It’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.
Many 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.
• 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”.
• 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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