When therapists are approached by a couple or an individual wanting to address an affair, generally the words associated are betrayal, infidelity, lies, secrecy, retaliation, shame. There is a strong sense of wrong-doing.
Indeed affairs can severely strain any relationship and break the bond of trust and often trigger a host of emotions for both parties. Secrecy creates exclusion from the partner and discovery creates betrayal. An affair is a relational issue and there may be many reasons why an affair develops in the relationship. Often they are the symptom of longer-term underlying problems. It challenges the deficit of intimacy and passion in the relationship and individual needs not being met within the couple. Sometimes, it's a way to communicate to the other that there is unhappiness and is in fact a way to save the marriage. It is also to test the strength of the relationship and examine the partner's reaction to the affair. Of course if the result is such that it indicates that this relationship has ended it's time to move on....
An affair is not just a heterosexual issue it is also within same sex couples. Although many couples choose to end their relationship following the discovery of an affair, a great many couples will want to work things through which has deeply shaken the foundations of a relationship.
Successful therapy interventions and the committed input of the couple can paradoxically make it stronger. Whilst the attempts to rebuild trust and communication, and deal with the ruptured relationship, can be painful and hard work, the result can be very rewarding. It does not matter if they choose to stay in the relationship or move on. It helps a couple establish the old relationship in a new light whatever the outcome.
Having an affair has many impacts. Some people who have been betrayed may desire revenge for the hurt inflicted on them. They may feel deep injustice and loss of power, and will feel a need to restore this and correct the wrongdoing. Whilst getting revenge may offer a temporary release from the pain and hurt, it will not resolve anything.
With time, understanding the issues mean taking joint responsibility for their own relationship, which we often refer to as forgiveness, can truly enable this. Relationship (couples therapy) is very focused on helping individuals see this as an option. Often the first response following the discovery or a disclosure of a betrayal is to demand full transparency (full access to all communications, such as email accounts, social networking sites, phone messages and voicemails) from the person who committed it. This is to re-build trust and it's an understandable reaction, but such a controlling dynamic can create further problems and hurt particularly, if control is an issue within the relationship. It does not address the underlying issues and can be exhausting and stressful for all those involved.
After the Affair: How to Build Trust and Love Again, by Julia Cole is a book I would recommend reading whilst considering counselling or therapy. There are other books such as Surviving an Affair by Willard F. Harley and The Monogamy Myth by Peggy Vaughan.
My personal interest is in the cultural aspects and cross culture relationships and open relationships, where an affair takes place. The question of ‘culture’ within any relationship is inevitable. It's more than an issue of race and ethnicity culture includes social class spiritual practices and other differences that create conflict in relationships. Similarly, open relationships also has a place but within that openness there are rules and if they are broken couples can suffer similarly.
I recommend a book - Mixed Blessings: A Guide to Multicultural and Multiethnic Relationships by Rhoda Berlin and Harriet Cannon if you are really interested in researching the ins and outs of cultural diversity within couples.