After infidelity has entered a relationship (which is very easy, might I add), questions about specific details are frequently an entryway into a deeper story. For example, questions about what gifts were exchanged are really probing for how invested the unfaithful partner was in the situation–emotionally and financially. With the new era of side-chicks relishing the role of ‘the other woman’ (along with males thriving on being ‘the secret HIM’), cheating has become as common as a trip to the grocery store in any relationship.

The following questions will guide your exploration of the circumstances of the infidelity and the meaning behind it. Some of them are to bring a slightly different perspective on the underlying motivations.

What did you say to yourself that gave you permission to get involved?
There are all kinds of reasons for not stepping over the line that would normally stop you from entering a forbidden territory. Vulnerabilities and values will be revealed by the thoughts and actions that came up as you crossed thresholds into the extramarital relationship. Most likely, discussing these questions will uncover the magnetism of the relationship, the sense of curiosity, or the belief that nothing bad would come of it. One of the most revealing thoughts is whether the unfaithful partner considered the consequences of getting involved or only of getting caught.

After the first time you had sex, did you feel guilty?
Asking about guilt reveals the internalized values of the unfaithful partner. Some people never feel any guilt about getting involved. People who anticipate guilty feelings before they act are more inclined to avoid dangerous crossings. Others feel guilty after they act, although guilt after the transgression doesn’t necessarily keep them from repeating their “quiet stuff.”

Some people feel so disgusted with themselves after their first side-affair sex that they get together again with the affair partner as soon as possible: another dose of the aphrodisiac offers them a temporary escape from their self-loathing. Some get rid of their guilt and continue the affair by rationalizing that nobody is getting hurt because they are “not taking anything away” from their better half. Others transform guilty feelings by taking responsibility and terminating their wacky behaviors long before they are discovered.

How could it go on so long if you knew it was wrong?
Cheating is both messy and glamorous. The forbidden, unstable nature of secret relationships keeps passion flowing years beyond what’s common in a stable relationship. The unfaithful often appear to be addicted to their lovers. They fail in their efforts to end the affair time and time again, pulled back by a magnetic force they can’t seem to resist. Only with great determination are they able to break the spell.

Comprehending what started an affair is different from comprehending what kept it going. It may have started out of a shared interest or sexual attraction but continued because of a deepening emotional attachment. Or it may have started as an emotional affair and continued because the sex was so great. Or it may have started because the relationship was in a struggle period but continued because it assumed a life of its own long after the relationship improved. And quite frankly, most people would rather continue to cheat than to improve the current situation in front of them.

It is as important to understand how the affair ended as it is to understand what sustained it. The ramifications of an affair that was ended by the unfaithful one before disclosure are very different from an affair that was ended either by the affair partner or by the ultimatums of the betrayed partner. If the affair ended abruptly, the attachment will be harder to break than if the affair died a natural death. It’s easier to put a relationship behind you if you’re the one who made the decision to leave.

What did you share about us?
This question addresses the issues of loyalty to the relationship and the nature of emotional intimacy in the affair. The betrayed partner has an understandable interest in knowing how much of a window the affair partner had into the relationship. The betrayed partner might also want to know how he or she and the relationship was portrayed.

Some unfaithful partners give positive accounts of their situations and glowing descriptions of their better half, to the bewilderment and chagrin of their affair partners. Others describe their partners as cold or distant. It’s hard to know whether this is an attempt to deceive by making the relationship look bad or whether it is a misguided unburdening of a struggle point. In any case, if you are the unfaithful partner, it’s important for you to talk to your better half about real problems that you’ve discussed only with your affair partner. The next chapter will help you both review the story of your relationship and address these problems together.

In the event that the relationship was shielded and the betrayed one was never discussed, why were these topics not discussed with the affair partner? Some unfaithful partners try to keep their double lives completely separate by compartmentalizing. They may delude themselves into thinking that they are honoring their relationship by shielding it from the scrutiny of the person they are cheating with.

What did you like about yourself in the affair? How were you different?
Instead of focusing on what the affair partner was like, it is more productive to focus on what the unfaithful partner was like in the side-piece situation. New relationships allow people to be different: more assertive, more frivolous, or more giving. A strong attraction of affairs is the opportunity to try on new roles: the insensitive, detached man becomes energized by his own empathy; the sexually uninterested woman is exhilarated by newfound passion and erotic fantasies. In long-term relationships, the potential to develop a different persona is constricted by familiarity.

A good question for the involved partner is: “What did you experience about yourself in the side-piece situation that you would like to experience in the relationship?” Perhaps the marriage can begin to foster these positive aspects of the self. In fact, the betrayed partner may find it hurtful that the involved partner enjoyed them first with somebody else.

What did you see in the affair partner?
The betrayed partner will already have a portrait of the affair partner, but it is almost never the whole picture. Betrayed others are prone to place all the blame on the affair partner, preferring to believe that their gullible better half was seduced and they just allowed themselves to fall for it. They may not be willing to accept that the person to whom they’re in the relationship with took an active role, and therefore displace a lot of the anger and rage onto the affair partner. Involved partners must recount the ways they encouraged the affair and invested energy to keep it going. It is less likely that an infidelity will happen again when the involved partner owns up to having been a full participant. In this era of ego-driven people, admitting to anything is highly unlikely – someone will confess to murder before they confess to cheating.

Betrayed partners vacillate between glorifying the lover as an incomparable rival and disparaging him or her as a despicable human being. Questions about physical appearance, personality, and intellect are attempts to see whether they measure up to their rival in sex appeal and achievement. These questions aren’t helpful, as they seldom reveal the lure of the affair partners looking rather ordinary. The appeal of the affair is frequently in the positive mirroring or the sounding board it provides, rather than in the lover’s charisma.