Non-judgmental advice for people having an affair, part I
Updated: May 14
Every now and then I’ll be at a party or a networking event or something like that, and someone will ask me – as people do – what I do for a living. If the room is loud, or if I’m unsure of my interlocutor’s level of interest, I might keep it simple and say, “I’m a life coach.”
Often, people assume this means I do executive coaching, or help people become more successful, or something along those lines.
Not exactly. I specialize in helping clients with situations that have to do with love and relationships and sexuality, especially situations that have a tinge – or more than a tinge – of social stigma associated with them. The single most common reason clients seek me out is that they’re having an affair and want help figuring out what to do.
And when I explain this to someone I’ve just met, they’re often a little surprised. And not always in a good way.
Sometimes the questions will start before I’ve finished what I’m saying. “But,” the person I’m talking with may protest, “isn’t it your job to tell people they SHOULDN’T have affairs? Shouldn’t you prevent affairs from happening in the first place?”
I’ll say this plainly: these moments are difficult for me. I love my work. I love helping people sort through complicated situations in their love lives – including but not limited to situations involving infidelity. But it isn’t always easy for me to explain to skeptical strangers why it’s so important to me to provide assistance to people who are doing things that some people – perhaps a lot of people – take a dim view of.
That I find these conversations difficult may be a reflection of my shortcomings as a marketer and self-promoter, but it also speaks to the presence and degree of negative public opinion about people who cheat on their partners. Yes, our shared attitudes about all things related to love and sexuality and relationships have evolved over time. Many cultural norms have changed, perhaps especially in recent years. In some ways, we’re collectively much more tolerant than we used to be. But the idea that infidelity is categorically bad is still pretty prevalent.
So when someone I’ve just met asks me if I shouldn’t be spending my time preventing people from having affairs, I take a deep breath and say, “Well, that’s probably an end result of some of the relationship coaching I do. But if someone is already having an affair, my job is to help them navigate their situation in a way that makes sense for them, rather than tell them what they should or shouldn’t be doing.”
By now, the person I’m talking with is either fascinated, or completely outraged.
If they’re outraged, they often ask follow-up questions like these:
“But by letting people talk to you about their affairs, aren’t you giving them permission to cheat?”
“Don’t you think that having an affair is the worst thing a person can do to someone they care about?”
“Isn’t having an affair really just a sign that someone is unhappy with their job, or having a midlife crisis?”
“Don’t you feel like it’s unethical for you to participate in someone else’s deception?”
“Do you think that having an affair is a sign of moral weakness that can’t be fixed?”
“Don’t you think that people shouldn’t get married unless they’re sure they aren’t going to cheat?”
And so on and so on. Sometimes the person I’m talking with is genuinely interested in my answers to their questions (and if you’re interested, the shortest possible answer to the questions above is “no,” but the longer answers are far more nuanced), but sometimes they’re really just telling me, indirectly and reasonably politely, that they’re freaked out by what I do for a living.
I get it. People find the topic of infidelity very unsettling. The idea of being cheated on by someone you love and are committed to is not a terribly appealing prospect, for most of us. (I also coach people whose partners have been unfaithful to them, so I understand and empathize with all of the challenges and heartache associated with being in that situation, too.) But a byproduct of this sort of anxiety is a tendency to sympathize with people who have been cheated on, and an inclination to vilify the cheaters - with little regard for the complex, nuanced social and individual forces that contribute to infidelity in the first place.
What this means for me as a relationship coach is that I often have awkward conversations with strangers about my work.
What this means for you if you’re having an affair is that it may be very hard to find someone to talk who isn’t at least a little bit freaked out by your situation.
Even the people and resources you should be able to rely on in a situation like this – like therapists or relationship advice books – may not be very helpful at all. Our ideas that committed partnerships are good, monogamy is ideal, dishonesty is bad, and marital vows are sacred are pretty deeply baked into our collective understanding of How Relationships Are Supposed To Be. Thus, a lot of the “help” that’s out there for people who are having affairs is laden with thinly veiled judgements, and is predicated on the notion that while you might deserve some empathy and understanding, at the end of the day, affairs are bad and the people who have them are doing something wrong.
In contrast, here’s my (perhaps radical) perspective:
Affairs are not inherently bad (or good, for that matter). This might sound sacrilegious, but here’s the deal: life gets pretty complicated sometimes. Human motivations are complex. Our hearts sometimes lead us to do things that don’t conform neatly with societal expectations. We don’t always do what we’re supposed to do, or what we said we would do, or what other people think we should do. And things may get messy at times, and we may be bothered by life’s messiness. So often, though, we try to label the messy parts of human life Bad, and the parts that we like and feel comfortable with Good as a way of attempting to impose order onto the chaos.
