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Recovery from an Affair

Infidelities betray trust and devastate love, yet most couples heal. How?

Recovery from an affair is a growth opportunity.

Recovery from an affair is a growth opportunity.

An affair can wreak devastation to a marriage.  Affairs are right up there with abusive relationships as far as being one of the leading causes of divorce.  

That's why I've posted thus far multiple blogposts on affair prevention.  One article discusses resisting the three main temptations that destroy marriages.  Another is on how the nature of sexuality contributes to inadvertent affairs.  A third post is on keeping your marriage strong which helps to ward off infidelities from your marriage relationship like keeping your body healthy helps ward off infections. 

While prevention is vital, recovery is the challenge after an affair has happened.  Is it really possible to put the past behind you when the past includes your or your partner's affair?  Can trust ever be repaired?

The good news is that full recovery after even long-standing or multiple affairs is possible. Ideally, recovery ends up with everyone having learned and grown.

Recovery for the spouse begins with healing of the pain from the breech of the monogamy vow and from the breech of trust from having been decieved.

When a partner has been unfaithful, how and why the infidelity happened become deeply-felt questions for the spouse.  In general, a spouse recovers from the pain more readily to the extent that s/he is able to see his/her own part in the marriage difficulties that may have made the relationship vulnerable. These mistakes may include not following up on early hints of potential infidelity.  It's paradoxical, but the more someone feels that they had a role in the development of the affair, the more empowered that person will feel to make changes that will strengthen the marriage in the future.

At the same time, the spouse needs to learn what the partner had been thinking and doing, mainly to find out if the spouse has enough insight and motivation to be certain that the same path will not get traveled again.  The secrets need to be aired, and yet discretion is important lest negative images of what the partner had been doing make the trauma even worse.

The breech of trust generally is healed most effectively to the extent that the straying spouse becomes completely transparent.  If the deceiver offers a spouse full access to mobile telephone records and texts, to computer emails, and more, trust rebuilds more quickly. Continued hiding behaviors will totally undermine the spouse's recovery process.

Humans are meaning-givng meaning.  The initial meanings a spouse gives to an affair are bound to be negative:  "I've been humiliated."  "You were so selfish." etc.  Over time however these meanings need to shift toward understanding of the context and toward seeing the outcome as having been to both parnters' benefit.

Recovery for the deceiver needs to begin with cutting all ties with the affair partner. If the relationship continues in almost any form, recovery for the marriage is unlikely to succeed.

Next comes a full assessment of how the affair happened.  Step by step, where was there a turn in one direction when a turn in the other was essential?  Was there too much time alone with someone at work?  Too much talking about personal issues with someone other than the spouse?  Alcohol involved? etc.

Understanding history enables one to prevent its re-occurence.  This understanding however has to be observational rather than self-flagellating.  Being excessively angry at oneself can block real learning.  Shame and blame do little toward prevention.  Understanding of the series of unfortunate actions and decisions that led to the affair is critically important.  So is desire to put one's life on a totally different course, a course of true marriage commitment. 

Recovery for the marriage hopefully includes a radical marriage upgrade. That is, to the extent that spouses learn how to communicate more sensitively,  how to listen with more repect, how to talk about sensitive issues without anger or criticism, and how to give more positivity to their partner, the odds go up that the post-affair marriage will be far more gratifying for both partners than the pre-affair relationship.

Three sample cases

I met just this last treatment hour with a woman whose husband left her several months ago to live with his secretary.  The wife has recently passed the shock stage, and is beginning to realize the extraordinary extent to which her husband was too trapped by extreme narcissism to be a genuine marriage partner.  She is on the road to personal recovery, having transitioned from intense anger at the secretary to feeling enormously appreciative toward the woman for having rescued her from a hopelessly ungratifying marriage.  To her surprise, with her husband gone, the wife is experiencing happiness such as she had not felt in many years.

In this same case the wife had herself had a brief affair twenty years earlier.  There was insufficient marital recovery afterwards.  The marriage had continued on but without any learning to upgrade it.  There was no personal growth from either partner.  The result was an additional two decades of living together in a joyless marriage.

In a quite different case, when a husband's extended and multiple affairs came to light, both partners faced the reality that they needed significant personal growth to be mature marriage partners, him from a lifetime of narcissistic self-aggrandizement, and hers from a lifetime of feeling insecure and unloved.  Both partners also dedicated themselves to learning the skills for communicating as effective teammates in their marriage partnership. The result was a genuinely gratifying happily-ever-after story.

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My friend the late Peggy Vaughan, one of the lead specialists nationwide in recovery from affairs, built a resource website and support group organization which offer excellent guidance.  I asked Peggy if she would add a brief guide to this blogpost outlining the key steps for both spouses in the recovery process.  Thank you Peggy!

