If I had a nickel for every betrayed partner who has told me a horror story about contacting the cheater’s affair partner, I could buy myself and several friends a Grande Vanilla Latte and a scone.
What is this impulse that drives betrayed partners to get involved with the people their significant others are cheating on them with? Why do betrayed partners feel a need to call them up, text them, contact them on Facebook, and all but send a carrier pigeon to make contact? And then, as if that isn’t enough, many betrayed partners move heaven and earth to contact the affair partner’s spouse to make sure he or she also knows about the cheating, thereby spreading the wreckage even further.
These stories never end well. Not once have I been told of a betrayed partner contacting an affair partner and creating anything other than further pain and damage. So why do betrayed partners do this, even when they know they are diving into a deep puddle of muck and dragging others in with them? What motivates this harmful behavior?
When I ask this question of my clients, I get many different answers. I hear things like:
- I was curious.
- I couldn’t get the truth from my spouse, so I called the affair partner to get information.
- I wanted him/her to know exactly how much damage he/she caused.
- I wanted him/her to know that we have a family and that he/she has hurt not just me but our kids.
- I wanted him/her to know that I know everything.
- I just wanted to unleash on him/her because he/she deserves it.
- I wanted to see if the stories matched, so I could know if my spouse is still lying to me.
As you can see, the reasons for contacting affair partners fall into two categories. Either betrayed partners are trying to get more information about the depth and scope of the betrayal that has occurred, or they are attempting to communicate the level of anger, hurt, and damage that the cheating has created.
A betrayed partner’s need to know the full extent of the lying and cheating is, of course, imperative from the standpoint of healing, so going to the affair partner to try to get more information is understandable. Unfortunately, while some further details might surface, conversations with an affair partner usually result not in clarity but in more confusion and deeper hurt. Plus, the affair partner is rarely willing to tell the truth because he or she has his or her own agenda regarding the affair.
Beyond the issues raised above, there is a deeper dynamic driving this focus on the affair partner – misplaced anger, also known as triangulation.
In family systems theory, triangulation is when two people in a relationship bring a third person into the middle of things, thereby turning a relational dyad into a relational triad. Typically, third parties are triangulated in when the stakes between the two people in the primary relationship are so high that it feels too risky to deal with things directly. With triangulation, intense feelings can be siphoned off onto the third party, relieving the pressure between the two people in the primary relationship.
In plain English, this means it may feel safer for you as the betrayed partner to unleash your anger at the affair partner, rather than letting yourself fully experience the rage you feel toward your significant other. This focus on the affair partner gives you a target for the release of feelings that it feels too dangerous to allow fully into the open in your relationship with your spouse. In such cases, you may find yourself preoccupied with thoughts and feelings of anger toward the affair partner while feeling numb or flat with your significant other.
As stated above, betrayed partners who triangulate the affair partner do this because their relationship feels incredibly fragile and unstable due to the cheating. They worry that if they vent their feelings of fear and anger directly at their cheating partner, they will sink a ship that is already in danger of going down. Thus, the affair partner—who, let’s be clear, is worthy of some anger—becomes the primary target.
The problem with this is that the anger that is being expressed is misplaced. The person who you are the angriest at and have been the most hurt by is your significant other. While the affair partner is also to blame, the reality is that if your spouse wasn’t cheating with that person, it would have been someone else. The real problem lies with your cheating partner and the issues that led your partner into betrayal.
It can be scary to allow yourself to feel the full extent of your fury and pain over being cheated on, and misplaced anger usually occurs because it feels safer to be angry at someone other than your partner. Being angry at the affair partner does not threaten your relationship the way that connecting your feelings to their true source does. For instance, if you connect your anger to your cheating partner, you may find that you can no longer tolerate being in the relationship. It is this fear, the fear of losing the relationship, that creates relational triangles and motivates misplaced anger.
Unfortunately, misplaced anger has consequences. For starters, when you focus your anger and hurt on the affair partner, the feelings you have toward your primary partner go unexamined, unexpressed, and un-responded to in any meaningful way. It is only by connecting to your deepest feelings and communicating those feelings to your partner—the person who caused them—that healing and forgiveness can occur.
Ideally, your cheating partner will listen to the pain, sadness, and anger that he or she has caused, and feel and express back his or her own pain and sadness about the damage wrought by the cheating. It is this sense of being heard and responded to in a felt way by your cheating partner that opens the pathway to healing.
Even if your cheating partner is not able or willing to take responsibility, your individual healing hinges on your ability to experience, express, and process the deep emotional impacts of the betrayal. If you find that your partner is not responsive in helpful ways, you may need to do this with a therapist, a supportive group of friends, or family members who can provide the empathic, supportive, felt response that you need.
Either way, misdirecting your anger onto the affair partner is not the answer. It simply diverts you away from the healing path, thereby delaying your ability to recover.