Should I Keep My Affair Secret?… Maybe.
Are you having a secret affair? It’s not unusual for a partner to drop this bomb in couples therapy…“I’m having a secret affair…”
It’s fashionable for untrained all-purpose couples therapists to nudge these partners into full, immediate disclosure.
I’ve met therapists who tell me with great confidence that they stop their work immediately when a secret affair is disclosed.
Therapists can be somewhat preoccupied with their own moral discomfort. Many advise clients that they “don’t keep secrets.”
But in this post, I will discuss a subject that most couples therapist would rather avoid…what researchers have discovered about situational domestic violence and affair disclosure.
Most therapists would agree that if you are in a marriage where there is regular or even sporadic domestic violence, you should keep your own counsel about your affair.
Therapists are trained to ask, “are you afraid of your partner?” But sometimes this question isn’t enough.
The Volatile Nature of a Secret Affair
It’s essential to appreciate the intensely volatile nature of infidelity. Research tells us that marital affair-related violence can occur in some cases where there has been no previous history of abuse or physical violence.
Why is that the case? Why are men and women who have never been previously violent capable of such explosive rage?
Research reveals that affair violence is more directly related to the politics of power and powerlessness than to the infidelity itself.
It’s been said that Dan Broderick may have insensitively provoked Betty with prolonged legal wrangling. But when he married his secret affair partner on the 20th anniversary of his marriage to Betty, her rage exploded.
She entered the unlocked home of her ex-husband and shot him and his new wife as they were sleeping in bed.
The fact that Betty had worked hard to put her husband through both law school and medical school fueled her sense of injustice, his perceived irresponsibility, and her powerlessness. These are the building blocks of female anger.
Culturally, we have a hard time discussing female rage. We need to explain wives like Betty, so court psychiatrists diagnosed her as having a Narcissistic Personality Disorder.
If You’re Having a Secret Affair…How Does Your Partner Show Anger?
OK, so you’re having a secret love affair, and you’ve told your couples therapist there has never been any domestic violence in your marriage.
- Are they content with that simple answer, or do they dig deeper? Do they ask you about the history of your partner’s relationship to frustration, anger, and rage?
- Or ask if you would describe them as controlling or quick-tempered? Did they ask you if your spouse has ever done anything out of anger that shocked or surprised you?
Disclosure of a secret affair often occurs in a dysfunctional marital dynamic. Your couples therapist should conduct a thorough marital assessment before dispensing any advice to you on affair disclosure. A lack of a history of violence provides a false sense of security.
Research on Violence and Divorce
Analysis by Johnston and Campbell (1993) revealed a pattern of violence related to divorce. Their findings include secret affair disclosure violence.
- Verbal conflict sometimes leads to unexpected sudden violence.
- Gender is irrelevant. Men or women are capable of becoming violent.
- The violence is out of the ordinary and confined to only one or two events.
- Affair violence tends not to be systemic. It is not repetitive, like domestic violence.
- Violence occurs on a continuum, from pushing to shoving to hitting or worse.
- Violence is ego-dystonic. That means it contradicts the perpetrator’s sense of self, leading to shame and embarrassment.
- Some cultural contexts normalize and justify secret affair violence. Couples therapists should have cross-cultural competence.
Risk of Violence by Affair Type
The more hidden conflict and unresolved issues, the higher the risk of affair-related violence. Exit affairs, where the Involved Partner holds little empathy for the Hurt Partner, are statistically at the highest risk.
Next are the Conflict-Avoiders. It may seem odd that of the four major secret affair types, Conflict Avoiders are in the second position for the risk of violence.
This type doesn’t intend to do violence, but the tightly wound nature of these couples may cause them to lose self-control and explode.
Then we come to the Intimacy-Avoidants. They engage in the ongoing battle by definition. Their chronically combative style is indicative of poor self-regulation and histrionic behavior. Split-Self Affairs are the least violent. This is because they are invested in order and containment.
It’s not unusual for Hurt Partners to fantasize about revenge. Sometimes these fantasies are violent. But most Hurt Partners can self-regulate. They prefer to withdraw, ruminate, obsess, and verbally spar with their Involved Partners. However, there are a few that can’t, and that minority of Hurt Partners is who we are discussing in this post.
Risk-multipliers are drugs and alcohol, access to firearms, social provocateurs, and how well the Hurt Partner’s relational wound is managed.
The H.A.P.L.E.S.S. Hurt Partner
Definition of hapless: unfortunate, wretched, having no luck.
In reviewing the mental state of the Hurt Partner, I employ an old word not often used; hapless as a mnemonic device. Research shows extreme violence occurs when the Hurt Partner feels betrayed.
The essence of this rage is feeling: Humiliated, Abandoned and Powerless, Lonely, Embarrassed, Shamed and Scared.
Rage is a wound so penetratingly deep that it overwhelms the ego. There are known triggers that may induce a sudden apoplectic rage in Hurt partners:
- Surprising their spouse in flagrante delicto with their secret affair partner.
- Coming home and discovering that partner has suddenly left and has moved in with their secret affair partner.
- Growing up in a family of origin that promotes havoc and discord, and emotional dysregulation.
Disclosure Must Weigh the Risk of Overwhelming Stress, Alcohol, Firearms, and Provocateurs
Unrelated family stress such as an ill parent, job loss, or a loss in a court battle can also push a Hurt Partner over the brink. The deadliest combination of force-multipliers is the combination of overwhelming stress, drugs, alcohol, the availability of firearms, and provocation.
Research suggests that violence over a secret love affair is more likely at certain predictable emotional inflection points:
- The immediate aftermath of the discovery or disclosure of infidelity.
- The aftermath of physical separation, or the aftermath of a reminder or confirmation of the loss such as loss of child custody or a related court battle that did not go well.
- Encountering the spouse in the company of their secret affair partner.
Affair violence is typically impulsive and has many aggravating contributing factors. Hindsight in affair violence is always 20/20. That is why a careful assessment of a couple struggling with infidelity is essential.
Should I Keep My Affair a Secret? It’s an Important Question.
Do you want to repair your marriage? Then disclosure is part and parcel of the repair process. However, when it comes to your hurt partner’s potential for violence, no assessment tool is better than your own intuition.
Or are you planning to leave to be with your secret love affair partner? if so, think it through carefully. Affair relationships are highly volatile, and there are predictable issues. Is this merely an exit affair? Or are you seriously committed?
If you have concerns about your safety, don’t let your therapist cajole or guilt trip you into prematurely disclosing your secret affair. If you’re anxious or fearful, ask for a one-on-one session and talk about these feelings. Listen to your gut, and discuss your concerns in a private session. For a minority of involved partners “surviving infidelity” has a completely different meaning.