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The Big Read: Dealing with infidelity, the ‘cancer’ of marriages

SINGAPORE — When Ms Rebecca Smith picked up a call on her husband’s phone one midnight, little did she realise that her world was about to come crashing down.

For spouses whose partners have been involved in extramarital affairs, the process of healing and finding closure is difficult and takes a long time, according to those interviewed by TODAY.

One spouse turned to alcohol to ease the pain, while another sought psychiatric help following the shock.

And for many, the sting of betrayal, along with the stigma of a failed marriage, stays with them despite the passage of time.

Others TODAY approached declined to speak as they fear reliving what one described as the “worst moment of my life” or those around them discovering that their partners have cheated.

Apart from Ms Smith, the rest of those who agreed to be interviewed declined to reveal their names and occupations, out of concern at how others may view them.

“We’re still a very traditional society, so people question who did what wrong when a relationship breaks down… it’s tough to handle that when you’re dealing with the betrayal,” said Ms Smith.

On why she agreed to be named, she said: “I’ve done nothing wrong, and have learnt so much over the years… I have nothing to be ashamed of.”

Some counsellors and family lawyers told TODAY that they have seen a rise in cases of extramarital affairs following the Covid-19 pandemic due to various reasons, such as more time spent at home making it easier for spouses to pick up signs of cheating, and technology helping cheaters to find other willing partners.

One counsellor described extramarital affairs as the “cancer of relationships”, but added that if couples work together after an affair is exposed, their frayed relationship can be rebuilt to become stronger than before.

‘I WOULDN’T WISH THIS ON MY WORST ENEMY’

Seven years after meeting her husband in Europe, Mrs SL tied the knot so that she could buy her family’s Housing and Development Board flat in 2007. Both were in their 20s then.

She had thought little about the red flags that foreshadowed her husband’s affair — he had left her with a friend at a party to tail a young girl to the bathroom, and once went missing while they were travelling in Prague to “gawk at girls”.

“We were together for so long, we shared everything, from our laptops to passwords. Our devices were all synced together,” she said.

Then in 2010, her husband went on a work trip. Things seemed fine until he stopped contacting her on the third day of the trip.

After he returned to Singapore, Mrs SL used his laptop — only to discover messages between her husband and a woman, which suggested that the duo were seeing each other.

“I felt the rug yank from under my feet. I was angry beyond words,” she said, recalling how she felt upon discovering the messages.

“What turned me into a raving lunatic was their brazenness.”

When she confronted her husband with the messages, he insisted that there was “nothing going on”.

Mrs SL was not convinced by his denials — and his subsequent actions would further erode her trust, such as staying at a hotel with his mistress the Friday after receiving his pay.

“When I called (the woman) to confront her, her friend picked up my call and said to let go of my husband because ‘they are so in love’.

“You know how incensed I was? It’s one thing to be cheated on but another for them to be so brazen about it and have the support of others who don’t even know me,” she said.

It took her over a year for Mrs SL to move on after divorcing her husband — but not before turning to alcohol to lessen the pain.

“When I hit rock bottom, I was drinking scotch straight out of the bottle… the drinking slowed down drastically only because my renovation contractor told me I drank too much that my eyes were yellow,” she said, adding that this was after the divorce.

Mrs SL, who is now 41 and has no children, tied the knot with her current husband in 2014. 

“I am more protective of myself… I don’t let myself suffer in silence anymore,” she said.

For Ms Smith, getting a good night’s rest was often a struggle in the first few months after finding out about her husband’s affair. Racing thoughts would keep her awake, as she wondered why their relationship soured.

“My emotions were all over the place. I was crying every day, and I couldn’t talk to anyone because I was too embarrassed to share that my husband cheated on me,” she said.

“I was embarrassed because my friends like me for who I am; a strong and independent person. But during that time, that was not who I was.”

Her parents were also not in Singapore, and she was afraid of distressing her elderly parents with the news.

Another woman in her 20s, who declined to be named, said discovering her partner’s infidelity was the “worst pain I’ve ever felt”.

“I wouldn’t wish this upon my worst enemies,” she said. Having been just a year since she discovered the affair, she did not wish to go into further details but is currently seeking psychiatric help to slowly heal.

“It’s hard to trust people or really talk about it because its so raw… all the emotions and time I devoted to him just came crashing down because of his actions.”

WHAT A THIRD PARTY AND THE CHILD OF A CHEATER  WENT THROUGH

For Sam (not his real name), his father’s infidelity has made him “grow up incredibly quickly”.

“From the age of like 12 or 13, I was mediating tensions and arguments between my parents,” Sam, who is now in his 20s, told TODAY.

When he was 11 years old, he discovered that his father was in an affair through an email from his mistress. When he informed his mother, he found out the family, except for him, had known about it.

Soon, his father would spend three days a week with his mistress, which caused his parents to get into fights.

“It felt like he was literally part-timing as my dad, and part-timing as someone else’s husband,” said Sam, adding that it had been an odd compromise “in hindsight”.

