Here is a recent discussion thread on a mediation listserv concerning the effect of an affair on a marriage today.

Q – I find that far fewer couples than I expected come to divorce mediation because of an affair. I wonder if that is true for you as well? For those of you who litigate as well as mediate, do “affair” divorces tend to litigate more? I’d love to hear the thoughts from as many people as possible about this.

A – As a psychologist, I am also seeing fewer couples willing to split up because of an affair–or series of affairs. I don’t think that this has anything to do with the current economy since I have been observing this trend to be more prevalent in the past 5 to 10 years than it was prior to that time. I think that part of this has to do with the dynamics of the couple. Some couples who come for therapy want to understand and work on what has happened to cause one spouse to stray and are willing to look at what each of them has done in the marriage to contribute to this happening. I think that for those couples who cannot tolerate the spouse having an affair, they just split up. Then, when I am working in therapy, I am told about the reason for the divorce or separation after the fact. I am also seeing couples staying together longer where one of them is coming out of the closet. I wonder if this change has to do with our changing societal norms. There has also been some press saying that humans are not meant to have life-long marriages to the same person for 25 + years. Those standards applied back in the day when the average lifespan was 40 years, but with people living well into their 80s and 90s, that standard may not apply. I also wonder if affairs are, in a sense, taken in stride. Years ago, a cheating spouse was a horrible strain on the marriage. Since that time, it seems that people are more open about affairs and talk about spouses who have had affairs. Thanks to shows like Oprah and The View, the stigma is now gone. Not that it hurts any less, but the spouse knows that he or she is not the only one who’s done this–or had a spouse do it. Those are my thoughts on this topic.

A – Each of the points you raise has validity. However, in the end we, as a society, have lowered the bar so as to make almost any behavior justifiable and acceptable so that an affair now seems to be not the big deal it once was before we were so inundated with fear and violence and greed on a daily basis. And although I do think affairs are “survive-able” for a couple, I do not think that the couple can ever return to the level of trust that existed prior to the affair. While a continued relationship may be viable, it will be very different than the one that existed before the affair.

A – There are some helpful books on infidelity. One I read recently was “Surviving Infidelity.” It mentioned four or five different types of infidelity (the one-night stand, the sexual addict, the short-term affairs, the long-term affairs involving feelings beyond just passion and including emotional intimacy (the most emotionally harmful to the marriage)). The book focuses on how to recover the emotional intimacy that is lost due to an affair to try to save the marriage and ends with a short chapter on recovering from the affair that results in an irretrievable loss of the marriage.

A – Since “irreconcilable differences” became available as a basis for a divorce, clients are spending much less time talking about fault in general, including adultery…

A – I haven’t noticed a trend either way either.
I make it a point to NEVER directly ask the couple why they are divorcing! The reason is that a direct question about the reason for the divorce is likely to be extremely counterproductive to the mediation process.
Although an “affair” and its aftermath can be highly relevant to the psychological dynamic of the mediation, I do not believe (in most cases) that the presence of an affair should play a particularly relevant role in the  practical decision making of the couple, nor the outcome of the mediation (I think the courts are pretty much on the same page here). Instead, I try and keep the couple focused on the future, not on the “wrongs” of the past, and not on who was at fault in the marriage.
What do readers think? Are affairs more accepted in society, and do fewer marriages reach the breaking point because one spouse has had an affair than in years past?