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After their first few psychotherapy sessions with Julia, Carol and Ben were making progress with rekindling their relationship, which had, after 20 years, become stagnant and distant. But then everything stalled. The couple suddenly seemed less interested in getting closer.
In Julia's experience, stalling often stemmed from a fear of disclosing an emotionally charged secret. And that secret, Julia knew, is often infidelity.
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Carol and Ben's story, highlighted in our just-published book, AARP Love and Meaning After 50: The 10 Challenges to Great Relationships—and How to Overcome Them . illustrates the effects of unfaithfulness, whether recent or years prior.
Infidelity is relatively common, as we've seen in our work as psychologists specializing in helping individuals and couples over 50. And research supports our experience: About 20 percent of men and 13 percent of women commit adultery, according to the University of Virginia's Institute of Family Studies. We also know that the incidence of infidelity increases, not decreases, with age. Surprisingly, women are most likely to cheat in their 60s; for men, in their 70s.
Julia probed a little, believing Ben had cheated on Carol. She led them through a slow, deliberate process in an attempt to reveal secrets and get closer. Here's how Julia proceeded, adapted from Love and Meaning After 50:
Consider revealing the old affair
Not all relationship experts believe older affairs need to be revealed; some think it ultimately does more harm than good. But we believe that secrets have insidious negative effects and are often a barrier to closeness whether revealed or not; at least, once they're cautiously and carefully shared, there is a chance for remorse, anger, disappointment and healing. One research study found that couples who revealed infidelity during couples therapy and then dealt with the emotional reactions were more likely to survive in the long term than those who went through therapy and didn't.
Revelation of an affair often creates a crisis for couples that requires them to confront not just what happened but what has been dissatisfying about their communication, decision-making, degree of respect and affection, division of labor and other aspects of their relationship. Sometimes, this crisis creates powerful impetus for both spouses to significantly change — or walk away from one another.
With Julia's gentle prodding, Carol revealed she had had an affair when their 18-year-old daughters were young children. Ben was surprised but not shocked. As Julia noted, it was as if he had always known that Carol held back emotionally from him.