Fool Me Once

What Turns a Love Affair Into a Relationship That Actually Lasts?

“If he cheats once, he’ll cheat again” is age-old wisdom, but it can be wrong. The reason for the cheating makes all the difference.

Hannes Hepp/Getty

When news broke that French president Francois Hollande had allegedly been caught romancing an actress behind the back of his current partner and acting First Lady Valerie Trierweiler, many greeted the story with a shrug. After all, Hollande and Trierweiler became a couple during their own highly publicized affair. Common wisdom has long held that if you romance a cheater he or she will one day cheat on you. But what if that common wisdom is not true?

History is filled with affairs, many of which ended disastrously. Think Henry the VIII and Anne Boleyn, the mistress he eventually married and ultimately beheaded. Though few expect modern day affairs to end in such a gruesome manner, they rarely end happily every after either.

But what about those that do?

Despite lingering stigma, some of the world’s most admired couples came together under what some may not consider admirable circumstances. Paul Newman and Joanne Woodward enjoyed one of Hollywood’s most enduring marriages for 50 years until his death. Newman left his first wife, with whom he had two daughters, to be with Woodward. Despite having been married more than two decades mega-musician Sting and his wife Trudie Styler are rumored to still have one of the most enviable sex lives around. Their relationship also began as an affair, something Styler has discussed in interviews, saying, “Neither of us are proud of a situation that happened—it just happened. We loved each other and we lived together and then we got married and we had more kids,” she says. “And that’s our life story.”

There are plenty of other high profile couples who began, or rather ended up together the same way, among them Prince Charles and Camilla, Rudy and Judi Giuliani, Newt and Callista Gingrich, Melanie Griffith and Antonio Banderas—couples that are all still going strong. So what makes the difference between a couple that starts as an affair and lasts, and one that doesn’t?

According to experts, starting as an affair does not necessarily doom a relationship, but whether the couple can prevent history from repeating itself depends on a number of factors.

“Your relationship started out with some deceit, with some lies and a big problem affair couples have is they tend to be jealous and suspicious of each other because they know that person is capable of cheating,” said relationship expert Rachel Sussman, author of The Breakup Bible. To her point, actress turned reality star Tori Spelling had publicly expressed fears that her husband Dean McDermott might cheat on her, because the two began their relationship while married to others. Just before Christmas a woman told media outlets she slept with McDermott during his marriage to Spelling. The couple has yet to comment on the allegations. But Sussman went on to note that it is how couples confront how they ended up in an affair in the first place which may ultimately determine whether they will endure.

“If you start off as an affair couple you’ve got to be so clear about why your last relationship didn’t work out, why you chose this path to have an affair and how to avoid anything like that happening in the current relationship.”

Dr. Gail Saltz, associate professor of psychiatry at New York Presbyterian Hospital Weill-Cornel School of Medicine, echoed this sentiment. “When a partner is found through an affair there is certainly a higher risk that they will at some point cheat on you, because their threshold for betraying their partner has already proven to be surmountable and they know that you know that. The difference is really what drove the first affair.”

For instance, in the case of Prince Charles she noted that his original relationship with Camilla predated his relationship with Princess Diana. While that does not excuse the rumored infidelity she explained that such an indiscretion is not quite comparable to a serial cheater, which is what President Hollande now appears to be. Someone who cheats repeatedly, she said, “has certainly tipped their hand that morally speaking they don’t see cheating as a problem.”

And that can be a major problem.

Getting at the root of the infidelity is key. For instance, someone who has been in an unhappy marriage for a long time may use an affair as a way to finally exit the relationship. Again, not ideal or appropriate, but different than someone for whom cheating is a way of life. According to Sussman, someone who begins an affair after being mistreated or neglected in a marriage is a better bet for finding long-term happiness with the person with whom he or she engages in an affair than someone who was simply bored sexually.

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The main ingredient for those striving to turn an unhealthy affair into a healthy long-term relationship, highlighted by both experts is the importance of having a candid discussion about the origins of the affair, which may involve the couple speaking with a professional as the relationship blossoms.

For instance, Saltz said there might be underlying issues that need exploring such as if a parent cheated during childhood. Sussman stressed it’s important to “take the time to process why your last relationship didn’t work out then why you chose to have an affair as opposed to lots of other things you could have and then really, honestly have that talk. ‘Well what will we do if these things happen in our relationship? How can we do it very different this time?’”

She explained, “I’ve seen couples have a really good prognosis when they do that. But if they don’t take the time to figure out why they cheated to begin with and to make sure it won’t happen again then you probably do have a better chance of it happening again because you’ve already done it. You know how to do it. It’s not as hard to cheat a second time once you’ve cheated a first time.”