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.
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.
1. Dealing with the physical and emotional reactions
--Physical trauma (weight loss, inability to sleep - or even function).
--Facing the future together as a couple who are changed, but hopefully stronger through working together to rebuild the marriage.
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.