both Jennifer and Nancy (described in Part One) who discovered a partner's affair by reading their e-mail. This situation is amazingly common and speaks to my original statement that many couples do not have the tools or a structure in place to share ongoing disappointments with each other, resulting in private escalation of dissatisfaction and eventual rupture of the relationship.

In Jennifer's case, the breakdown in communication was quite severe. His defense was to minimize the situation. Her role was to be angry at his deception and defensive response. The children were put in the midst of their battle. In hindsight, Jennifer realized there were years of growing isolation with no resolution of the marital problem. Silently unhappy, disengaged couples typically lack healthy self-esteem and the self-care and self-soothing abilities previously mentioned.

Each of these cases has the following issues in common: secrecy and deception, betrayal, denial and projection, enabling, shame, emotional distancing, lack of communication, lack of mutual agreements, poor individual boundaries and children who are both feeling and acting out the pain. In Part Three we will discuss appropriate co-parenting interventions.


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