Hope After An Affair
Published in Parenting OC, December 2010
Infidelity in a relationship is the equivalent of a nuclear bomb being dropped in the middle of a busy city. The people involved are wounded, in shock, and the nuclear fallout can last for years. In essence, your relationship, like a war torn city, will never be the same again. Trust, the basic foundation of any relationship, is lost and there will most likely be a nuclear winter of sorts, before recovery can begin.
But can there be a thaw? Can new growth take place? Can the partners start to rebuild what was lost and eventually create a new and more satisfying relationship? I say yes. I’ve seen it happen. It takes dedication and willingness on the parts of both to look honestly at them selves and each other. But if they are willing to do this difficult work, they can create a new, more intimate and satisfying relationship for themselves and their children.
Typically, when couples first come in for counseling, the partner who has been cheated on is devastated, angry and in enormous emotional pain. He or she feels betrayed, helpless and duped. What they had defined as their relationship prior to the affair has been shaken to the core. They will conjure up images of their partner physically involved with the other person. They want to know details. Often they will blame themselves for the affair. If they had only been more attentive to their mate or lost ten pounds, maybe their partner wouldn’t have strayed. Let me be clear. It is not your fault. The unfaithful partner cheated because it was how they chose to cope with their own feelings. There is nothing you could have done to stop it.
The cheater comes to counseling remorseful and sad, saying he or she will do anything to save the marriage and regain their partner’s trust. They swear the affair is over and they vow to never cheat again. From now on the cheater will be an open book, with complete and total disclosure.
But after a while, the cheater grows weary of their partner’s distrust. They start to resent their questions and accusations. They feel harassed and become angry at their partner’s inquiries. The hurt partner is tired of the many memories that bring back their feelings of insecurity and mistrust. They long for a day when their relationship can feel safe.
This is where the work in therapy really begins. Trust is rebuilt over time. The partners need to turn toward each other and begin to communicate honestly about their experience. Both people in a relationship need to learn to bear the uncomfortable feelings of the other, without feeling blamed or the need to “fix” it.
It will take many safe and thoughtful interactions from the cheater to gain his/her partner’s trust back. This is part of the consequences of your actions. Your spouse may have to check up on you or ask for reassurance hundreds of times. If you resent this and get angry you will only drive a larger wedge between you and undermine the redevelopment of trust. In turn, the party who has been cheated will need to reflect on the problems that existed in the relationship prior to the affair, and be able to bear his/her part in it. Together you can start to make sense of the affair, what it represents, and gain perspective.
It takes a willingness by both people to see their partner in a new light, many times observing the reality of the relationship for the first time. Each needs to make decisions about what they really want from each other and what they are willing to give. Sometimes it doesn’t work out. But in the long run both will benefit if they can be honest with themselves and their partner, and unravel what have in the past been unhealthy patterns of relating