Surviving Infidelity: A Step-by-Step Guide to Healing

Holding HandsIt’s the first question most people ask when seeking couples therapy after an affair: “Can my marriage survive?”

Most are relieved that the answer is, yes.

In fact, a great majority of couples go on to not only survive infidelity, but eventually thrive in its wake. Yet for many, repair can seem beyond reach and forgiveness can seem all but impossible.

Especially at the outset.

When there’s been an affair, a deception, when big promises have been broken, most couples find themselves in over their heads, awash in a sea of rage and hurt, heartbreak and shame, struggling, as their usual repair tactics offer little relief.

If their tried-and-true strategy is to sit down and talk things out, when discussing an affair, talking will sometimes make matters even worse. Many ask for “details” far too soon, setting the stage for tearful discussions that offer little resolution and in many cases cause further distress.

Or they get caught up in blame, where the aggrieved spouse is told, If you had been more loving… (or more available, or more friendly…) Or, If you’d been more willing to have sex, the affair wouldn’t have happened — as if the responsibility lay in the hands of the person who did not have the affair.

For couples who are not well-practiced at resolving lower-stakes conflict, those whose strategy is to “let bygones be bygones” or to approach impasses by “agreeing to disagree,” an affair can present challenges that they are unprepared to face.

If you are struggling to repair your relationship in the aftermath of an affair, following these guidelines can help:

Steps For the Partner Who Had the Affair:

•  Be willing to listen to your spouse talk about the pain of the betrayal without blaming or being defensive

It can be tempting to say, “haven’t we gone over this all before?” when most partners require many conversations before they are able to begin the healing process. This cannot be bypassed or rushed.

•  Show yourself to be a trustworthy partner in the day-to-day

Trust is rebuilt slowly and can be easily toppled. Demonstrate commitment by following through with agreements, reaching out, expressing affection and being willing to hang in there during the rough and often emotionally-charged conversations.

•  Take your partner’s trust concerns seriously

As painful and tedious as it is to be to questioned, aim to be as forthright and calm as possible when asked things like, “Have the two of you had contact?” “Was that email from her?” “Can I look at your phone?” Couples who engage in an open-book policy are able to get though the suspicion stage much more effectively than those who resist disclosure, or argue that their partner is just trying to control them.

•  Be willing to engage in some serious soul searching

Why did you have the affair?

Are there issues in the marriage that have gone unaddressed? Are you lacking the necessary tools you would need to successfully deal with them? Have you been too fearful to tackle difficult issues directly?

Do you have work to do on your self-esteem and your sense of self-worth? Affairs offer a great deal of external validation. You’re told how sexy and kind and wonderful you are, things you may well be missing in your marriage. While we all want to be loved and valued, no marriage can compete with the “you’re so perfect” element of an affair.

Do you lack the skills needed to deal with the inevitable disappointments that we all face with our partners?

Have you resisted requests by your partner to seek couples therapy, or have you not sought therapy on your own if your partner has refused to join you?

Owning your part in the mess is a crucial step towards creating repair.

Steps For the Betrayed Spouse:

•  Pay attention to your basic needs

In the weeks and months that follow the disclosure of an affair, people are often in a state of shock.

Portrait Of Female Yoga Hands At The BeachMany lose or gain weight, struggle with insomnia or depression, or find themselves drinking more alcohol than usual as they struggle with painful emotions. Taking good care of yourself is essential, especially when dealing with extreme stress. Take a yoga class. Take a walk with a friend. Journal. Eat food that’s good for you. Read a good book. Try to get plenty of sleep.

•  Before asking for details, be clear about what you do and don’t want to know

Many people find hearing the highly intimate details of their spouse’s extramarital lovemaking to be unnecessarily painful. Most find it agonizing.

Yet in order to get a clear sense of what happened, they do want to know the who, where, and when, as well as the why. While there are no hard and fast rules about this, too much information, especially at first, is likely to be overwhelming.

•  Work to restore trust in yourself

While an affair does obvious damage to trust in your spouse, there are “internal” trust injuries that happen as well.

For many people the worst part of being betrayed is the devastating blow to their sense of self. Many walk around feeling as if they’re “lost”, as if a bomb has gone off in their life and they cannot begin to pick up the pieces.

When people have been lied to or deceived, an inevitable side effect is that they lose trust in themselves. “How could I have let this happen?” they say. “Why didn’t I see it coming?”

Or they admit, regretfully, that the writing was on the wall but for some reason they chose to ignore it.

Many feel as if they were stupid to have ever trusted their spouse in the first place. Most cannot imagine how to move forward, knowing that they have no guarantee that it won’t happen again.

Trust in yourself will grow as you begin to face your problems head on, as you ask difficult questions, as you speak up. Trust comes from connecting to your strengths, from recognizing your resilience, and from discovering that no matter what happens, you can count on yourself.

•  Have the courage to look honestly at your contribution to any problems in the marriage

While it is not your fault that your partner chose to have an affair, many, but not all, affairs are a result of underlying marital difficulties.

