Finding out that your partner is having an affair is devastating at any age, but if you’re in your fifties and you’ve been together for years the shock is seismic. Suddenly you’re forced to see the person you thought you knew in a totally new light.
“It makes you feel that all the certainties in the world are collapsing around you,” says Andrew G Marshall, one of the wisest and most experienced marital therapists in the business.
“Even if you accept your own contribution towards the problem, the realisation that you get rewarded like this just because you took your eye off the ball not only undermines your trust in your partner but in the general sense that the world is a fair place.”
The fifties are a classic time for affairs. The sense of ‘Is that all there is?’ hangs heavy in the air and the kids are no longer the glue that binds couples together. But no matter how commonplace infidelity has become (it is estimated that 30 to 40 per cent of us will stray at some stage) it is always painful.
So how can you handle the emotional chaos of those first few weeks, when you can’t eat, your brain won’t stop and the only thing that gets you through the night is a hefty dose of Temazepam?
With any luck, at this stage in life, you’re able to overcome the initial impulse to reach for the nearest blade – tempting though it may be – or make off with the mistress’ kitten, like MP’s wife Christine Hemming. Rather than storming out, you’re more likely to take a considered view of what you really want.
“I had always assumed that if my husband was unfaithful I’d leave him,” says Anna, who discovered her husband’s two-year affair with a colleague three years ago.
“But when it actually happened to me I reacted very differently, I think because I’d learned from previous crises in our relationship that impetuous gestures are usually counter-productive as well as hard to go back on. I thought very carefully about what was at stake.
“My initial instinct was to tell the whole world the gory details – his parents, our kids, the taxi driver, my hairdresser. I held back, and now I’m so relieved I did. We told the kids the bare minimum, and I found that it was better to talk to just one or two good friends, because otherwise I got too much conflicting advice.
“I remember times when it was a huge relief to be with people who didn’t know anything about the affair.”
Andrew Marshall’s book, How Can I Ever Trust You Again?, speaks to the partner who has had the affair as well as the one who discovered it. Marshall says the hardest thing about the immediate aftermath is learning to live with uncertainty. He urges couples to accept the complexity of their emotions.
“It’s normal to be filled with all sorts of contradictory feelings: love and hate, hope and despair, fear and relief. We don’t like living with ambivalence, and often push ourselves to come down on one side or the other, even if it makes things worse.
“And there is a tendency to think, I’m in so much pain we’ve got to solve this now. In fact, there is no ticking clock.”
It’s reassuring that 25 years spent counselling couples through the aftermath of affairs has convinced Marshall that, despite all the misery and pain, the soul-searching that follows can make those relationships that survive stronger and better.
“There are many positives: you and your partner will probably speak more to each other in five days than you have in five years. Affairs have the capacity to bring all the unburied bodies in your relationship to the surface.
“So you’re not just dealing with the affair itself, but also with the long-term issues that you ignored beforehand, which usually turn out to be not as big or as scary as you thought. And that, ultimately, must be a good thing.”
How to cope with the shock: Andrew Marshall’s tips
• Resist the temptation to throw your partner out straight away. You need answers to your questions.
• Equally, don’t forgive too soon. You can’t forgive until you know what’s happened and seen its full impact.
• Don’t make major decisions when you’re in shock. Put off the decision to stay or go for as long as possible.
• Tell your kids the absolute minimum: “We’re having problems and we’re sorting it out” is quite enough.
• Don’t tell the world and his dog. What you need is a sensible friend who won’t tell you what to do, preferably someone who doesn’t know your partner well (and who hasn’t gone through a bitter divorce themselves).
• Don’t go in for detective work. You’re not equipped to deal with evidence that is bound to be incredibly painful. The healing process starts when you give your partner the chance to tell you.