“I Should Do What??”

Trust and Forgiveness After An Affair

One of the first questions most people ask when seeking couples therapy after an affair is, “Can my marriage survive? Are people really able to heal after a betrayal like this?”

It can be reassuring to hear that, yes, a great majority of couples are able to not only survive, but eventually thrive in the wake of an affair. Yet for many, repair can, at first, seem beyond reach and forgiveness can seem all but impossible.

Today’s New York Times ran an article about the need to reestablish trust after an affair. Molly O’Shea, the marriage and family therapist interviewed in the article, said that she asks the betrayed spouse “what it would take to regain trust and what the cheating spouse can do to prove the affair was a mistake.”

Most of her clients tell her that they have no idea what it would take for them to regain their lost trust. iStock_000018557790XSmallMany assume that nothing will help. The problem, she believes, is that “they’re just so angry.”

I believe the problem is the flawed question she’s asked them.

In my experience, couples do not regain unconditional trust after an affair. Fortunately for them, there’s no need to do so. Couples don’t recover by reinstating a blind trust, though many erroneously believe that’s what’s required.

I’ve seen couples split up early in the recovery process because trust is understandably shattered and they see no way to glue it back together. Many struggle at this juncture, thinking that they’re supposed to “forgive and forget” when they cannot. Some worry that forgiveness might send a message to their partner that “everything’s fine”, which of course isn’t the case.

I once worked with a woman who was told by her first couples therapist that until she was able to forgive, until she was willing to regain trust, healing from the affair would be impossible. Never mind that she was deeply heartbroken and felt like a fool after her husband had been lying to her for years.

“Now I’m the problem?” she rightfully protested. Her instinct told her that there had to be more to recovery than putting her trust in the hands of a partner who no longer deserved it.

And her instinct was right.

One of the great myths about marriage is that we can— and should be able to count on our partner to ALWAYS act with our best interest in mind. No one is married to a person who can fulfill that expectation; no one is a person who can offer that to another.

Like it or not, unromantic though it is, here’s the hard truth: every one of us will at one time or another be deeply let down by the person we love; the very person in whom we’ve invested our trust. This is true for all of us, without exception. No matter how terrific or lousy a partner we picked. No matter how kind and good and well-meaning we might hope to be.

Couples who successfully heal from an affair recognize and accept that they are not unequivocally safe, that they, in fact never were. They recognize, as well, that forgiveness cannot be rushed, that healing takes time and that trust has a meaning that it did not have before.

The trust we need as partners is actually trust in ourselves: trust that we can ask and answer difficult questions, that we can successfully advocate for our concerns, that we can weather heartbreak if necessary that in the face of great difficulty we can be courageous and smart and as trustworthy as possible.

Rather than ask, “What will it take to regain trust?” a more useful question is this: “Knowing that you cannot expect to be unconditionally safe, are you willing to be vulnerable and to love anyway?”

12 thoughts on ““I Should Do What??”

  1. Wow… Excellent. So many of us come to this after so much hard work and soul searching, it is very tough to accept though. Even after I thought I was willing to let myself become vulnerable, I was trying to engineer guarantees that my WS wouldn’t ever stray again. I got logs of every website visited in the house, I saw every bank, credit card, EZpass (toll pass), email, FB, text, and phone log just to make it so inconvenient for him to even attempt to hook up again that it wouldn’t seem worth it. In the past year, as far as I can tell, there has been no contact on his part, but several attempts from AP’s to re-establish relationships, even after he told them NO CONTACT. I finally accepted that there were no guarantees, and that if he was going to cheat again, he would find a way. I told him this and told him the decision was his, it was always his, and he said he understood.

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    • I couldn’t do that. I was so disspirited, and so busy– I figured that we weren’t going to last and he would end up marrying the expensive AP, so I was trying to save the business and re-establish the other career. And I just gave up. I told him, “It’s not my job to keep you faithful. Do what you want. Just let me know this time.”
      It didn’t work– or maybe it did. He revealed accidentally (on purpose?) that he was flirting with a potential partner, and I said I couldn’t live like this, that he could do what he wanted, but he had to match every penny he spent on this affair, including the cell phone and internet bills and mileage, in an account with just my name on it. Weirdly enough, that worked (he’s a real cheapskate) and he broke off the flirtation (I’m sure she would have broken it off herself if she’d learned he wasn’t going to spend any money on her, LOL).