And imposing the duality of black and white, good and bad, right and wrong onto the greyscale of human behavior may seem like clarity or feel like comfort. But it actually makes it a lot harder for us to deal with situations that we find difficult.
More to the point, if you’re currently having an affair, being told you shouldn’t be doing what you’re doing is not exactly helpful advice.
It’s far more helpful to look at your situation in neutral terms – as a puzzle to be solved, rather than a weighty moral problem to be fixed. This is true for many reasons, some of which are purely pragmatic. You can’t shame or “should” yourself into making sustainable, positive changes in your life. Self-acceptance and self-love are far better motivators of positive change. It may sound paradoxical, but it’s easier to take responsibility for our actions when we have compassion for ourselves.
So in this advice series, I’m going to offer guidance and suggestions and exercises designed to help you help you do just that: accept your current situation for what it is, then figure out what you want to do about it.
You’re entitled to assistance that isn’t just judgment in disguise. You’re entitled to advice that isn’t predicated on the idea that you are Bad, and doing something Wrong. Even if you’re involved in something that’s a little messy, you’re entitled to respectful advice that recognizes the complexity of your situation and the fullness of your humanity.
Two important side notes, before I launch into my advice and give you your first set of questions to ponder:
First, people define “cheating” and “infidelity” and “affairs” differently. For my purposes, these terms generally mean something along these lines:
You’re in a committed relationship, and you’re doing something with someone other than your Special Someone/Spouse/Partner that is outside of the bounds of your committed relationship.
You’re in a relationship with someone who is ostensibly in a committed relationship with someone else – and this person’s relationship with you is outside the bounds of their relationship with the person they’re committed to.
Second, most of the advice I’ll offer here and in subsequent articles is predicated on the assumption that if you’re having an affair, you probably want to find a way to make changes in your life so that you are no longer effectively having an affair. What this means in practice will vary, depending on your situation.
For example: maybe you are not married or partnered, but you are involved with someone who is. They keep saying they’re going to leave their partner and run away with you. If they do this, you’d be delighted… but if they don’t, you could also end the affair by breaking up with them. Or, perhaps you are married, and you’re involved with someone else. You could end your affair by ending your relationship with your spouse, or by ending the relationship with the Other Person. Or you could decide to have an open relationship with your spouse, and turn your secret, illicit affair into a relationship that everybody’s aware of and okay with.
These are just a few examples of how an affair might, in effect, end. But there are of course many other possibilities for how things can play out.
The reason my guidance is based upon the assumption that you would ultimately prefer to rearrange your life so that you are no longer having an affair is because many people don’t want to stay in their affair indefinitely.
Let’s face it: although they can be exciting, exhilarating, and life-affirming, affairs can be incredibly stressful, and entail myriad inconveniences.
If you’re involved in any kind of deception, you may find it hard to keep your stories straight and your tracks covered – and that’s just the practical stuff. You may also find deception – or outright lying – morally and ethically objectionable, and extremely anxiety-inducing. If you’re married and having a relationship with another person, you might be concerned about the possibility of a divorce that could be acrimonious, expensive, or both. You may be afraid of what other people will think about you, and what they’ll say about you. Perhaps most difficult of all, you simply may not know what you want – and may not know how to figure it out, either. For some people, that kind of uncertainty feels like an existential crisis of epic proportions.
But even if your ultimate goal is to end your affair one way or another, the path to getting to that point may not yet be clear to you. This advice series will offer perspectives, questions, and writing exercises to help you make your way from where you are to where you want to go.
The first step in figuring out what you want and how you’re going to get there is finding the willingness to accept your situation as it currently is, and accept yourself as you currently are.
When we find ourselves in uncomfortable situations, especially situations in which we’re afraid we’re doing something wrong, it can be so easy to a) resist acknowledging what’s going on, or resist taking a comprehensive, honest assessment of our circumstances, and b) rush to take action to “fix” the “problem,” even if – or especially if – we haven’t given ourselves time to figure out how we think and feel, and what we want.
Having an affair can be a watershed moment in life. It can be an opportunity to clarify what’s important to you, claim desires you’d never dreamed could be fulfilled, or discover new ways of living and relating to others. It may be a time when you reestablish your priorities and values, and reconfigure your sense of what you want out of your romantic relationships, and your family life. An affair may provide the impetus for learning how to be more honest with yourself and with others. These are important opportunities to honor and make good use of!
If we’re willing to slow down and examine our lives with clear heads and open hearts, we gain the opportunity to transform difficult situations into catalysts for our transformation and growth.
In order to do that effectively, you have to be willing to start right where you are.
And that brings us to your first assignment.
Assignment number one:
The purpose of this assignment is to help you get a handle on your current thinking about your situation. Our mental state – our thoughts – create our emotional state, and our emotional state determines the kinds of actions we take, or decline to take, which then produce consequences, or results in our lives. When we rush to take action without awareness of our thoughts and feelings, we’re unlikely to create results that serve our highest good. This exercise will help you develop that awareness.
