An earlier version of this post was recently featured on a podcast episode of Optimal Living Daily.
I'm married and having an affair. Can my marriage survive infidelity?
Yes, couples can recover from an affair and rebuild their relationship. You can do it with a significant amount of effort, commitment, and willingness from both partners.
Recovering from infidelity is a complex and challenging process that requires a careful look. You'll need to address underlying issues, as well as re-establish trust, and process forgiveness and healing. Here are some factors that can contribute to the recovery process.
Affairs are an active act of turning away
Healing from infidelity is a process. Affairs happen when one or both partners create distance and actively turn away. The involved partner most often strays from a stance of trust and transparency before they engage in infidelity.
What advice do you have for couples in affair recovery counseling?
The process of healing begins with disclosure
Your marriage does not necessarily have to end in divorce because you had an affair. Admitting to your spouse that you had an affair will cause a lot of grief, heartache, and anger. However, the odds are that your marriage will survive if both of you are committed to the process. Couples counseling for infidelity can help.
This advice may seem counterintuitive: Come clean and disclose wisely.
Come clean and be honest. It's powerful.
However, it's not very common. When most spouses get caught cheating, their first instinct is damage control. This is a really destructive phase that adds one betrayal to another.
Not only were they involved with someone else, but they are now lying about the extent of the involvement. Keeping the affair a secret is the first lie. But intimacy gets worse when the involved spouse:
- Minimizes the extent of their involvement,
- avoids discussing their emotional commitment, or
- downplays the significance of the affair.
Don't attempt to contain the situation by lying.
- The involved partner may totally deny the affair initially.
- They may try to deny any technological contact by deleting texts, emails, and messages in a panic to "cover their tracks."
- Other involved partners totally shutdown and stone.
- Others engage in Gaslighting. They try to minimize the affair emotionally, “we’re just good friends..she’s going through a hard time." Emotional affairs are often more painful to women than anonymous sexual ones.
- Or they might minimize the sexual component– “We’re just co-workers. We just sext each other as a joke” never works. Few spouses consider sex talk between co-workers "funny."
Some engage in total amnesia about when it began, how it started, and when it ended (if it ended at all). They may tell their spouse, "I can't remember," and mean it sincerely.
Instead, be clear about where accountability and responsibility lay.
The involved partner needs to take responsibility for having the affair. But that's only the first step. They also need to be accountable for the pain and hurt that they've caused. Demonstrating remorse means being willing to understand the pain and hurt you've caused.
Dribbling out information in an agonizingly slow fashion (called “titrating”) isn't being accountable. This can arguably be called emotionally abusive.
They also need to show a genuine investment in improving problematic behaviors and demonstrating good faith efforts toward rebuilding trust.
Watch your language
Words like "betrayed spouse" or "unfaithful spouse" saddles both the couple and the infidelity therapist with critical or contemptuous language. Even the term "infidelity counseling," "surviving infidelity" or "treating infidelity" or working with "people who cheat" may not accurately describe the situation.
Both the couple and the couples counselor might benefit from more neutral language. This is why we use the terms "hurt" (for "betrayed partner") and "involved" (for the "unfaithful" partner.)
Know that rebuilding trust takes time
It is not a good sign when the involved partner snarls "I'd been a year already. Why aren't you over this?" This process takes time, transparency and consistently showing up. This process can easily take 18 -36 months before everyone relaxes most of the time.
While the mistrust might lessen as time goes on, it's a process. The involved partner must remain open and willing to discuss your actions, whereabouts, digital communication and intentions are essential. Consistent effort and actions demonstrate trustworthiness.
Demonstrate patience with the process
Both of you are learning to heal, process the pain, and rebuild trust. Don't look for easy solutions or quick fixes.
This is not an clean, upward trajectory. There will be setbacks, mistrust, and suspiciousness. Both of you need to demonstrate patience.
Address underlying issues
Gottman talks about how affairs can occur when one partner attempts to "turn toward" the other and is repeatedly ignored or rebuffed. Other issues include problematic distance and intimate details between the partners.
This is just one of a variety deeper issues within the relationship that occur before an affair. To prevent future problems couples learn ways to communicate differently, work on problematic relationship dynamics, and emotional connection. Each of them may also need to grow to meet their own needs better.
Forgive and let go
Forgiveness is a personal decision and an individual process. The hurt partner may need time and support to work through their feelings. They have to decide not only whether they can forgive their partner, but also whether they are willing to.
Forgiving is not the same as forgetting or condoning the actions. But at some point, in order to heal, the hurt partner needs to come to terms with the situation one way or another. The intense anger and resentment is a barrier to growth at some point. They need to decide whether they are in it, and willing to heal or leave the relationship.
Recovering from a sexual or emotional affair is not easy or quick. Not all relationships are willing or able to overcome this trauma. It depends on the history of the marriage, and mutual commitment . Both must put in effort, the willingness to address underlying issues and be willing to rebuild trust.
The involved partner needs to have true remorse. Professional help and guidance can be invaluable in navigating this challenging journey. As marriage counselors, we apply couples therapy to help the hurt spouse heal.