A Brief Guide to Recovering from an Affair

by Peggy Vaughan 

There are no simple 1, 2, 3 steps for recovering from an affair.   This guide clarifies the essentials that generally need to be included in the recovery process more than a map of the particular order that fits for a given individual or couple.

The journey of recovery is an often-lengthy process with few or no shortcuts. Even when couples do "everything right," the journey is seldom smooth. It's likely instead to be a very jagged path with two steps forward and one step back.

Recovering often tends to be far more complex than most couples either want or expect. Even the very definition of recovery itself is complicated. For instance, staying married is no guarantee of personal recovery, and personal recovery is no guarantee of rebuilding the marriage. The deceived spouse can personally recover through their own effort, but it takes commitment and effort from both partners to rebuild the marriage.

As I said above, there are two different types of recovery: personal recovery and marriage recovery.  A continuing marriage may or may not include personal recovery. Similarly, personal recovery may or may not include a continuing marriage.

For the injured spouse, staying trapped in a state of personal injury, regrets, and anger can occur independent of whether or not the marriage survives if personal recovery has been insufficient.  For the person who had the affair, insufficient recovery puts them at risk for a repeat offense.  

I do want to encourage all individuals and couples who are coping with affairs to wholeheartedly commit to the recovery journey.  Like any crisis, the experience can destroy you or can make you stronger. 

Personal Recovery

1. Dealing with the physical and emotional reactions

    --Physical trauma (weight loss, inability to sleep - or even function).

    --Emotional devastation (pain, self-pity, depression, anger, resentment).

    --Focusing FIRST on taking care of the basic survival needs: nutrition, exercise, stress-reduction.

2. Facing the reality that this has happened

    --Denial: Oh no, not me. ("I didn't think it would happen to me.")

    --Why me? ("What could I have done to keep this from happening?)

    --Accepting and dealing with the fact that it happened (no more "if only..." or "why me?")

3. Understanding who has affairs and why

    --Understanding who has affairs - that no one is immune.

    --Looking at the complex reasons why people in general and you in particular end up with an affair in your marriage.  Looking at personal, marital and societal factors.

    --Getting as much information as possible about affairs in general and your situation in particular.

4. Rebuilding a sense of self-esteem

    --Thinking clearly in spite of strong emotions.

    --Dealing with feelings of embarrassment and shame. (Accepting the fact that "it's not your fault!")

    --Believing it's possible to recover.

5. Deliberately focusing on dealing with it and talking openly about what happened

    --Not trying to bury it, which "buries it alive" - so that it continues to be a burden to carry forever.

    --Accepting real support and saying no to unsolicited advice.

    --Allowing time to heal - which requires patience and persistence while you work to recover.

Marriage Recovery

Note that the goal here is not just "staying married." The objective is to end up with a marriage that is fully strong and loving, and hopefully even more so than before the affair.

1.  Making decisions

    --Taking your time, avoiding quick decisions that may be overly influenced by your emotions.  Learn to do the win-win waltz as a partnership team. 

    --Thinking long-term - how you will "live" with your decisions over time without second-guessing yourself.

      --Getting clear about your priorities.

2.  The person who had the affair accepting their responsibilities in addressing it

    --Understanding the devastation caused by their actions and doing everything possible to deal with the fallout.

    --Getting perspective on the "role" of the third party and severing all contact with the third party.

    --Answering all questions (when answers are desired) and talking as long as it takes to work through it.

3.  Developing and committing to honest communication

    --Building a new basis for trust through honest communication.

    --Committing to ongoing full communication on all important topics, not just affairs.

    --Recognizing that "responsible honesty" is the primary key not only to recovery but to prevention.

4.  Learning to live with what has happened

    --Healing as a couple, giving yourselves time to build new and better memories together.

    --Using the learnings from this experience to build a stronger, more honest and committed marriage.

    --Facing the future together as a couple who are changed, but hopefully stronger through working together to rebuild the marriage.

Resources:

Peggy Vaughan's Extramarital Affairs Resource Center at dearpeggy.com offers about 200 articles, information on Peggy's ten books plus many by other authors, links to other relevant websites, a list for locating effective therapists, and information about BAN.  

Peggy Vaughan also has founded BAN, which stands for Beyond Affairs Network, an international network of recovery support groups. The BAN website includes further information about BAN including a list of cities with BAN groups.    

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 Susan Heitler, PhD, a Denver Clinical psychologist, is author of multiple publications including From Conflict to Resolution for therapists and The Power of Two for couples.  A graduate of Harvard and NYU, Dr. Heitler's most recent project is an interactive website, PowerOfTwoMarriage.com, that helps couples learn the communication, conflict resolution and anger management skills for healthy relationships.

 

The Good in Feeling Bad