There is an interesting and quite heated series of conversations going on at this time in various amateur and professional blogs around the topic of marital affairs being synonymous with abuse, the faithless spouse therefore being an abuser.
A lot of bloggers are quite unequivocal and robustly defend their opinion that yes, affairs, or an affair, constitutes abuse. They point to the often-blatant denial of empathy, the misuse of shared finances and the devastating hurt visited on the faithful partner, who feels battered and bruised by the experience. I don’t doubt this hurt, and as a couple therapist I have repeatedly seen the chronic pain that the betrayed partner experiences, and the same when the betrayer attempts to make amends. It’s heart-breaking.
But I don’t agree about the label of abuse. I don’t see affairs and abuse as one and the same thing and I think both as therapists and as those in the situation of being impacted upon by affairs we might make a grave mistake to see it this way, and hence perpetuate this misunderstanding; we could even be potentially colluding in the ruin of the couple relationship.
I understand why folk might want to label an affair as abusive, the emotional devastation wreaked by an affair seems to be identical and therefore it might seem to fit into our politically correct, sensitive, liberal and risk aware/averse level of consciousness to consider it so, yet I would contend that to do so is a two-edged sword that both cuts the argument into the binary choice of only abuse, and blunts the complexity of infidelity.
Let’s take the first “bull by the horns” and explore domestic abuse first.
There are a few similar-but-different definitions of domestic abuse, the one used most often in the U.K. is the one by Women’s Aid, (see www.womensaid.org) that of “an incident or pattern of incidents of controlling, coercive, threatening, degrading and violent behaviour.” And “Domestic abuse is a gendered crime which is deeply rooted in the societal inequality between women and men. It takes place because she is a woman and happens disproportionately to women.”
This seems to suggest that there is a gendered dynamic of power enacted, not power with-which would suggest a more equal relationship, but power over a person; in this context, most likely a woman.
Let’s explore another way of thinking about domestic abuse. Michael Johnson in 2008 wrote an excellent book called “A Typology of Domestic Violence” a book taken up as core research that was used to inform Relate’s national policy of domestic violence, a policy that was to win the charity a coveted British Association of Counselling and Psychotherapy award for its contribution to both assessing and discriminating how to work with domestic violence. In the book Johnson calls the type of abuse we are considering here “intimate terrorism” where the individual (the perpetrator) is violent and controlling, the partner is not: the partner is terrorised.
We can see from the descriptions of abuse above that there is in an intent by the perpetrator or abuser to coerce, manipulate or control the other for their own gratification. This sets up and often makes concrete a persecutor-victim pattern of behaviour, where over time and at times, often without their awareness the so-called victim is worn away, their self-worth is reduced, self-autonomy lowered and gradually their value system eroded until they cannot make the simplest of decisions without checking in with their abusive partner.
The power dynamic is so strong, so entrenched, that in almost every branch of couple therapy domestic abuse is seen clearly as a contraindicator: we don’t treat active domestic abuse in couple work, but we do treat affairs. There must be a difference here, if not we would not “allow” couples to be part of the counselling post affairs.
Now let’s look at the impact that abuse has on our emotional and relational regulation system. This is the “pop neuro” view of this, but I think it makes a valid point.
When we become threatened our sympathetic nervous system kicks into gear-we experience an amygdala hijack (as it is often called) and we launch into fight or flight. We all know this, and we all know that there is a third operation that kicks in, the freeze aspect. What we don’t often consider is that there are another two, that of submit and attach.
In abusive relationships the submit and attach operations are more likely to trigger (that is one of reasons why counselling a person who has experienced chronic abuse takes time and requires pacing; they may still be attached to the abusive partner, months after leaving). The so-called victim has, as a safety measure, submitted at times to her partners control and often becomes attached to this destructive pattern of relating. An example might include a woman who agrees to have sex whenever her male partner desires it, because this compliance keeps her safe. She might do this with or without full awareness, she might find herself strangely or even fatally attached to him, a kind of “Stockholm Syndrome” activity or attachment in a domestic context.
This is very different from most affairs.
