Couples counselling, what constitutes having an affair?

What constitutes having an affair? Is the line crossed once you’ve had intercourse with another, or did you begin having an affair begun long before this? This question comes up often in my Bishops Stortford couples counselling practice. For many, as long as there has been no exchange of bodily fluids with another they feel are still very much in the clear. For others, the affair began the moment the other person became a “secret friend”. More often than not, the definition of “when” an affair began depends upon which member of a couple is doing the talking. For the person who has had the affair, definitions tend to lean more towards an exchange of bodily fluids whereas those who feel betrayed tend to see things as having started much earlier on. I am not in any position to make a moral pronouncement that will work for one and all, but I do hope to shed some light on the subject and provide a bit of clarity.

I would definitely say that I think the definition of “an affair” has shifted over the last 50 years. Once upon a time, marriage was as much an economic and social mechanism as anything else. Sure, each coupling was different, but the idea of choosing a partner and marrying used to be a practical exercise and marrying for reasons of love only is relatively new. As the world has gotten smaller, and as our choice of potential sexual and marital partners has grown exponentially, we have seen a greater and greater shift towards the idea of personally and specifically choosing a spouse to spend the rest of our lives with. With this emphasis towards personal choice comes the idea that “I’ve looked at the field of available partners, and out of them all, I choose you. You are the one who will be my one, my all, my everything, for as long as we both shall live”.

Where people feel that this is the promise they’ve made to each other, you can see how the boundaries that demark where betrayal is experienced have moved in the way they have. No longer is fidelity just about flesh upon flesh. If I have promised to make you my everything, if I have promised to use you as my friend, my confidant and my support, then it is easy to see why you might be upset if you find out that Sally from accounts knows things about me that you don’t. Now, I don’t mean to suggest that we are not allowed to tell people other than our spouse personal information about ourselves, only that we shouldn’t be surprised if our spouse gets upset when they find out that a member of the opposite sex he/she didn’t know about has become the recipient of our innermost voice. If we’ve been meeting with this other person in secret, if we’ve been communicating with this other person by text or WhatsApp while on holiday with our family, if we’ve gone out of our way to be open to another and keep it from our spouse, then we are, in the sense of the modern definition of infidelity, going to be seen as having an affair.

Importantly however, from my perspective just because one partner in a marriage has broken this boundary in some way and “had an affair” (even if it did go as far as flesh upon flesh), doesn’t have to mean the end of the marriage. Modern life, and modern relationships are difficult. There are a great many reasons why one party in a relationship may lose track of themselves and cross this line. It doesn’t necessarily mean that they are in love with that other person, or that they are no longer in love with their spouse/partner. Couples counselling with an experienced couples therapist can often help to bring people back together and once again, get things on track. If you live in the general Bishops Stortford area and would like more information on how couples counselling might help you in your situation, please do not hesitate to contact me on 01279 834467 for a fully confidential, no obligation discussion of your needs prior to arranging an appointment.