“My mother obviously fell into a very depressive and anxious state, so she never really parented me. That contributed to me growing up quickly and parenting myself, my brother, and my mum.”

It was when his parents divorced while he was in junior college that he discovered that his father also had another wife overseas with whom he has two children.

While Sam is open to telling others, his mother takes her former husband’s infidelity as shameful and would get upset when Sam confides in others.

She sees her former husband’s affairs as something she caused, and also fears others judging her family.

Sam told TODAY that his mother still struggles with depression and anxiety from the ordeal.

“To this day, I feel like her primary caretaker. Caretaker exhaustion is real, and I get it whenever she has flare-ups, temper tantrums and episodes,” he said.

“Some days I wish to be the one who gets to throw the tantrum and rant to my mum or dad, but I have not had that chance since I was 12.”

Navigating tensions daily while young has made him a strong communicator, more independent and clear about his boundaries, but it has also shaped him to be “stubborn, prideful, and sensitive to criticism”.

He would seek partners who are more mature and senior, and even though they treat him poorly and often ignore his concerns, he would try to make the relationship work.

While people tend to blame third parties in a relationship for ruining marriages, one such person who hooked up with a married colleague said that the experience can also be difficult for the third party.

When Kristie (not her real name) was in her 20s and single, she got to know an office colleague around her age better over various dinners and “meaningful conversations”.

The duo shared similar interests and outlook in life, leading them to develop feelings for each other.

“We both felt we were soulmates who met each other at the wrong time,” she said.

“We both consciously decided to get into a relationship. Of course we knew it was wrong, but some days we tried to justify it.”

They would say that he and his wife were too different, his wife was toxic or the couple had tied the knot too young. While Kristie and her partner both felt their actions were wrong, they chose to “sweep all this under the carpet”.

While Kristie’s closest friends disapproved of the relationship at first, she said that they eventually acknowledged that the two were a “great match for each other”, and urged the man to decide between the two women in order to be fair to all the parties involved.

About six months into the relationship, Kristie and the man parted ways as they both realised that the relationship could not progress as he did not want to divorce his wife.

He later had a daughter with his wife, who is still unaware of his infidelity.

“Some people spoke about the thrill of having affairs. I think for the both of us, it was extremely miserable and stressful,” said Kristie, who is now in her 30s.

While Kristie knew the relationship was wrong — not only to him and his wife, but also to herself — she told TODAY she did not regret it.

“I am who I am today because of my past and my experiences, this relationship included. It made me a better person, in that I now have a stronger sense of self-worth,” she said.

“I think it triggered me to look deeper into myself, made me realise that I was throwing myself into a relationship with a guy who was unavailable on all levels — physically, emotionally — because I had unresolved personal issues,” she said, declining to share what these issues were.

“This realisation has been a catalyst for a significant amount of self-growth since the end of that relationship. And I don’t regret the relationship because at the end of it all I truly loved him.”

STRESS, TRAUMA CAUSED BY INFIDELITY

The impact that infidelity has on spouses can be long-term and traumatic, marriage and relationship counsellors told TODAY.

Ms Theresa Pong, founder of counselling firm The Relationship Room, said that the broken trust between the partners can result in them spiralling into a cycle of causing hurt to one another.

The injured partner, who goes through a process called betrayal trauma, experiences symptoms such as anxiety, depression, hyper-vigilance and fear, she said.

“This would manifest as constant interrogation of the infidelity act on the offending party,” she added.

“As the offending party does not know how to manage such behaviour, it would result in reactive conflicts that lead to even more emotional injuries to the primary relationship.”

Some may also develop post-traumatic stress disorder, depression, chronic anxiety and mistrust of others for a long-time after the event, added Mr John Lim, chief well-being officer at Singapore Counselling Centre. 

The impact of intense conflicts between couples grappling with infidelity issues can also shape a negative perception of marriage and relationships among their children, or cause them to feel unsafe in their own home.

“For young adults, although they may appear to be mature enough to process these negative emotions and thoughts, some may still resort to unhealthy coping mechanisms,” he said.

“For younger children in primary school or secondary school, they may feel resentment toward their parents, but may have difficulty making sense of such complex emotions.”

As these young children may not be able to articulate what they experience with their peers, their bottled-up emotions can be carried into adulthood, forming “unconstructive thoughts and beliefs when unprocessed”, he added.

Despite facing emotional trauma, families find it hard to seek solace in their usual support systems, namely close relatives and friends.

This is largely because infidelity is seen as a morality issue and frowned upon by society, and those involved may also fear that revealing their extramarital affairs can damage their reputation, both personal and professional.

“We have our strong views on family as a foundation. So when a family breaks apart due to infidelity, they fear being judged by others and criticised,” said Ms Michelle Png, an assistant senior counsellor at Care Corner Counselling Centre.

Although the damage that extramarital affairs has on family ties has been well-documented, why do spouses still cheat?

Ms Png said that it is often because there is a void in the relationship — which can be both physical and emotional in nature.