Note: I strongly recommend writing down your answers to the questions I ask below, even if you delete or shred or burn what you’ve written later. There is great value in getting thoughts out of your head, and onto the page or computer screen.
Let’s take a clear-eyed look at your situation. What are the objective facts of your circumstances? Imagine you are an impartial observer who has no opinion on what you are doing, summarizing the key details of your affair to another party. Articulate the nature of your situation in neutral, non-judgmental terms.
Here’s why I want you to do this: Humans are meaning-making creatures, and we tend to create narratives about ourselves and our experiences of life. Sometimes this is helpful, but sometimes it isn’t. Sometimes – often, actually – our stories about our circumstances have little basis in fact.
So state the facts of your circumstances without judgment or evaluation.
For example, “I’ve been emotionally and sexually involved with someone who is married for the last few months,” is a fact. “I’m doing something terrible and I feel really bad and I’m sure this is going to end badly for everyone involved,” is a judgment, not a fact. (Yes, there’s also a statement of your feelings in there, but leave that out too, for now.)
Getting clear about what is going on in the external world vs. what’s going on in your mind may be a relief in and of itself.
Many of our problems are self-created, and exist only in the realm of our thoughts. That’s not to say your concerns aren’t important – you’ll list those next – but it’s essential to separate the facts of your situation from your thoughts, fears, beliefs, etc., about your situation.
So, what are you worried about? Or, put differently, what seems bad about your situation? What are you stressed out about? What do you dislike about being involved in an affair? What are the negative aspects of your situation? What are you afraid might happen – in the short-term and in the long-term? And so on and so forth.
Make the list of your concerns as comprehensive as possible. It may not be particularly comfortable or pleasant to get all of this stuff out on paper or onto the computer screen (if you are indeed writing down your answers to these questions as I suggested), but getting these thoughts out of your head and onto some external medium is the first step in defusing your worries.
For now, I want you to detail your concerns as exhaustively as possible without trying to do anything about any of it. Your job for the time being is simply to get clear on what you are thinking. Unless your circumstances absolutely compel you to do otherwise, hold off from taking any immediate action on anything related to your affair.
Here’s why this is important: left to their own devices, our minds are very good at identifying problems, speculating about worst-case scenarios, and identifying “danger” in our environment. And we usually believe that whenever our brain tells us that something is wrong, it must be true. Upon further examination, though, that isn’t always the case – the threats or problems our brain perceives are often greatly exaggerated, if they’re even valid concerns in the first place. But when we act on our fears without pausing to question their validity, our actions may generate the very results we do not – in other words, our fears may become self-fulfilling prophecies.
So whenever our minds churn with worry, it’s essential to slow down and examine what we’re thinking – before we take actions based on the assumption that our worst fears are accurate reflections of reality. Write down your concerns, and then let them be.
What’s good about your current situation? What do you love about it? Hopefully, there are some good things – possibly very good things – about your affair. (Otherwise, why would you bother having one in the first place!?)
I talk to a lot of people who try to minimize the wonderful aspects of their affair, because they believe the very fact of its existence renders the whole thing Bad and Wrong; that the immorality of it all should cancel out the joy.
But recognizing what you appreciate and enjoy about your affair is essential to figuring out what to do with your situation. Joy and connection and love and happiness are your birthrights. Yes, your current circumstances may be complicated. Yes, you may have some things to sort out. Yes, that might mean you have some uncomfortable moments ahead as you get your life’s business in order. Even if all of those things are true, that need not render the positive aspects of your situation null and void.
Furthermore, the point of answering these questions is to help you get a comprehensive picture of what’s going on. And the things you enjoy about your affair are an important part of that. Denying ourselves the experience of pleasure, or denying that we’re experiencing pleasure when we are doesn’t make us better people. It just distorts our understanding of our own experiences, and makes it hard to see the whole picture.
Can you be at peace with your current situation, just as it is?
Can you allow seemingly contradictory things can be true at once? You may feel incredibly guilty about participating in your affair, but you may also feel incredibly connected to your paramour, and filled with joy and love and excitement and erotic delight and all sorts of other amazing feelings. Can you allow yourself to experience all of it, whatever it is for you, without resistance?
Can you be honest with yourself about all aspects of your situation without blaming or shaming yourself, or telling yourself things should be different?
Just for today, can you refrain from worrying about what’s going to happen, or taking action in an attempt to fix things?
Above all else, try to extend as much love and acceptance to yourself as possible, because you deserve those things unconditionally. AND because doing so makes life so much better and easier. Try it and see.
In the next installment of this series, I’ll talk about honoring your commitments – to yourself and others.
And in the meantime, if you're having an affair and want help navigating your situation, let's talk! Schedule a free 30 minute consultation with me today.