If your relationship is being affected by an affair, chances are you are on an emotional roller-coaster and your sense of trust has been shattered. It can feel like you are no longer grounded – the person you counted on most for support, trust, stability, reassurance, acceptance, partnership has betrayed you. You don’t know if things will ever return to normal or if you can ever trust them again. How long will it be before you can open up, let go and feel safe? It could mean the end of your relationship. Core aspects of life that you never wanted to doubt are called into dramatic uncertainty. Dizziness, anxiety, nausea, insecurity, rage, and fear abound.
Approximately a quarter to a third of marriages experience affairs. Affairs are not inevitable, and while they are always destructive, a significant percentage of marriages survive the experience. Among the survivors, many couples report that their marriage became stronger after working through the affair and what was behind it. Most often the affair was not the problem itself, but a symptom of larger problems or dysfunctions within the individual or the relationship. Affairs are a bit like cancer – you can’t ignore it if you want to survive, and if you don’t want it to return, you probably have to live a healthier life afterwards.
Don’t Just Stand There
If this is happening to you, and if you have any desire to create a healthy relationship based on trust, the time to act is NOW. Not only is it possible to recover from an affair, surviving couples can experience greater love, trust and intimacy than ever before. Couples who rebuild their relationship after an affair learn a lot about themselves, one another, and what it takes to be happy and successful. Through the hard work of personal growth, skill development and lifestyle change they establish a level of trust and understanding that makes having another affair unlikely. Recovering and growing through an affair is difficult and painful, but frequently less painful then the alternatives: years of insecurity, resentment, mistrust and hostility, or divorce.
This is a step-by-step method for affair recovery that I have used with dozens of couples. Seeking a competent and experienced therapist to guide you through the process is essential. I cannot imagine negotiating this difficult processes without a neutral, objective professional who teaches, coaches, maintains safety, and who keeps steering both the hurt and the unfaithful partner towards learning and growing.
What I’ve written here is intended to inform you about what the process looks like. It might teach you some skills, and it will help you know what to expect from a therapist.
My steps for working through an affair
- The affair needs to be over. Openly, clearly, and explicitly over. Sometimes this means that the unfaithful partner needs to unambiguously end it in front of the hurt partner. Sometimes it means that other people (like parents, children, or close friends) need to be informed or apologized to as well. Most importantly, the hurt partner needs to have credible evidence (not just their partner’s word) that the affair is definitively over.
- Questions and answers. All questions need to be answered to the satisfaction of the hurt partner. Any question and any level of detail is fair game. Painful yes, but necessary for both damage control and trust building. If the hurt partner continues to feel like secrets are being kept from them they will continue to build resentment, withhold trust, resist investing in the relationship, and be looking and waiting to be hurt again. Trust is built each time it is safe to ask and answer difficult questions. The person who was cheated on gets to learn the truth about their partner, what actually happened, and even about themselves. Trust is built when the person who had the affair can give complete, honest, detailed answers that specifically address their partner’s questions.
This stage of recovery is complete when the person cheated on has asked every question they can think of (usually over a period of weeks) and they and the therapist concur that the person who did the cheating seems to be answering fully and honestly. Of course new questions can come up at any time. In a healthy relationship we can talk about anything. My experience is that when the hurt partner is being diligent, the most significant questions will surface sooner rather then later. When this leads to honest, thorough answers, then the couple is ready for the next step.
- Validation and acknowledgement of the damage done. In this stage, the person who was cheated on gets to say how the affair affected them. They get to talk about their feelings, their thoughts, what they imagined, what they wanted instead, and why all of this is significant to them. The hurt partner gets to go over everything, in detail, many times, until they feel understood, respected, and that their experience has been validated. It is important and necessary to express the pain, disappointment, and grief fully – as long as this expression doesn’t cross the line into abusive or disrespectful behavior. Expressing one’s hurt, sadness, or pain is not permission to hurt or retaliate against one’s partner.
In this stage, the unfaithful partner gets to listen. They get to understand what the experience was like from their partner’s perspective. They get to paraphrase what they are hearing and check to see if they’re getting it right. They get to make absolutely sure that their partner feels validated, understood, and acknowledged. The person who did the cheating does not get to justify, minimize, insert information, argue, correct, or rationalize. Period. I’m sorry if this seems unfair or feels uncomfortable. It is necessary. While it is understandable that the unfaithful partner will want and need empathy and compassion also, this needs to come later.
Step three continues until the hurt partner feels fully expressed, fully understood and respected by their partner. Then and only then is the couple ready for an apology and recommitment.
- Apology and Recommitment. So often when people say “I’m sorry” what they are really saying is, “Can we be done now?” “Will you please get off my back?” “Can we please stop talking about this.” These apologies and the agreements that go with them are not real and don’t last. They are neither honest nor compassionate. They reflect the unfaithful partner’s discomfort rather than empathy for the partner who was hurt. Sorry doesn’t mean much if you don’t completely understand how your actions affected the other person.
