The Steps That Can Repair a Relationship After an Affair
Mutual reconsideration, a trust reset, and more.
Posted May 24, 2022 | Reviewed by Abigail Fagan
- In the aftermath of an affair, only the couple can decide if their marriage can survive.
- An apology without excuses and a process of forgiveness are crucial to rebuilding a marriage.
- Mutual reconsideration of the reason for the affair is considered the most difficult and crucial step.
Too often we witness the dismantling of marriages by couples in the public as well as those of friends and acquaintances because of an affair. Outsiders frequently feel compelled to condemn, condone and debate the question: Can a marriage survive an affair?
The fact is, regardless of what the world thinks, only the couple can decide if their marriage can survive.
I have found in my work with couples standing in the emotional debris of an affair that if both partners want to recommit to an exclusive relationship and have the courage to trust and reignite their love, they can rebuild a marriage.
Difficult Beginnings Are Understandable
Rebuilding sounds good but in the beginning, it is not easy. Often, no one is sure of anything but the wish to make the pain “go away.” Emotionally, the feelings of devastation, anger, betrayal, guilt and blame don’t just go away.
There is sometimes an urge to bury them and re-connect as if nothing has happened.
There is sometimes the pull of the immediate world to do or not to do something.
It is interesting how many people who vote against taking him/her back will fight for their own marriage when they find themselves in a similar situation.
Given the internal and external pressures, a couple in the aftermath of infidelity needs to give themselves permission and time to heal and repair in their own way.
Important Steps Moving Forward Toward Healing and Repair
An apology is a verbal, sometimes written, expression of guilt that conveys remorse or sorrow for having injured or wronged the other. In the aftermath of an affair, an apology is a way of bearing witness to the pain of betrayal one partner has caused the other.
An apology is neither a “get out of jail free card” nor a “license to kill.” It is not the preface to blame, excuses or retaliation. A true apology after an affair sends the message that no matter what the reason, violating the marriage bond is never the answer.
An apology is essential because it acknowledges the rupture and begins the restoration of safety and shared values between the partners – it promises change.
For a couple to move on, there has to be a sincere apology and a willingness to forgive. In many ways, this is a mutual journey that implies a belief in the other’s sincere regret, and a willingness and capacity to change – sometimes it is a leap of faith worth taking.
Literature on infidelity underscores that in the repair of a marriage, forgiveness is an ongoing process, not a distinct event (Baucom, Gordon, Synder, Atkins & Christensen, 2006).
As such, forgiveness often involves cycles of distrust, fear and shame. Much like any other trauma, infidelity takes time and understanding to heal. For example:
Either partner may react to triggers that remind them of the affair and its immediate aftermath:
- The betrayed partner may be thrown back into feelings of anger, hurt and self-doubt:“ How did I miss it?” “How can I ever trust you?”
- The partner who had the affair may feel shame, despair and anger: “I don’t know what else to say.” “I don’t know what else to do. “
Empathy for the other’s position at these times may be the most powerful way of supporting the forgiveness process: “I hear you.” “I understand you are sorry.” “I am sorry and I can’t blame you for needing more time to trust me.”
It is significant that in a study that examined factors that fostered post-traumatic growth (PTG) in couples recovering from infidelity, the only significant predictor of PTG was forgiveness. It makes sense when we consider that PTG reflects new understandings of self, relationships, and the world we live in after a traumatic event. (Tedeshi and Calhoun, 2004)
The concept of coping flexibility comes from the research of George Bonanno & Colleagues (2011), who consider that resilience to trauma is not a result of one coping response but the ability to be flexible and engage in different types of coping.
In the aftermath of trauma including infidelity, I have often been asked: “Do you get over it or do you just get on with it?”
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The answer is that you do both.
If you never look back to feel and face the marriage rupture you can’t heal, and if you never look forward to take steps together with hope then you won’t find the pathway to renewed love.
Re-Setting the Trust Point
Integral to the apology, the forgiveness and the process of healing infidelity is re-setting trust. Because the truth about the relationship has been compromised by silence and lying, the truth now has to be expressed.
From the beginning of the healing process and as healing unfolds, the betrayed partner needs to know the story of the affair. They need to make sense of their reality and their perception of what has happened. They need to know who their partner is, who the “other person” was, how that relationship ended and who their partner is now.
Although the request for information may come at different times, clarification is important. It may take many requests and the need for dates and details.
That said, clarification is different than endless ruminating, obsessing or interrogating the betraying partner. You don’t want to make the affair more important than the marriage you are trying to heal.
Adding to the trust that makes recovery and relationship healing possible is the honest, non-blameful examination of the state of the relationship before the affair. This does not equate to condoning betrayal.
It is an honest self-reflection by each partner and a mutual exchange of what each was giving and getting in the relationship. What issues were each facing? What issues were being ignored? What wants and needs will each partner have in a newly repaired marriage?
In their book, Getting Past the Affair, Snyder, Baucom and Gordon (2007) maintain that “… Coming to a fuller understanding of why an affair occurred is simultaneously the most difficult and also the most important stage of recovery" ( p.138).
It is relevant when reconsidering the marriage together, to learn that based on a 17-year longitudinal study of 1,475 couples, researchers Denise Previti and Paul Amato (2004) concluded that “infidelity is both a cause and a consequence of relationship deterioration.” That is not an excuse for affairs; it is a reality to consider in the repair process.
- Consistent with this, I have often found that spouses who have engaged in extramarital affairs were not out of love with their partners; they were out of interest, affirmation, passion, mutual goals, and laughter. Often they believed their partner had lost the same interests, etc., in them.
- It is telling that many who had been involved in an affair reported wishing that their partner would have started paying attention, showing enjoyment in their presence or offering the same compliments they were receiving from “someone else.” Maybe then they could have walked back to their marriage.
- In a way, both partners are often trapped. Literally and symbolically, they have often stopped looking at each other and have missed noticing when their partner suddenly makes the effort.
Repairing a Marriage Includes Self-Reflection and Disclosure
- “I need to be with someone who wants to be with me.”
- “I need to recognize that I stopped feeling good about myself and avoided connection with you.”
- “I need someone who wants to try new things and keep on living.”
- “I realize that I pushed you out of my life with my work.”
- “We forgot who we were – and opened our marriage to strangers.”
Help Along the Way
- While it is the couple that really makes the recovery possible, help along the way is often very valuable.
- Given that verbal intimacy has been compromised, it is not easy for partners to just start talking without an overload of anger and blame.
- Often the partner who has had the affair is feeling so guilty and embarrassed that he/she has no words, while the betrayed partner often has so much rage and pain that he/she can’t stop expressing it.
- A professional counselor or therapist, by reason of being the “neutral” third, serves as a safety point that expands the field enough to contain and consider feelings, examine causes and resiliency.
New Partners to Each Other
- Essential to the process of rebuilding a marriage is becoming new partners and new confidantes to each other, by leaving the affair behind.
- As with any trauma, healing in the aftermath of an affair involves mourning loss and embracing growth.
- It ultimately means the freedom to love oneself and one's partner with an appreciation of a new marriage built together.
“Nobody can go back and start a new beginning but anyone can start today and make a new ending.” —Maria Robinson
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