“They could be disconnected with each other, or dissatisfied with parts of the relationship. Sometimes it can be major changes such as a pregnancy,” she said.

In her 14 years of practice, Ms Png has seen addiction to pornography causing some to seek further gratification in terms of one-night stands, or adopting deviant behaviours like voyeurism, which can impact a marriage.

“While there are different kinds of affairs, the emotional affairs are often more painful than sexual affairs,” she said. “There’re questions about whether the years spent together were a lie.”

Mr Lim added that what constitutes cheating is largely dependent on the couple’s own boundaries regarding infidelity.

For some, cheating may be defined as engaging in any physically intimate or sexual acts with anyone else. For others, it may include emotional cheating.

Family lawyers told TODAY that they have seen more cases of cheating as a basis for divorce over the last five to 10 years.

Mr Ray Louis, managing director of Ray Louis Law, said that the advent of social media and the smartphone has made it much easier for people to have an affair.

“Before the smartphone, it’s not as easy to meet up with somebody and keep in touch. Now, it’s almost instant,” he said.

Agreeing, Mr Mohammed Shakirin, a partner at I.R.B Law LLP, said: “In the past, maybe you have what, Friendster? You must log in and dial in but now you can have a thousand and one applications out there that allow you to meet new people.”

Mr Louis also said that people have developed different perspectives on what is moral over the years.

“Some people call it an emotional affair while some people may say they are not ‘cheating’ but they are just having a friendship — they lie to themselves,” he said.

Another trend that Mr Shakirin had observed among his clients was how the pandemic had increased friction among couples as people spent more time at home, causing a breakdown in relationships.

During the circuit breaker, which lasted from April 7 to June 1, 2020, people were allowed to leave their homes only for essential activities such as buying food and groceries. This was to control the spread of the Covid-19 virus.

After the circuit breaker ended and various pandemic restrictions were lifted in stages, some spouses probably decided that they wanted a bit more freedom and sought out other relationships, he said.

Counsellors like Ms Pong also said that with more time spent at home due to the pandemic, spouses also observed more “telltale signs” that their partners have been cheating, such as constantly texting someone whom they do not disclose.

While lawyers and most counsellors say the cheating party they see in their practice tends to be male, both genders are equally liable to cheat.

The emotional impact extramarital affairs can have also applies to both genders, said Mr Lim of Singapore Counselling Centre, adding that men generally engage less in help-seeking behaviour as they fear appearing “weak” or “vulnerable”.

“This can be a cause for concern as some, if not most, would struggle silently despite having experienced the betrayal of infidelity,” he said.

“With the detrimental emotional effects of cheating in mind, these effects can lead to decline in mental health if unresolved.”

REPAIRING FRAYED TIES AMID THE PAIN

In terms of the divorce process, Mr Louis and Mr Shakirin said that a couple may choose to file for a divorce based on adultery but they would have to prove it, which can be difficult.

Instead, many couples opt for an uncontested divorce hearing as it is more cost-effective, citing “unreasonable behaviour” as the reason for divorce.

But divorce is not the only solution, counsellors told TODAY.

Such a move should be made only after both parties’ emotions are calmer and they are able to make a more logical decision. Doing so would make the healing process easier too, they said.

“It’s important to reflect on why you’re in the relationship. Is it for an emotional reason and because you both love each other still? Or is it more for practical reasons like finances,” said Ms Pong of The Relationship Room.

“The process of finding peace and rebuilding a relationship after an affair can be a lonely and painful one,” she added.

“It’s hard because both parties have to find common ground and accept that both need to make changes for each other to make the relationship work.”

What would help could be as simple as providing greater emotional support for each other instead of chiding and scolding when something goes wrong, said Ms Pong.

Agreeing, Ms Png of Care Corner Counselling Centre said that it is through this process that a couple can rebuild the foundations of a much stronger relationship.

“Things won’t be the same from what it once was, but you’re working from the ground up in rebuilding the relationship, which can be a beautiful process,” said Ms Png.

“Of course this is 50-50 — some try to justify their actions and refuse to take responsibility for committing adultery. That makes it difficult for both to move on.”

Mr Lim added it is important for the parents, while in the midst of repairing their relationship, to check in with their children on their emotions and needs, using simpler terms for the child to understand.

“It is crucial not to dismiss the children on the assumption that they may not be able to understand ‘adult problems’,” he said. 

“Children are much more perceptive than we may realise, and it is important for the parents to support their children through this process.”

For the betrayed spouses, the healing process can be a long, arduous journey, but Ms Smith, like others who spoke to TODAY, said that the personal growth she has experienced is something to be proud of.

For one thing, Ms Smith has become healthier and exercises more regularly. She has also learnt the importance of managing her finances and growing a strong support system — all of which will also benefit her daughter’s growth and development.

Ms Smith now hopes to erase the stigma of being a single mother so that others in similar circumstances like her will not be afraid to seek help and stand up for themselves.

“We’re singa-mothers (lion-mothers) who should be honoured and acknowledged for our determination and success… not pitied,” she said.

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