Stabilising a Marriage After an Affair



What cause Extra-Marital Affairs (EMA)? How does it begin? Can a marriage survive after an affair? Will it ever be the same again? And how can the relationship heal in the aftermath? These questions will be addressed by our principal psychologist, Neo Eng Chuan, in an insightful radio interview with Joel Chua on 93.8FM Live Journeys Within.

Here is the summary of the interview with time stamped for your reference.

What predisposes a marriage to an extramarital affair (EMA)? [1:15]

EMA is a multifaceted issue. In an intimate relationship, there are three fundamental needs: the need to be loved, cherished, and valued; the need to feel safe; and the need to be comforted. These needs vary in terms of order of importance between individuals. In a marriage, when one or more of these are not met, dealt with or communicated, the risk of an affair increases.

Are these needs the same for men and women? [4:15]

I think it is no difference between men and women in terms of these attachment needs. However, the order of importance may vary.

We often think of EMA as physical infidelity. Share with us what is emotional infidelity? [4:45]

It means that I’m more emotionally connected to someone else other than my spouse [for an extended period of time]. When you have a deeper emotional connection with another person other than your partner, that’s usually the start of an affair. Over time, this can become problematic when you turn to someone else to fulfil your relational needs.

How are the seeds of an EMA planted? [6:09]

It happens in two stages. In the first stage, a partner’s relational needs are not met. This is when problems start to come into the relationship. In the second stage, it’s called the “micro-decisions” stage or small steps on a slippery slope that this person takes to meet his/her needs. For example, starting by have meals with someone he/she likes, which increases to more frequent meetings, texting, sometimes in the wee hours or when he/she is in distress. While it is good to have platonic relationship with a member of the opposite gender, one needs to have appropriate boundary and keeps their partner informed of these friendships.

Can a marriage survive after an affair? [10:10]

It depends on the types of affair. There are two situations. In the first situation, a partner relies on an affair to end a relationship and it will be unlikely that the marriage can be salvaged. On the other end of the spectrum, an EMA can be helpful for a marriage in distress. It signals that something is not working and brings both partners’ attention to the issue.

What are the sources of appropriate support for the couple during this period? [15:35]

The couple, especially the hurt party, can turn to their social or family for support, someone whom they can trust. In my opinion, the couple should also get professional help to process the problems rather than avoiding them.

Are there people who may not be helpful? [17:50]

It really depends on how the couple or individuals want to be supported. Some may want to get help from their parents. Some may not want to involve the parents. Sometimes the hurt party may turn to their friends for advice, but their friends do not have the emotional maturity to support. While it’s understandable that friends want to protect the party that is hurting, what is equally important is professional help who does not take side.

What is the first question you ask a client in therapy who committed the EMA? [20:15]

In the first few meetings, my focus is usually on the person who is hurting. There is no point asking the perpetrator first. I will help the hurt party to access and express their sadness and anger. Usually they will come one after another, anger and then sadness. When someone is deeply wounded, it’s often healing to bring about protective or assertive anger. When someone presents with a lot of anger, I will help them access their sadness.

(Call-in Listener’s question) What are the short- and long-term effects on a child upon discovering their parent’s infidelity and having to disclose to the other parent? [23:59]

It depends on the age of the child. I am assuming this is a young child without the necessary resources to deal with the affair (i.e. emotional maturity), it is important to assure them of love, affection from the parents and a sense of safety in the short term.

What kind of conversations do the couple need to have to facilitate the process of healing, supposed that both of them want to salvage the marriage? [26:19]

At the onset, there is a conversation NOT TO HAVE. When the affair is discovered, the hurt party would often want details, when did it start, how, where, and other details. While these questions are important and need to be dealt with, it is not recommended that the couple go through these questions on their own. I would often ask him or her to keep these questions until they meet with me.

The therapist needs to balance the needs of the party who is hurting and the perpetrator. They need a lot of support in the initial period to stabilise the marriage.

How do you move towards trust?[29:09]

There are two elements. First, the hurt party expresses the hurt and pain with the support of the therapist. Second, the therapist facilitates the perpetrator to express genuine remorse or guilt when he or she sees the other party’s pain.

Will there be a stage when the couple can say their marriage is healed? [30:55]

The process starts with stabilising so that the relationship does not get worse. Then we continue with the re-building process where the party explores and communicates what needs are not met.

Emotion-Focused Couple Therapy

Emotionally Focused Couple Therapy (EFCT) is an empirically validated model to help couple in distressed relationship. It is based on theory of adult attachment formulated in the early 80’s by Drs. Susan Johnson and Leslie Greenberg. This experiential/systemic therapy focuses on helping partners restructure the emotional responses that maintain their negative interaction patterns.

Join our upcoming workshop, Emotion-Focused Couple Therapy (Module A). This is the first of a three-module workshop for helping professionals to work effectively with couples. This workshop is suitable for psychologist, social workers, counsellors, and psychotherapists.