I came across an interesting statistic recently; 25% of relationships that start as affairs succeed. Actually, I was surprised, if I had to guess, I would have thought the figure to be much lower. (For an update on this statistic go to “Can Relationships That Start as Affairs Succeed? Revisited”) But a statistic is just that, and doesn’t tell you anything about your own individual situation.
Feeling torn between two lovers can be an agonizing experience. Besides the guilt, and fear of discovery, you also know that sooner or later you will have to lose someone you love or have loved. Thinking about this, you may wonder what the chances are that a relationship that starts as an affair will succeed.
Pitfalls of Affair Relationships
Relationships that start as affairs have many strikes against them.
Many affairs are like rebound relationships. They can arise out of an urgent emotional need, a need so urgent that a thoughtful process of getting to know someone and assessing what kind of partnership the two of you would have is not part of the bonding process. Rebound and affair relationships frequently have rescue fantasies attached to them, these fantasies can be overpowering and cloud your vision.
Sometimes relationships that start as affairs serve as an escape from difficult interpersonal dynamics in the primary relationship. Succumbing to the fantasy that the new relationship will be free of conflict or other emotional difficulties can be a setup for another failed relationship. We tend to repeat patterns over and over until we come to understand ourselves. Learning to see relationship problems as a dynamic between two people, rather than the fault of only one partner is important for the success of any couple.
Trust is the foundation of successful relationships. Another reason why many affair relationships fail is that it is difficult to deeply trust someone who has started the relationship by being unfaithful and deceitful with someone else. You can’t help but understand that their solution to a difficult interpersonal situation was betrayal. In the initial blissful stage, it might be unimaginable that they could do the same thing to you, or that you could do the same thing to them, but once you hit the stresses of real everyday life, things can feel different and much less secure. Imagine you or your partner has to go on a lot of out of town business trips some years into the relationship during a time when you are struggling with conflict. What do you imagine you and your partner feeling?
There is also the issue of not having the support of family and friends. Having long-term successful relationships are difficult enough without trying to do them in a vacuum. Acceptance is usually won over eventually, but it can take a long time. Your new partner may truly be a wonderful person but many friends and family that are close to you are going to be so prejudiced that it will be hard to give the new person a chance. You face going from the bliss of secrecy into a tailspin of conflict with many people at once. Of course, you face this once the affair is disclosed, no matter who you end up with, but it is less awful if you are attempting to repair the damage with your primary partner. This is not to say that you should make your decisions based on what others would think or feel. But it is important to honestly assess your affair and think about whether this relationship could stand this kind of stress. Can the two of you exist in a relatively socially isolated situation for some time?
Losing a long-term partner, even if things feel bad, is still a loss and needs to be grieved. New lovers vary on how willing and able they are to cope with your grief over losing your partner. You may stuff these feelings in order to maintain the new relationship, only to discover down the line that you have many unresolved feelings about your partner that are interfering in your new relationship.
The question of whether the new relationship will succeed relates to what function it is playing in your relationship with your partner. If you have the kind of primary relationship where you initially experienced a significant amount of time where you were mutually in love and satisfied with the relationship and then grew apart because of life stresses or conflict and you entered the affair to experience being in love again, this does not bode well for the long term success of the affair relationship. That is because almost all relationships follow a predictable course of developmental stages, all at some point going through a period of disillusionment which, if you can get through, lets you out into the side of a mature, dependable and sustaining love based on reality rather than romantic idealization. If you deal with the disillusionment by betraying the commitment you have made, then you may not have the tools to navigate this stage which is waiting for you down the road in your new relationship.
Affair Relationships That Have a Better Chance of Success
If, however, your primary relationship/marriage was somehow “wrong” from the beginning; if one or both of you weren’t in love, if it was a marriage of convenience, or if it has been mostly miserable or abusive, if it was simply to escape loneliness or have children, that is a different story, and could truly be about having not been equipped at that time in your life to make an appropriate choice for a life partner. Admitting the reality of these situation is painful because you can still feel very attached (as distinct from connected) to this person and the idea of leaving can fill you with dread of the loss of security this relationship has provided.
In my experience, these relationships are very hard to repair. Meeting someone when you are more mature, know yourself better and have learned how to have relatively healthy relationships (maybe you have been in therapy by now) certainly can bode well for a promising future together. Meeting someone who you are genuinely attracted to and at the same time respect, who you know genuinely cares for you, with whom you share values and at least a few interests, and with whom you can work through conflicts can be a catalyst for not only a great and lasting new relationship with a new person, but with yourself as well.
For example, if, prior to entering your primary relationship, you had the unconscious belief that you were unlovable, or didn’t deserve to be loved, you may have ended up with someone who couldn’t really give you love. If you have changed, but your partner has not, and you now believe you deserve to be loved, (and are truly willing to give love in return) you will be attracted to the kind of person who would be capable of this kind of reciprocity. The whole foundation for your relationship would be quite different than what you have experienced before.
With all of this said, I believe that in most cases the most promising path is to separate the question of whether you want to end things with your current partner from whether you want to have a relationship with this new person. If the aloneness that this entails feels too intolerable to you, talking to a professional might be very helpful. Admittedly, it is truly the road less traveled but most often has the richest rewards.