It’s worth asking yourself the following questions: Have I been caught up in work or family life and left the marriage unattended? Do I respond to conflict with hostility or withdrawal, or do I avoid it entirely? Are there sexual or other seemingly unresolvable difficulties we have been unable to address? Am I now willing to take these issues on in a new way?

Many couples use the crisis of an affair to create new, healthier ways of relating, with both partners striving to grow.

shhhh•  Resist the pull to hash and rehash the betrayal when anxiety mounts

When troublesome issues emerge, notice the pull to bring up the affair as a way to criticize or blame your partner, even around issues unrelated to the betrayal.

Some use the affair to attack their partner’s character or justify their own destructive behavior, reigniting old wounds and bypassing a valuable opportunity to address the real problem at hand.

•  Know that forgiveness cannot be rushed

Many people feel pressure to forgive their partner long before they are ready. When forgiveness does not come easily, couples mistakenly assume it’s a sign that they should get a divorce.

Some think that they’re supposed to “forgive and forget,” while others worry that forgiveness sends a message to their partner that “everything’s fine”, which of course isn’t the case.

Forgiveness is best thought of as a coming to peace about things that have happened and cannot be undone. Forgiveness is a gift we give to ourselves on the road to healing.

•  Avoid behaving in ways that you will regret

Yes, what your partner did was hurtful and wrong. But that doesn’t mean you should go out and run up the credit card or tell everyone you know that your partner is a louse.

Hard as it is, taking care of your damaged marriage will pay off in the long run.

Steps For The Couple:

•  Be patient

The people who successfully heal from affairs recognize and accept that recovery comes slowly, and that healing cannot be rushed, no matter how anxious one or both parties are to “move on”.

Thank You• Pay attention to sincere repair efforts

When people are hurting, they often overlook or discount the positive efforts that form the basis of healing the connection with their partner.

While it is not useful to pat yourself on the back for half-hearted efforts, recognizing and acknowledging positive change plays a key role in rebuilding damaged trust.

•  Seek help

Couples therapy can provide a supportive place to explore the emotionally painful issues you are facing. Be sure to choose someone who has successfully helped other couples heal from affairs.

Rebuilding your marriage after the discovery of an affair will require a willingness to be honest with yourself and your partner, to tolerate extremely uncomfortable levels of tension, and to persist when discouraged.

Many couples discover that, challenging as it is to do the work of repair, they are rewarded for their effort. Most end up healthier and happier, with a more solid and satisfying relationship than ever before.

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23 thoughts on “Surviving Infidelity: A Step-by-Step Guide to Healing

  1. All of the ideas are great so long as the partner that wound up in the affair is willing to put it behind them and attempt to recover the marriage. In my situation my wife does not feel that she did anything wrong because the affair made her feel good. Her opinion is that life is short and why not make yourself happy, actually saying she would not blame me if I wanted to have an affair as well.

    I was depressed after learning about her situation and could not eat or sleep. Our conversations always turned to arguements because she was always covering up and steering the conversation away from her trying to push blame on me.

    I desperately needed a release so I came to grips with the situation and decided I had to accept two possibilities; if she can learn to love me for who I am then maybe our love will reconnect, otherwise if she decides she loves the other guy then there is nothing I can do to make her love me. The result of letting it all go was relief. I decided to give her freedom to do whatever she wants without need for providing any detail. It is a struggle since she said we are separated living in the same house while girls finish the school year and she disappears for the weekend.

    I liked the advice presented above and it does help me, however the spouse would have to be willing to want to try to repair the marriage for this to be effective for both parties. Good luck to all of you who are in relationships where both are willing to mend.

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    • Yes, this is a blueprint for healing when two people want to do it.

      Your line – the result of letting it all go was a relief – makes sense, painful as I imagine that process must have been.

      Thank you for sharing your story.
      -WR-

      Like

  2. The topic that no one wants to contemplate when entering into marriage. Good for you, Winifred, for treating such a difficult topic is such sensitive and common sense manner.

    Of particular interest to me was this statement:

    “For many people the worst part of being betrayed is the devastating blow to their sense of self. Many walk around feeling as if they’re “lost”, as if a bomb has gone off in their life and they cannot begin to pick up the pieces.”

    I experienced this when I experienced deeply entrenched systemic feminist bias and abuse in my divorce. I felt betrayed by a nation that my family had served in uniform for over three generations. This was almost the straw that broke the camel’s back. 42 years a Catholic and divorcing my narcissistic wife, only to then discover that what I thought was a just nation that I had been serving all my adult life was anything but.

    My belief system had shattered. “Feeling lost” is an excellent way to describe it, and it certainly wasn’t a feeling emotional state. It took time and effort to heal those emotional wounds.

    Like

  3. Thank you for an excellent article which clearly names the different stages people go through. As you say, some relationships never recover, especially if over time, the person who has been betrayed can’t find a way to trust again. The affair comes up in every disagreement and argument rather than dealing with the real issues in the marriage. At the same time, with honest and open discussions and commitment to work things through, the relationship can change and grow and become stronger. Everybody is different and has their own process and timing in dealing with such a painful issue.

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    • Yes, I’ve seen plenty of situations where the commitment to rebuild isn’t there and cases where what’s happened leaves one or both partners too injured to continue with the marriage.