      But of course I have no certainty at all. He tries hard to be really accountable– leaving his computer on, showing me his credit card bills, and I’m sure he’s kind of annoyed that he’s trying so hard and not getting credit for it. But I’m just too emotional exhausted. That’s one of the effects no one talks about, how exhausting it is. I just don’t want to feel that much any more.

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  2. That was my experience too. I’d never trust him again totally, but I’m not sure I really did before. I’m not sure I would trust anyone totally, because it’s not actually fair to expect everyone to behave in my best interest. I wish my spouse would have spent a few minutes thinking about the damage his affairs would do, and if these women were worth it (I doubt it, as none of the relationships survived the revelation). We stayed together (small children, plus we owned a business together, plus we did/do really love each other), and I think I’ve never felt really open and daring with him, or ever truly believed that he’d ever put me first. I don’t DISbelieve it. I just consider it an open question. And it’s an open question now whether I love him as much as he probably thinks I ought to. I certainly love with more reservations and judiciousness now– gone is the heedless passion of pre-affair. But that might have been gone anyway, as we grew older.

    You just soldier on. Are we better together than apart? I think so. He thinks so. But I think one realization that comes out of this is there’s no perfect relationship (at least for us)– no perfectly trusting marriage, and for him, I think he’s figured out that the romance of a new passion isn’t all that perfect either, as it tends to come attached to an actual person (the other woman) who might have needs and expectations he never expected. Easier for him, I think, to stick with what he knows.
    Yeah, sort of sad, but that’s the way life plays out. I do wonder if, before embarking on an affair, the embarker might consider, instead of rosily envisioning everything being wonderful, imagining what probably really will happen. So often as soon as the affair’s discovered, the affairer suddenly decides the marriage is super-important after all, but by that time, so much damage has been done. Maybe a big problem here is the paucity of imagination, LOL.

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  3. My former sweetheart died of cancer five years ago. We struggled in the beginning of our relationship because he was lying to me, denying he was still seeing his former partner, when my intuition told me she was still in his life. When a photo at his sister’s house proved me right, I was ready to call it off. He pleaded with me to give him another chance–asked if we could do therapy to rebuild trust.

    I was willing to try, but felt skeptical. In therapy, we learned to communicate clearly and to reflect back what we heard before responding. We developed empathy for each other that brought us to a deeper level. I believed him when he explained that he hadn’t told me about the other woman because he was planning to end it, wanted to do it “without hurting her”, and didn’t want to risk losing me. However, at that point, realizing he was about to lose me, he DID terminate the former relationship–by speaker-phone, in my presence. And, of course, it was hurtful to the other woman. Breaking up is hard to do!

    Nevertheless, he was willing to be faithful to me from then on. And I was willing to trust him. We had a heavenly relationship for many years, until his unfortunate death. I never regretted working through those challenging times!

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    • As I said in my post and as I remind my clients, healing takes time. When things aren’t simply marching along to a happy conclusion, any one of the three parties (the two partners or the therapist, or all three!) can lose sight of that fact and get frustrated. From there, it can be a short road to blame.

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  4. NICE! Yes, can we love regardless. This is true love. God’s love. No matter how we “screw” up, God loves us and this is, in my opinion, where true love for another person comes in and yes it is heart breaking and hurtful to be betrayed, but are w e not betraying our love when we walk out or treat the other as “bad”? I like this post. Thank you! We cannot give or be what we do not have. (trust and love in ourselves and God). 🙂

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  5. My husband had two affairs, never confessed, I caught him at both. He is remorseful now, but it might be too late. Seems like staying with him would be settling. I guess it’s “good enough,” but I want more than that.

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    • Hi Rachel-

      Thanks for adding your voice to the conversation. There is no right or easy answer to the question “is it too late?” Only you can know if you want to put effort into addressing the issues that both led to his affairs and have been created by the affairs. Sometimes people have simply had it and they believe the best thing is to end the marriage.
      What I can say with certainty is that settling is never a good idea.

      A good, experienced couples therapist might be able to help.

      -WR-

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