All products on this page have been selected by our editorial team, however we may make commission on some products.
Is there a common reason why people cheat later in life?
“In my professional experience most affairs happen because someone doesn’t feel happy, fulfilled, loved or focused on in their relationship,” explains Louisa Whitney, accredited family mediator, ppc and child inclusive mediator at LKW Family Mediation. “Of course, some people are serial cheaters, but I tend to find that one person thought the relationship was doing well and the other felt their partner didn’t show them enough love or affection.” In addition, Louisa says an affair is often the result of a breakdown in communication. “Sometimes they’ve had a conversation about how each other feels in the marriage – especially if one person feels ignored or neglected – but the other person didn’t realise quite how much of an issue it was,” she adds.
According to founder of couples therapy programme The Relationship Paradigm, Neil Wilkie, an affair rarely comes out of the blue – at any stage of life. “There are often unmet needs in the relationship by this stage – including intimacy, communication and feeling connected. In fact, affairs are most common with couples that have been together for a while and have drifted apart.”
What, in your view, constitutes ‘an affair’?
“An affair is where emotional or sexual boundaries have been breached,” explains Neil. “But what defines a set of boundaries will be different for every individual and couple. A physical affair is where there has been physical intimacy – from kissing through to full penetrative sex,” says Neil. “An emotional affair is where there has been a sharing of intimate details and thoughts. A good measure of whether you have crossed the line into an emotional affair is thinking about how your partner would feel if they heard your conversations or read your messages. Sometimes, an emotional affair can be worse, because it involves a breach of privacy and the sharing of emotions that may not exist in the original relationship.”
According to Emma Davey, narcissistic abuse expert, relationship counsellor and founder of MyTraumaTherapy.co.uk, an affair is more intense and emotional than simply the act of cheating. “Having an affair involves a lot of deceit and planning; a person who is having an affair is very often living a separate life in order to be in a relationship with that other person, and it’s often the most devastating part when a partner finds out.”
What are some of the effects an affair can have on a long-term relationship?
“The spectrum ranges from prolonged misery for both, to happiness at having found the catalyst to reset your relationship,” says Neil. “The effects depend on what both of you want for the future and the ability to start to let go of the hurt, guilt and blame. It is possible to move forward together, if that is what you both want. But if one of you wants to hold onto the hurt and blame, then the relationship will probably sink.”
For the person who has been cheated on, trust will be a big issue, warns Emma. “They may look for signs the affair is still going on, even if the other has said it has ended – and the relationship may never recover because of this betrayal. That said, some relationships can survive, but it may take a long time for the trust to return. If the affair was brief, and circumstantial, partners may be able to work through this together – if both of them are committed to the future.”
Is there a right or wrong way to react after discovering an affair?
It’s inevitable that the shock and pain will hit you hard, before the all-consuming anger and rage sets in, but Emma says fear is also a common factor to be aware of. “Losing your way of life, and everything you have built together, is devastating. The right way to handle this will vary from relationship to relationship, as will the manner of the cheating (a one-night stand is very different to a long affair) and the people involved. You need time to decide what to do, so it’s not usually a good idea to make a decision in the heat of the moment.” If your partner refuses to give you answers or details, Emma says it could spell the end. “You may be told that you don’t want or need to know all the details, but you probably do. Something important in your relationship has been hidden from you and trust has been lost, so you won’t be able to rebuild it by continuing to hide things.”
“Ask yourself a few key questions,” adds Neil. “What do you want to happen? It’s natural for people to feel hurt, betrayed and angry, and like their whole world has suddenly shifted. It's easy to want to lash out and hurt the other person. But is that going to help? You need to get your feelings out in a way that doesn't impact the future, whatever it may hold. It's very helpful to do something called free writing, where you write something non-stop for 15 minutes. Then you take a break, come back and read through what you've written to see what the themes are. Then, take that paper and burn it. It can be a better way of releasing the hurt and anger than shouting and screaming.”
What are some of the main facts you should try to understand about the affair?
“You will inevitably have lots of questions to ask, mainly about why and what,” says Neil. “It is really important that all your questions are answered but it may be helpful to write them down on separate pieces of paper and put them in a glass bowl. Ask your partner to commit to answering all of those questions in time. That way, no one feels pressured or put on the spot – and it stops it from being too intense for both sides.”
As for how you might feel in the immediate aftermath, Neil says it’s probably going to mimic a death or other loss. “It is very similar to the Kubler-Ross grief model, with the five stages of denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance. The speed at which you go through these stages will depend on your situation and it might also be the case that stages are repeated.”
Equally, if the affair is with a friend or someone you know, the betrayal can feel more personal, especially if you have confided in them about your suspicions your spouse is cheating. It’s also possible you’ll lose your partner and a friend. “It is often worse if the ‘other person’ is a friend because it can feel like a double betrayal,” agrees Neil. “It also means your friendship group might be affected – and they’ll certainly find out faster, so it’s something to prepare for.”
Is blame pointless – does it really always ‘take two’?
According to Emma, blame is a natural, but knee-jerk, reaction and dissecting this complicated emotion requires close examination on both sides. “The person who has had the affair knows what they were doing was wrong and would cause immense pain to their partner if they were found out,” she explains. “So any faults in the relationship should have been addressed without the affair, really. That said, revenge in the heat of the moment can also be devastating. At the time, you may feel you need to purge your anger, but it could alter your life forever.”
Neil has this to add: “Blame is only helpful if it creates positive change. It’s important to accept an affair is often co-created, but the partner having the affair is still the one who crossed the line. If you had a perfect relationship before the affair, then you might think it was all their fault. But maybe their perception of the relationship was different. It’s why both sides need to ask themselves questions and answer them honestly. It may feel good in the short term to punish the other person, but you once loved them and revenge might cast a long shadow over your own future.”