Domestic abuse works by making the so-called victim small and powerless, binding the abuser in turn to a relationship where he has to retain this power over his partner; affairs work by making the cheater big and releasing a long–disowned power with towards the other man/woman. The cheater has very little interest in power over their spouse; in fact, most of the time they do not want to hurt their spouse at all. This can be very puzzling, since common sense and the evidence would plainly suggest otherwise.
When we work with couples, we notice that when an affair presents itself there are many other and quite different events that have often led to the affair. Upon questioning the couple, most will (but not all) admit that things were “going wrong” for years. What was going wrong? Lack of sex, lack of emotional intimacy, distancing in the relationship, loss of parents, acute weariness, boredom and many more symptoms. The relationship has often buckled under a series of mutual losses and differences which one person finds intolerable and seeks release in the arms (and bed) of another.
The relationship began to feel like a dead relationship, yet still a loving one. This last bit is quite crucial: an affair for the cheater does not signify lack of love or respect for their spouse (which might be a hard one to swallow) or even wanting to leave the primary relationship, it’s a sign often that they want to come alive, the last thing they want to do is hurt their spouse (not that that stops them, they do, and nobody should minimise the pain that ensures).
An affair produces acute and chronic flight, fight and freeze, yet very rarely does submit come into pay. We might better understand an affair, and therefore better work with it as couple therapists and partners experiencing it as relational trauma; indeed, there is some excellent work being done by Michelle Scheinkman and Esther Perel in exploring just this, backed up by comparative studies by Bessel van der Kolk on trauma.
The intention and motivation on the part of the adulterer is qualitatively not the same as the intention and motivation of the abuser; the impact appears to be very similar (hurt, pain, prolonged devastation, chaotic thinking and a horrible sick feeling in the guts that causes retching) yet the cheater does not set out to terrorise or control (and usually does not) the faithful spouse.
The cheating husband or wife is, at heart, attempting to come back to life, to contact and experience a part of themselves that for years they disowned. To call this abuse would therefore also be suggesting that the other woman/man is either colluding in abuse or also abusive; this again is both domestically and therapeutically unhelpful and merely dumbs down what is actually happening.
Let’s also explore the gender dynamic in affairs: aren’t most affairs committed by men? Doesn’t that prove that there is some kind of gendered abuse of male privilege here? Well, let’s look at this. For a start, we might need to discount the notion that affairs are an example of some rotten or pathological mental health. We don’t know for sure how many folks are having an affair (they won’t admit it) but we guess it’s around 45%. A figure close to 45% suggests it is endemic in some way to human nature; quite frankly we need to study this closely: what is it about human relationships that makes us cheat? Are we meant to be monogamous?
Okay, the gender statistic: if the figure 45% of men are having an affair is correct, what’s wrong with this? What’s wrong with it is, who are they having an affair with? Women, mostly. So, it’s closer to 50/50 across the genders, it has to be.
This is not true of figures in abuse, where the percentage of perpetrators is hugely predisposed towards men. It’s closer to pathological.
We need, I think, to bear something else in mind too. It is common in abusive relationships, especially chronic ones, for the abused party-often the woman-to have an affair, to find in the arms of another the comfort, love, touch, soothing and validation that they do not get in the arms that chain them. As Perel says in her 2017 book The State of Affairs: “for those who live with physical abuse, trading the hands that strike for the hands that caress is a gesture of bold defiance”. Would we call a person having an affair whilst still in an abusive relationship an abuser?
I would hope not.
Seeing-in couples, therapy or training-an affair as abuse profoundly mixes up two seemingly similar but very different dynamics. To attempt to counsel those who have experienced affairs and label the couple as abused-abuser fixes the relationship as such and effectively kills in it any kind of genuine relational healing, robbing it of its erotic or intimate potential. As a therapist if we do this, I believe we are colluding in the death-the slaughter-of the couple relationship.
We would be better disposed to counsel the couple who have experienced an affair in the context of relational trauma, taking note of all the various disturbances in the person(s) and the couple narrative that trauma creates and skilfully helping the couple navigate through this to a new version of their relationship, and true healing.
 See Esther Perel The State of Affairs
 See Bessel van der Kolk The Body Keeps The Score