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. Many 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?”