Ask the experts: Should I have an affair?

I’ve recently reconnected with a childhood friend, and the flirting is intense. We’re both married, but plan to catch up over the summer break (Covid willing) and I just know we’ll have sex. I’m not seeking permission, this is something I want, but I also don’t want to hurt my partner. Do you have any tips for navigating an affair? – Sam

Dear Sam,

We’re sorry, but you are probably going to find our answer frustrating. We have worked through the impact of hundreds of affairs, and, from our experience, we don’t think what you are asking for is realistic. Infatuation, lust, and excitement invite us to kid ourselves about the consequences of our choices.

So, our first tip for “navigating an affair” would be not to imagine it’s something you can do without risking hurting your partner badly. If you are betraying your partner’s trust, they will always be badly hurt by that. You may believe “what they don’t know can’t hurt them”. However, there is no guarantee that you can keep your affair secret when all our communication records are relatively readily available, and Aotearoa is such a small place.

Even if you do, the secrets you hold tend to have a corrosive effect on YOUR trust in your marriage. You will be acutely aware that your partner doesn’t know the whole truth. Every time they say something positive about your character or fidelity, you will wince internally, likely feeling fraudulent and unworthy.

If you are hiding what you are doing from your partner because you know they will be hurt, angry or upset by what you are doing, that’s infidelity. You are knowingly breaking the contract you have with your partner.

You have already entered the early stages of infidelity by flirting intensely, having private conversations, and making secret plans to meet with your old friend. Our unspoken fidelity agreements in relationships are not just about sex with others but include all forms of intimacy – verbal and emotional being just as important as sexual. What is more, you are hiding yourself from your spouse.

Instead of helping you navigate having an affair, we want to offer you some ideas about how to navigate your desire for an affair in a productive and less hurtful way to yourself (in terms of your integrity) and others. We have two suggestions about how you could respond to your desire for an affair.

Firstly, you could consider that your desire for an affair may signal that something is not going okay either within yourself or in your marriage. Why is the possibility of sex with this person so important to you that you are willing to put your existing relationship at risk? Are you feeling old, unattractive, not good enough, yearning for more adventure and excitement? Or are you feeling lonely, misunderstood, criticised or unappreciated in your marriage and have done nothing about it, or tried and failed.?

Avoiding your own issues or difficulties in your marriage by reaching for the short-term panacea of an affair won’t fix those problems. If you are ready to look deeply into questions like that, new development possibilities for yourself and your relationship with your spouse may emerge. It will require courage and perhaps professional help to unpack the deeper message in your desire for an affair, but this is the productive path that will cause all concerned less hurt.

Secondly, if you have carefully unpacked your desire for an affair and if there are no problems underlying it, then it may be that you are left knowing that you simply don’t want to choose monogamy any more.

There is a way to be in a relationship with others that replaces deceit and betrayal with intimacy. It is called consensual non-monogamy (CNM). It is possible to have intimate relationships with more than one person that are rooted in honesty and integrity and don’t violate others’ boundaries or take away their right to consent to things that impact them personally. It involves being open and honest about what you want with your spouse.

If you are genuinely concerned for your partner’s wellbeing or the future of the relationship, we encourage you to have an upfront conversation. We can assure you that any upset caused by having that conversation will be a lot less than caused by the later discovery of an affair.

Starting this conversation with your partner may feel terrifying or impossible. That doesn’t mean it’s a bad idea. It is a complicated thing to explore, and CNM has many traps and pitfalls for new players. There is a lot written about it, including how to bring it up with your spouse – so educate yourself. If you get stuck, seek professional help from an expert on CNM.

Your spouse will likely not be happy to hear that you have a sexual interest in someone else. They will be even less happy to hear about what has gone on but, if they are wise, will at least appreciate you being honest before you have acted out further on your sexual attraction. Learning how to talk about things as challenging as this isn’t easy, but it creates a profound intimacy in the relationship if you can develop the skills.

Of course, there is a risk that you will reach an impasse with your spouse about consensual non-monogamy. Then you are faced with the dilemma of whether pursuing what you want is worth the cost. That’s how a life of integrity works.

We can’t, in good conscience, advise you on how to get away with an affair successfully. However, if you are determined to go ahead without your partner’s knowledge, please minimise the risks that your actions will be exposing others to without their consent. On top of the risk of emotional harm, consider the health risks.

We are thinking of the sexual health risks to your partners, the risk of accidental pregnancy (if you are a heterosexual couple) and the Covid infection risk, which extends to all of your bubbles. Use condoms/oral dams and get STI & Covid tests. We speak from experience when we say you do NOT want your partner to discover your infidelity through developing an STI.

We sincerely hope you re-think your choice. Our core advice is that you will have more fun in the long run if you use this attraction as a chance to learn about yourself and what your current relationship is capable of if you are brave, open, and honest.

Verity & Nic are psychologists and family therapists who have specialised in relationship and sex therapy for more than 25 years. They have been working on their own relationship for more than 40 years and have two adult children.

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