      The trust piece is complicated. My belief is that people’s sense of trust changes after any big betrayal. Regained trust is more about how they trust themselves to deal with difficulty. They build a sense of safety by having come through a painful trial.

      A partner who continues to be untrustworthy should obviously not be trusted yet people are often pressured to trust again as if the betrayed spouse has to make that move before healing can begin.

      I wrote about this in an earlier post called I Should Do What?

      Like

  4. Excellent piece!!!! Meaty, interesting to the last word, exactly the right tonality for such a difficult topic..Guessing you will get lots of new followers with this one. Really great. 

     How was it to write?

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    • Thanks!

      I’d say 1/3 of the couples I see have had to deal with an affair. It’s really difficult, courageous work to get their marriage to a place where they value it and each other.

      In many ways I’ve learned from them about what works and what’s needed.

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      • This sounds all good, however, how does one deal with a spouse who continually lies about the affair, calling it instead a ” person who helps him at work when no one else is available”?; this “work” he pays for. Cheating and lying to cover up is the worst; no reason to talk this through.

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      • Great question.

        Here I’m really talking about couples who are being straight about the affair and want to work through the betrayal and explore the issues that may have contributed to the affair in the first place. Unfortunately, may people lie about affairs. I’ve seen people lie when there’s clear evidence. Eventually most people come clean and then both partners in the couple must decide if they want to attempt a repair or end the marriage.

        No healing can take place when an affair isn’t even acknowledged. Once it is, I have seen many couples develop a much healthier relationship after working things through.

        -Winifred

        Like

  5. Thank you so much for the insight. I am still in shock and dismay. I had suspected my wife and this “friend” were more than just friends, and getting bombarded with grief I didn’t need to take. About a week ago she admitted the affair and over this last weekend it blew up on her. Friend got violent with her destroyed some stuff and came clean that she was not the only one he was running. And publicly humiliated her on Facebook, and sent me e-mails and pictures.
    I am trying to follow your advice, and I am reaching out to her too be supportive because of the devastation of it all and put up a good public front. But now she is blaming me for not doing better and being a better husband. Is that normal or am I just getting more of the same. When do I get to feel better.
    We are still living together, and I want to put this behind us, I’m not giveing her grief why am I getting it? Or is it just too soon?

    Like

    • You’re in a situation where you need some outside help. Maybe you’re getting more of the same and maybe your wife is wanting to talk about difficulties in the marriage that you and she have not attended to and doing a miserable job of it.

      I can’t tell if your wife wants to repair your marriage or not. If she does, find a qualified person to help you work through the betrayal aspect and help the two of you to create a marriage that is better and healthier for both of you.

      Like

  6. I simply do not accept the blanket statement that the aggrieved is not at fault, but this depends on how you define “affair.” If an abandoned spouse gets their needs met somewhere else before the judge bangs the gavel, then it certainly can be the fault of the aggrieved if the aggrieved abused and neglected their responsibilities.to engage in the marriage (and I’m not talking just about sex).
    My ex-wife checked out of the marriage but we could not get divorced for years (for various reasons). I still had my needs and felt that I had every right to get them met since she exercised her right of first refusal. To this day, I do not feel that I did anything wrong.
    I would argue that, in many cases, the aggrieved has at least some responsibility for the actions of the other. When one partner refuses to do the work of marriage, the other is cooked. And it is possible that the aggrieved refused to do the work of marriage.
    In my opinion, extramarital activity that occurs after a “marriage” has long ceased to be functional (and before a legal divorce) is not an affair.
    Marriage is far too complicated to apply sweeping and general simple rules.

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    • I’m not sure where you got the idea that I think the “aggrieved” should go off scot free.

      My point here is to say both people would be wise to explore their contribution to the difficulties.

      I generally avoid thinking in terms of who is at “fault,” preferring instead to have people be accountable for what they did and didn’t do.

      No one is responsible for the actions of another but they are responsible for how they respond and react.

      I appreciate your voicing your concerns about what I wrote.

      Like

  7. Pingback: Let’s talk about our relationship (some more) | jamesmatter

  8. My husband says he “will not give her her up” but wants to stay married. He loves us both. Ironically we live Utah, he has considerable contempt for Mormons, but really wants to live a polygamous lifestyle. I have read many books which suggest that making “ultimatums” in troubled marriages condemn them to failure. As you’ve suggested in other posts, I want to try to hang in and repair our marriage. But how long can I put up with divided loyalties, which undermine my spirits and sense of self.

    Like

    • Hi Melody-
      It sounds like your husband had made a strong unilateral move and he’s hoping you’ll go along with what he wants. Your job is to figure out if you are willing to live with his terms or tell him that you cannot. If you cannot, then he’s going to have to make a decision about his next move.

      Couples who have open marriages do so by choice, as in both partner’s choosing that lifestyle in a collaborative way.

      As much as you want to stay married, if you cannot be married and feel good about yourself, your life, your marriage, your husband, you may need to leave even though you would prefer to stay married and work things out.

      Not an easy situation.

      I wish you the best.

      -Winifred

      Like

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