How to Recover from an Affair: Part 9

It’s bigger than you.

In the last post, I started exploring the idea that marital infidelity is bigger than you and bigger than your relationship. Brian and Wilma discovered this on their own when one of their arguments was unintentionally overheard by their teen and college aged children. Through infidelity counseling they were able to open their eyes to an interrelatedness in the entire family that had more impact on their day-to-day decisions and well-being than they’d ever considered. They started seeing infidelity as a symptom and not the problem.

The storm.

Brian and Wilma had been through an intense several months with each other, with the initial discovery of the affair, then the subsequent discoveries that Brian had lied about important details. As many couples who are coping with infidelity, they clung to each other, like a wounded person clings to life. It could be intensely passionate one moment and full of rage and fear the next. The ups and downs left them both feeling raw and tired. There seemed to be no end to the triggers and the unwanted thoughts. They weren’t sure how they were going to survive infidelity.

But after their children overheard an argument one night, and realized what Dad had done, something shifted…for the better.

The calm.

Things started to settle down. They stopped arguing as much or as intensely. Their young adult children would make comments to them communicating a belief that they could work this out with each other. They also made angry comments that they wished they didn’t know about the affair. They’d sometimes yell at their parents telling them to quit fighting, and they’d also work together to be away from home so as to give their parents time alone. What used to trigger Wilma didn’t get her going as much. What used to set Brian off didn’t hold the same power.

How can we understand this shift? How did the children finding out, in this family, help to calm things down so significantly? Wouldn’t one think that the kids finding out would make things worse? For the marriage? For the kids?

A Systems Perspective

In Bowen Family Systems Theory, we think of every relationship in a family as being interrelated and interconnected—one relationship impacting every other relationship reflexively and reciprocally. When Brian and Wilma’s kids found out about the affair, the relational playing field changed. The kids stopped idealizing their parents and started some of their own personal work on self. They grew up a little and grew slightly more independent.

The kids’ belief in their parents’ ability to work it out was impactful on the parents. In turn, the parents’ greater calm and confidence was impactful on the kids. The kids’ new thinking about their parents made them more helpful toward each other. I’m oversimplifying. There is a lot of complexity here. But I think you get the picture.

In systems thinking, we see the family–both nuclear and extended–as an individual’s greatest resource. We see this as the case regardless of whether the family is “toxic” or “dysfunctional.” Almost every family has powerful resources for getting through even the most significant of challenges.


And I’m also not not recommending it. In this case, it was accidental. And, in this case, it helped this couple and this family for the better. For Brian and Wilma, it was a major clue at just how powerful family could be.

Learning to use family as a resource does not have to mean telling them about the affair or affairs. There are many powerful ways to include family in your life—or to include yourself in theirs.

Most people have a hard time seeing how important our original families are to our current functioning. But the clues are all around when we look. If you are up for the challenge, it will be the most powerful step you take in your growth and healing process.


Here’s a quick review of the beliefs that real couples have adopted that seem to make a difference in their healing:

Belief #1: People do the best they can at any given moment. The-best-they-can does not always mean great, and sometimes it means terrible.

Belief #2: How a couple reacts to the affair is usually worse for them than the actual affair.

Belief #3: An affair is much bigger than just the two of you. It is a multigenerational balancing act gone off kilter.

Belief #4 Your family, including your family of origin, is your greatest resource in your healing and in your growth.

Next post: Defining the Problem

(Hint: It’s not the affair)

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