I came across an interesting statistic recently; 25% of relationships that start as affairs succeed. “Succeed” is defined as the couple staying together, rather than by the quality of the relationship. I was surprised by the statistic. 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 any particular situation.
Feeling torn between two lovers can be an agonizing experience. Besides the guilt, and fear of discovery, there is usually some degree of awareness that sooner or later one of those relationships will end. Trying to decide which one would be the most painful to lose may lead some to wonder what the chances are that a relationship that starts off 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 might result is not part of the bonding process. Rebound and affair relationships frequently have escape and/or rescue fantasies attached to them; these fantasies can be overpowering and cloud one’s vision.
Affairs can serve as an escape from difficult interpersonal dynamics in one’s 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 relational patterns over and over until we become conscious of doing so and find a way to embark upon a process of change.
Trust is the foundation of successful relationships. Another reason why many affair relationships fail is that it can be difficult to deeply trust someone who has started the relationship by being unfaithful and deceitful with someone else. This act of betrayal can haunt the best of affair relationships and increase in intensity once the honeymoon phase is over. During this phase it might be unimaginable to think that either party could again engage in infidelity.
For example, in an affair relationship where conflict has started to arise, a solo business trip may bring up anxiety and/or conflict about what may happen during the separation.
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 frequently won over eventually, but it can take a while. The new partner may truly be a wonderful person but friends and family can be closed-minded and prejudiced against this relationship and the idea of giving the new partner a chance. The bliss that had secrecy as it’s protection can suddenly turn into a tailspin of conflict with many people at once. Of course one should not make decisions based on what others would think or feel. But it is important to honestly assess the affair relationship and think about whether it could stand this kind of stress. Can the relationship continue to grow in the context of relative social isolation, at least for some time?
Losing a spouse, even if the relationship had soured, is still a loss and needs to be grieved. New lovers vary on how willing and able they are to cope with the affair partner’s grief over losing the spouse. Such feelings may get stuffed down in the service of nurturing the new relationship. However, down the line, unresolved grief will resurface in some form, either directly or indirectly. If there is a sense that the new partner would not welcome hearing about this then there can be attempts to deny this part of the process. Denial can lead to withdrawal, depression, irritability, or turning to drugs or alcohol or other addictive activities to numb the pain.
The question of whether the affair relationship will succeed relates to the question of what function it is playing in the relationship with the current spouse. If, at the outset of the marriage there was a significant amount of time during which the spouses were mutually in love and satisfied with each other, but then grew apart because of life stressors or conflict and an affair was sought to have the experience of 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. Working through this stage together allows for the potential of the development of a mature, dependable and sustaining love based much more on reality and much less on romantic idealization. If the disillusionment is instead dealt with by betraying the commitment that was made, then that individual still lacks the tools to navigate this stage which is waiting down the road in the new relationship.
Affair Relationships That Have a Better Chance of Success
If, however, the marriage was somehow “wrong” from the beginning; if one or both weren’t in love, if it was a marriage of convenience, if it has been mostly miserable or abusive, or if it was simply to escape loneliness or have children, that is a different story. Admitting the reality of these situation can be painful because one can still feel very attached (as distinct from connected) to the spouse. The idea of leaving can fill one with the dread of the loss of a sense of security that is related to familiarity and a shared history and lifestyle.
In my experience, these relationships that were “wrong” from the start are very hard to repair.
Meeting someone when one has matured and has learned how to have relatively healthy relationships (maybe having been in therapy by now) certainly can bode well for a promising future together. Finding someone who is both attractive and garners one’s respect and who is genuinely caring can be a catalyst for a healthy and lasting new relationship.
For example, if prior to marriage, an individual unconsciously believed that they were unlovable, or didn’t deserve love, that individual may have ended up marrying someone who would confirm these beliefs; someone who couldn’t really give love.
But, if there has been a change, and those unconscious beliefs have been worked through enough to where the individual now believes they deserve to be loved and are lovable (and are able to love in return), then there will be a natural attraction to someone who is capable of this type of reciprocity. The whole foundation for the new relationship would be quite different than what had been 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 the road less traveled but most often has the richest rewards.