Psychotherapist Richard Hogan tells Brendan about the many reasons people have affairs and how some relationships can survive after infidelity. Listen back above.
People have always had affairs - it's just not something we talk about openly; says family psychotherapist Richard Hogan, speaking to Brendan O'Connor.
Drawing on two decades of experience in clinical practice, Richard shared his insights on why affairs happen, what the danger signs are and how a marriage can recover after an affair.
Marriage has evolved over the past couple of centuries, Richard says, with the emphasis shifting from practical concerns like property, to romantic ideals of lifelong love and fidelity. The idea that affairs are fairly common may be uncomfortable for some:
"The thing about affairs; they're taboo, and it's a tricky thing to talk about, but they’ve always been present."
Added to that, 'til death do us part’ means something different in 2023, as we are living longer.
In Ireland, life expectancy at birth has increased from age 38 in the 1840s to over 80 in 2022. The expectation that marriage will satisfy all of a person’s needs over a lifetime may be unrealistic, Richard says:
"Marriage is a romantic notion that one person can satiate and fulfil all our romantic needs and when an affair is exposed, it shatters that romantic notion. And I think it can be an unrealistic expectation at times."
Modern technology has opened the door to all kinds of opportunities for having an affair, but as Richard points out, technology can also trip people up. If they're not careful, would-be cheaters can leave a trail of digital breadcrumbs which can be found by their partner:
"We’ve never had more opportunity to have affairs but we’ve also never had more opportunity to get caught."
Richard says that in his clinical experience, there is an age at which affairs are most likely to happen:
"From about 45 to 52 is what I would see as the danger years."
Studies show that people are particularly discontented with life in their mid to late 40s, because the pressures of daily life can cause people to lose their sense of self:
"If you think about the data, 47 is our most unhappy year. I think in those years we can be very unhappy. And I think we can lose connection. The word is connection. We can lose ourselves in the relationship. We can lose ourselves in parenting. We can lost that earlier identity that we had."
Contempt and indifference can seep into a relationship over time, and if a new person turns up who seems to re-ignite the sense of self, it can be very tempting to go for it:
"Then somebody comes into your orbit, that re-connects you with your earlier self, you know; and I think that’s where the danger is. And I think that’s why it’s an important conversation, to be aware of the dangers."
An affair is not necessarily about the rejection of a life partner, although it undoubtedly feels like that for the injured party, Richard says. It’s often about the desire on the part of the ‘cheater’ to feel young and vital again:
"This can be a kind of last hurrah that brings you back into this sexual life. What is that? It’s vitality, it’s intensity, it’s freedom, it’s autonomy. They’re all massively significant things. And if somebody allows us to tap back into that; you know, that’s going to really impact the reward centres of your brain."
Richard says an affair can have a corrosive impact on everyone involved. He says that following the ‘do what makes you happy’ maxim can lay waste to everything you have worked and hope for:
"I would say that logic can bring us into not really working in the interest of our future selves, and collapsing our lives; everything that we’ve worked towards can be annihilated in an affair."
There is hope for relationships where an affair has happened, Richard says. It takes a lot of patience on both sides and Richard says that the person who has done the straying should give their partner time before they ask forgiveness for what they’ve done.
"It opens up a new conversations. What gets in the way of healing is that there’s too quick of an ask for forgiveness by the partner who’s transgressed here."
Richard says that couples need to take the time to understand what happened, why it happened and to start to get to know each other again. If the marriage is to survive, as Richard suggests, both parties need to keep the conversation focused on the future:
"Do you value our relationship going forward? Do you want to go forward in this relationship? And, here’s the next part, if we do go forward in this relationship, it’s not the relationship we had before, because whatever was there is now changed irrevocably because of this and I’m not going to be the same person. It’s almost like second, third marriage scenario within the same marriage."
Richard covers more aspects of the effects of marital affairs, including the impact on children in the full interview - listen back above. Find more clips from the show here.
If you have been affected by issues raised in this story, please visit: www.rte.ie/helplines.