Infidelity in long-term relationships can be devastating. Trust is destroyed, and resentment takes over between partners who once deeply cared for each other. After one partner catches the other in an affair, it often seems that nothing in the marriage can ever be the same again—that the rift can never be repaired. It’s true that such serious damage to a relationship takes a great deal of time to fix, and there is no simple or straightforward “roadmap” to recovery. Every case is different, and each suffering spouse will walk an independent path toward resolution.
However, a few generalizations nearly always apply. First, the cheating partner must cut off all contact with the other party—that is, the person with whom he or she had the affair. Both partners—the one who is unfaithful, and the one who is betrayed—must also commit to putting serious effort, energy, and time into the relationship. Don’t expect a clear and straightforward healing process, either, because the path to resolution is likely to be complicated. Each partner must also be aware that he or she played a unique role in the circumstances leading to the infidelity; conflicts in marriage are always shared, and can never be fully attributed to one partner or the other. Seen this way, although one partner may have acted out the infidelity, both took part in the relationship problems that led to that point. Each of you will need to become serious about introspection. You’ll also need to parse out the multiple ways the affair has damaged your relationships—not only with your spouse, but with other family members, such as your children or your in-laws.
For the partner who has been betrayed, self-care is essential. You will, by necessity, need to make your personal recovery a priority. Emotional damage often comes with physical consequences, such as susceptibility to illness, or the loss of motivation and opportunity cost that comes with deep internal distraction. Spouses who’ve been betrayed may experience a damaged sense of self, or may even question their value as human beings. These betrayed partners must recognize that the affair was not fully their fault. They must apportion responsibility for it in new ways, enabling them to recognize the flaws in their behavior without bullying or punishing themselves. It will help immeasurably to be compassionate with yourself and to spend time with people who sympathize with and care about you. (If you’re not sure who to speak to, consider finding a support group or seeking group therapy with others who find themselves in the same boat.) Taking good care of your health is also absolutely necessary; in other words, don’t “treat yourself” in ways that might cost just as much as they help.
Clear and open communication about intimate and difficult topics is another indispensable aspect of recovery from an affair. You and your spouse must promise to be completely (yet gently) honest with each other. Together you need to accept the reality of what has happened to the formerly trustful environment of your partnership. Ask your spouse questions—lots of questions—so that you can understand his or her decision-making. (However, try to refrain from asking for details about sexual encounters; this tends to generate indelible and very unpleasant mental pictures.) Each of you will need to ask yourselves what you could have done to stop the sequence of events that led to such a serious breach of trust.
When expressing your emotions to the partner who betrayed you, carefully choose which emotions to express directly, and which ones to articulate in words. Tears, for instance—in response to sense of loss and the pain of a broken promise—might be the best way to communicate those feelings to your partner. But, on the other hand, acting out your anger directly can be problematic. It’s all too easy to lash out at the person who has caused you so much hurt by breaking his or her vows, but in doing so, you’re likely to say something you regret. This will probably cause your spouse to become defensive, which will make him or her quite angry at you, in turn. Instead of yelling or cursing your partner, try explaining how the betrayal felt. This can make it easier for the betrayer to feel empathy and to react to your feelings more openly. It may also help bring to the surface the feelings of sadness or guilt that the unfaithful partner is likely to feel. You are entitled to this empathy, and you’ll need to feel it—but at the same time, your spouse will need patience and understanding from you, too. Do your best to let go of resentment. When you hear an apology that feels real and genuine, and you feel ready, you can accept it.
There will likely be times when your partner expresses remorse for his or her actions, which you will feel tempted to throw back into his or her face. Don’t do it! Don’t succumb to the impulse to relentlessly punish your partner. At the same time, however, don’t feel you must be open to his or her remorse before you’re ready. Try not to withhold forgiveness, but don’t offer it until the time is right. Many resentful, angry spouses whose partners have cheated will make a habit of repeatedly bringing up the infidelity, constantly needling their partners. This will become self-defeating, as it eventually converts the betrayal into the focal point of the relationship. Instead, your goal should be to understand why the infidelity happened, and to do that, you’ll want to listen to your partner’s explanation without criticism. Try to grasp what your spouse has learned from the infidelity, and how he or she would like things to change in the future. (Simultaneously, you can ask yourself these same questions.) And in the end, “infidelity talk” will be difficult and wearisome for both of you, so it usually helps to set a limit on how long you’ll talk about it each day.
The road to recovery is not an easy one—particularly because marital infidelity may actually be less of a problem than the longstanding disagreements that lead up to it. Look for the deep causes behind the strain in your marriage, and try to use your newly open channels of communication to explore them. Make a mutual commitment to genuine dialogue, based on trust and acceptance. And as you work to recover, try to spend time doing “normal,” enjoyable things again, without talking about the affair; after all, if your goal is to feel normal again, you’ll need the practice. Similarly, at some point—when you’re ready for it—you and your spouse should become intimate again, because the closeness of sex can be an integral part of restoring a damaged marital connection. Ultimately, affairs that don’t end marriages do succeed in changing them, and forcing them to evolve into something new. The marriage you once had is over now; it led you both to a painful and difficult place. If you and your partner can put in the time, honesty, and empathy to reconnect, though, in some ways you will be marrying each other again—forming a new partnership, based on new assumptions and a new sense of trust.
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