Apologies can have meaning and ring with authenticity and integrity. When couples diligently work through steps 1-3, and the unfaithful partner says, “I am really sorry for what I did and how it affected you,” it feels believable and real. The hurt partner has had the chance to heal from direct experience of being understood and cared for. Now it is time for recommitment.
Recommitment is the process of consciously, carefully, and honestly recreating your vows to one another. This means giving your word only where it truly matches up with your values. It means powerfully saying “yes” where you really mean “yes,” and “no” where you honestly mean “no.” At this point in the process couples have built enough safety and trust that they are both confidently telling the truth at any cost. This is where partners distinguish between honest, realistic possibilities and unrealistic expectations. This is when couples begin the process of discussing and creating what comes next. As the two of you learn to articulate what matters to you most in life, you are likely to discover that you share many of the same goals, values, and desires. Recommitment is about embracing and re-valuing the positive history that you share and your desire for a bright and healthy future.
Honest values, wishful thinking and good intentions, however, are not quite enough. Affairs generally happen because something was missing or being neglected in an individual’s life or in the life of the couple. Which leads to…
- Understanding the set-up for the affair. Up until now, things have been one-sided. Until now the unfaithful partner has been doing a majority of the listening and has not been allowed to justify, rationalize, minimize, otherwise defend his or her actions. At this stage the focus shifts. While the perpetrator remains solely responsible for the affair and its damage, the couple now begins to discuss and share responsibility for what made their relationship vulnerable to an affair. Yes, it is possible that with some affairs there was no set up and the hurt partner could neither have done anything different to prevent or predict what happened. My experience is, however, that these are rare exceptions. Usually both members were aware of unresolved issues in the relationship, and either did something to maintain or ignore the problems. At this stage it is important for the couple to have a healthy and thorough discussion about:
The couple’s awareness of problems before the affair.
Relationship or individual needs that were being neglected.
Lifestyle choices that were unhealthy or unbalanced.
Individual issues that were affecting the health of the relationship.
The learning and practice of skills necessary to resolve these issues.
Any avoidance or denial dynamics within the relationship.
Step five is typically when core issues and neuroses come out. Abandonment issues, fear of domination, fear of letting go, trust issues, control issues, low self-esteem, abuse history, individuation and enmeshment issues, attachment issues, mid-life crises, projections, fear of mortality, and narcissism all make their entrance on this stage. This is where it is vital to have the dedication, objectivity, and experience of a trusted therapist. It is impossible for any of us to be on-stage, caught up in your role, and watching the play objectively at the same time.
Step five is also where individual therapy and couples therapy intertwine. It is where couples explore feedback loops such as, “the more he does this, the more I do that, which causes him to do more of this…” and how to break out of those cycles. This phase is when each of you learn to take responsibility for what is yours while allowing your partner to take responsibility for what is theirs. This is where new skills are learned and practiced. This step is complete when both partners can take ownership of their core issues and have made progress identifying and replacing dysfunctional behaviors, building a foundation of trust and respect. While the work of step five may go on for years (with or without a therapist) the couple is ready to move on to step six when they have enough trust and confidence to try something new.
- Building a new relationship. This is about working from positives to create an intentional lifestyle of sustainable happiness. A foundation is created to include each person’s unique values hopes and dreams. The couple explores the intricacies of their financial life, sex life, spiritual life, social life, physical fitness, intellectual stimulation, parental and familial responsibilities, vocation and hobbies. This is where you can get in touch with what is most important in life and where you regain footing as your partner’s best friend. Real change in the relationship becomes possible as the couple learns to build something stronger than they had before. This is where both people in the relationship experience confidence in meeting one another’s needs and the excitement found in facing the future as a solid team.
Don’t Try This at Home
Once you have read through and understand this material, it is time to find a therapist. You are looking for a competent professional who has lots of experience helping people resolve affairs. I highly suggest initially interviewing therapists by phone. Based on your reading and your individual situation, have a handful of questions prepared ahead of time. If someone is unwilling or unable to answer a few questions over the phone – move on!
Marriage and Family Therapists and Clinical Social Workers are your most likely candidates. Clinical Psychologists are also a possibility provided they have specific training and experience in working with couples and affairs. You need to find someone who will be able to remain positive, confident, and objective in order to keep the two of you headed in the right direction. Then it’s time to get down to work.
Your therapist will certainly have his or her own approach to resolving an affair. If you’ve done your reading, you will have some ideas of your own. Share your ideas early on and come up with a strategy for treatment in the first session or two. That way everyone stays on the same page, therapy stays on track, and you don’t wind up wasting time and money.
Reading a good book or two on recovering from an affair can help a lot. Two I recommend are:
When Good People Have Affairs: Inside the Hearts & Minds of People in Two Relationships by Mira Kirshenbaum
After the Affair: Healing the Pain and Rebuilding Trust When a Partner Has Been Unfaithful by Janis A. Spring