Heavy Heartaches


There are as many reasons why people have affairs as there are people. But usually an affair is an external sign of an internal desire for change. Something in the person’s life or the relationship isn’t OK – and the affair creates the trigger for change.

Affairs aren’t only about sex. In fact, relationship experts maintain that any intimate activity between two people that breaches the trust of a partner constitutes an affair.

Here are some common causes of affairs

  • Relationship problems – if you’re unhappy in your relationship you’ll be more tempted to look elsewhere.
  • Boredom – if you’re bored with your life, an affair may seem like an adventure.
  • Low self-esteem – you may need reassurance that you’re attractive and loveable.

Although there are many reasons for affairs, most fall into one of four categories:

The boat-rocking affair – when one partner has an underlying dissatisfaction with the relationship. The affair is an unconscious way of drawing attention to the problem and bringing things into the open.

The exit affair – when an affair is used to get out of a relationship. Rather than confront the fact that a relationship isn’t working, an affair forces the issue.

The thrill affair – the illicit nature of an affair brings with it an adrenaline rush. Add to that the excitement of sex with someone new and the romantic trimmings of a fresh relationship, and it can seem irresistible.

The three’s company affair – can go on for years; it can also describe a string of successive affairs. Some people find it difficult to commit to one person; they feel stifled by monogamy and fear putting all their emotional eggs in one basket. Having a third person on the scene can provide an outlet for difficult emotions.

Trust is essential for a healthy relationship, and it’s something we often take for granted until it’s gone. If you’re the one that’s had the affair, you’ll need to work hard at reassuring your partner that it’s them you truly love and that you’ve learnt from your mistake.

If you’re the one who’s been cheated, you may find yourself asking questions for a long time. But as time passes, you’ll find yourself feeling more secure and confident about your relationship.

Trust only takes a moment to break, but much, much longer to rebuild. At first it may feel that your relationship will never recover, but with hard work and patience it can survive. An affair always signals a turning point in a relationship – but it doesn’t have to signal the end.

Separation and divorce

For most people, it’s a shock when a relationship breaks down. Even if you’ve known for some time that things aren’t working out, the final decision to part will stay with you for a long time.

Even once it’s over, it can take months for reality to sink in. During this time it’s common to find yourself fantasising about reunion and reconciliation – or recriminations.

What went wrong?

Understanding why your relationship failed is the first step towards recovery. Many people get locked into questioning: Whose fault it is? What did I do wrong? How could they do that to me? This is understandable, but a more constructive approach is to focus on the relationship, rather than individual responsibility. It can be more helpful to think about these kind of questions:

  • How were things when we first met?
  • What attracted us to each other?
  • What made our relationship good?
  • How have we changed?
  • What external factors have influenced our relationship?
  • What has stopped us overcoming our differences?

Although the answers may be upsetting, the greater the understanding, the easier it’ll be to let go and move on. During this time you’ll experience many emotions, including anger, sadness, guilt, despair and confusion; you can expect good days and bad days.

Holding it together

On top of the emotional turmoil that accompanies the end of a relationship, there’s a host of practical issues to address. These might include:

The children – providing support and time, access arrangements, childcare, telling the school, seeing in-laws, birthday and Christmas arrangements.

Money and property – who lives where, surviving on less income, managing the finances, who gets what in the home, pets.

Friends and family – telling parents/siblings/extended family members/friends, deciding how much to say and who should tell whom, maintaining friendships and relationships with in-laws.

Personal survival – which friends can support you practically and/or emotionally, how you’ll create space to grieve, whether you might benefit from counselling, building relaxation into your schedule, treats can you reward yourself with when times are tough.

This last section is often the most neglected. After a relationship breakdown, many people find themselves struggling with feelings of low self-esteem and self-confidence, and with so many things to organise it can be easy to forget to give yourself time for your own feelings. Be gentle with yourself and gratefully receive all the support you can get from friends and family.

Caring through illness

The effect of a sudden onset of illness in a relationship has been likened to a bereavement. Once the initial feelings of shock have passed, there may be times of immense anger. There may also be feelings of regret and guilt over what has not been done during earlier years. Gradually, these feelings change into sadness and loss.

Many people feel they have to deal with these emotions alone, and may become isolated and resentful. But when couples are able to talk openly, it can be a time when they grow closer.

When an illness is diagnosed as terminal, the remaining time together can be a mix of bittersweet moments. There’s also often a sense of urgency to make the most of every moment you have left.

Some couples find themselves slipping back to earlier feelings of intense connection, but for others there can be a distressing feeling of growing separateness. In some people, the knowledge that they’ll soon be alone creates the need to begin psychological and emotional distancing. This is usually completely unconscious and a natural response to try to soften the blow of the inevitable ending. (For more, see Terminal illness.)

Some couples find that when a partner becomes a patient, the relationship feels more like parent and child rather than equals. Finding ways to adapt to a new model of partnership will help you to ensure your relationship continues to be fulfilling.

It’s important that you’re both able to feel a sense of independence and autonomy. The ability to do that will vary enormously depending on your circumstances, and you may have to be creative and enlist the support of others to make that possible. Keeping communication at an adult level – avoiding slipping into childlike exchanges – will also help to maintain a sense of equality within the relationship.

Physical intimacy is an important part of most relationships. Some couples think that when one of them is ill or has a disability, they should give up their sex lives, but this needn’t be the case. Many couples enjoy finding new ways to be sensual together and regaining physical intimacy. In fact, the increased creativity required to fit around bodily limitations can make sex better than ever.

If you experience sexual problems as a result of your condition or medication, there are a wide range of medical interventions available. Speak to your doctor about appropriate options or you might find some useful information in ‘Where to get help’, below.

Love can grow in sickness and in health if you both commit to sharing your feelings (no matter how hard that may feel) and both learn to adapt as circumstances change. And remember, even if you can’t be sexual together anymore you can still be sensual. Touch is an essential part of being human, so take every opportunity to be close.


This article was last medically reviewed by Dr Trisha Macnair in August 2005.
First published in November 1997.