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The Big Read in short: When families are torn apart by extramarital affairs

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.

WHY IT MATTERS

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 shocking revelation.

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 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.”

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.

THE BIG PICTURE

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.

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.”

But considering the long-term and traumatic impact infidelity can have on spouses of cheating partners, one counsellor described it as the “cancer of relationships”.

Ms Theresa Pong, founder of counselling firm The Relationship Room, said that the broken trust and security between the partners can result in them spiraling 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.”

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 Sam (not his real name), his father’s infidelity when he was just 11 has made him “grow up incredibly quickly”.

Sam, who is in his 20s now, told TODAY that his mother still struggles with depression and anxiety from the ordeal and their divorce as she feels that she is the one at fault.

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.

For Mrs SL, discovering her husband’s infidelity made her “angry beyond words”.

“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, who is now 41, to move on emotionally and mentally 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.

THE BOTTOMLINE

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.

Counsellors said that for couples dealing with the fallout of an affair, divorce should only be considered 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.

Those seeking to rebuild their marriages may find the process a painful one, said Ms Pong.

“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,” she added.

“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.”

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 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.”

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