What makes discovering an affair after a long-term marriage or relationship so hard?
When it comes to discovering an affair many years into a relationship, the feelings engendered will be different, even if the level of betrayal is the same, explains Neil. “The longer the relationship, the more emotional capital will have been invested. It’s also much easier to exit a one-year relationship than a 20-year one. It might also be the case that children are involved. My advice? Try to keep the affair between the two of you until you’ve decided what to do. There is a danger that children at any age will take sides and that could make reconciliation much harder.”
“If you have been together a long time and find out your spouse had an affair many years ago and it fizzled out, it may be easier to forgive,” adds Emma. “You have probably gone through so many things together since then, and the affair did not impact on you staying together. Similarly, if the affair happens after a long period together, the relationship has a sounder foundation, so you can be more confident that this is not how the cheater normally behaves.”
Do you have any tips for breaking news of the affair to the rest of the family – including children?
According to Louisa, the effect on children – even as adults – is the one to really think through. “Finding out your partner has had an affair rocks your whole relationship and, often, all the things you thought about them. It destroys trust instantly. But your child’s relationship with that person as a parent hasn’t been affected at all – until they learn about the affair (either because the other parent tells them or through other means). This can then cause issues in their relationship with that parent because they see one parent as having hurt the other – it’s confusing.”
Emma has this advice: “Right from the beginning children of any age should be protected from any arguments and anger, as this will make them feel very insecure. Speak to them (together if possible), reassure them that the problems you and your partner are working through does not impact the love you feel for them and that they will always come first.”
And what about friends?
Emma warns men and women tend to react differently. “Women gather their friends in a crisis to talk through all their fears. This can be a good release and one way to reassure yourself that you’re not alone. However, if you’re not sure what you are going to do, it’s better to confide in one trusted, sensible friend (plus a counsellor) than everyone at once. That way, it will be easier to mend the relationship if that’s what you decide to do. For men this is more difficult, as they often refuse to open up about their feelings, which can make them feel isolated and depressed.”
As for advice on how to handle friends at this time, Neil has this to say: “Restrict who you talk to when you are in the heat of the moment. You need support, but you also need to protect your future position. If you tell the world your partner is a dreadful person who betrayed you, how will it look to others if you reconcile? If you need to have time apart, tell family and friends the minimum; that you are taking a break until you sort yourselves out. If you do decide to fully separate, try to avoid blaming each other. If you decide to work on your relationship and stay together, then say what will give you both the support you need to develop your relationship. Finally, understand that everyone will have different perspectives and ask clearly for the help you need from them.”
Many people say they feel ashamed telling friends or family – any advice?
According to Louisa, many of her clients exhibit a huge amount of shame around affairs – which often leads to a reluctance to tell anyone about it, and therefore not receive the support or listen to the guidance they need. “In mediation meetings you can often feel the pressure put on people by their families and friends, which makes it harder to resolve things when a couple decides to separate. If you feel the financial split you’re discussing is fair, for example, but your friends have told you to take him to the cleaners, you’ll feel conflicted. It creates issues in trying to find a resolution that makes everyone happy.”
Some people suffer a physical reaction to grief or shock – especially later in life. What are some of the red flags to look out for?
“Typically, people go through the stages of denial, anger, depression before engaging with the new reality,” says Neil. “These are times where the body and brain are under a lot of adrenal stress which causes fatigue, brain fog, food cravings and mood swings. If you think you need it, ask for professional help as soon as possible. A good relationship therapist will help you both to talk openly and honestly to each other, get a clear perspective on what has happened, allow you to offload and plan for a better future.”
If you know someone who has been cheated on, Emma adds that there are several signs to look out for which might suggest they’re not coping. “Depression, not eating, not wanting to talk to anyone or constantly being angry, drinking too much, going out too much – all these things are coping mechanisms. For a short while they’re to be expected, but if it carries on too long it can become a serious health problem and will need medical intervention,” she says.
If people decide to move forward together, what would be your advice?
“Seek counselling to work through the process and the hurdles you are facing,” says Emma. “There will be moments where you feel rage and anger, even though you have decided to stay together, so speaking to someone separately who is completely impartial to your relationship will allow you the space to be heard without giving you their opinion.” Meanwhile, Neil cautions against using any kind of sticking plaster to cover the old, broken relationship. “Seeing a good relationship therapist is very important as they will help you both to move past the anger, hurt and pain to focusing on creating a new and better relationship in the future.
What about if they decide to split?
Tensions may be high, and the animosity, pain and betrayal could be all consuming, especially if the affair is continuing, warns Emma. “If you decide to split, this process should be handled delicately. Try to take the emotion out of it and work through the practical steps one by one. A great resource for managing the break-up of a relationship or even a divorce is It’s No Big Deal Really by Anne Cantelo. It comes highly recommended by many family counsellors.”
“Be open and honest with each other,” adds Neil. “Reflect on what was good in your relationship and learn what could have been better. See what you can do to part as friends and good co-parents rather than as enemies. Lots of people hold onto a bad relationship for ‘the sake of the children’ but this just spreads the misery. You can produce a spreadsheet of the pros and cons, but logic does not work with emotions. Trust your heart and your gut, what are they telling you? Remember, the betrayal can heal, and it can take you to a better place to reflect on your relationship and create a better one.”
Neil Wilkie is a relationship expert, psychotherapist, author of the Relationship Paradigm Series of Books and creator of online couples therapy programme, The Relationship Paradigm®.