Recovery from an Affair
Sexual infidelity can destroy a marriage—or lead to major marriage improvements.
Posted Nov 01, 2011
Addition of a third party, either by mutual consent or secretly, into the intimate circle of a couple's shared world can wreak devastation to a long-term relationship or marriage. Affairs are right up there with addictions and abusive anger as far as being one of the leading causes of divorce. Betrayal of trust and of sexual fidelity are made all the worse by secrecy, a point made well by Mark White in a post on this site on why adultery is so harmful.
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?
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 deceiver
Step one is ending the affair. 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.
Second comes transparency. The deceiver needs to get past defensiveness and shame enough to be able to offer full transparency about what happened. Harder yet, it is likely that the deceiver will need to answer his or her spouse’s questions again and again. Honesty, patience, and humble acknowledgment of mistakes will be essential.
Offering full access to mobile telephone records and texts, to computer emails, and more, helps trust to rebuild. Continued hiding behaviors, by contrast, are likely to undermine the spouse's recovery process. Recovery is as much about recovery from breech of honesty as from breech of sexual and emotional monogamy vows.
At the same time, sharing excessive detail about the sexual encounter can further traumatize the spouse. Open discussion about how much information is enough and how much will be too much generally works better than simply telling all or unilaterally deciding how much to tell.
Third, comes understanding of the pathway that led to the affair. The deceiver has personal thinking to do in order to come to a full understanding of how the affair happened. Step by step, where was there a a choice to turn in one direction when a turn in another direction would have prevented the affair? Was there too much time alone with someone at work? Talking about personal issues with someone other than the spouse? Agreement to meet in a private setting? Alcohol? etc. Clarification of these choice points offers both the deceiver and the spouse reassurance that there will not be a repeat event.
Fourth, uncovering deeper motivations helps. If you look at the affair in the best possible light, what was it intended to accomplish? Was there, for instance, a long-standing sense of inadequacy that the affair partner soothed? underlying anger at the spouse that was causing marital distance? an inability to say No when the affair partner acting seductively? Insufficient prioritizing of keeping the marriage well-nurtured?
Inability to terminate the illicit relationship is a particularly common cause of affair continuation. "I didn't want to hurt him/her" often means "I didn't know how to say no and goodbye." At the same time, as I write in my book Prescriptions Without Piflls, affairs can be an addictive phenomenon. "I couldn't say no to the part of me that loved the attention and the sexual excitement."
Understanding history enables one to prevent its re-occurrence. This understanding however has to be observational rather than self-flagellating. Becoming excessively angry at oneself can block real learning. Shame and blame may do less toward prevention that learning. Mistakes are for learning.
Recovery for the spouse begins with healing of the pain from the breech of the monogamy vow. Healing can be facilitated when a deceiver expresses genuine compassion for the pain that the betrayal—emotional or sexual—has caused.
Empathy from the deceiving partner for the suffering that the affair has caused also helps to prevent a spouse from holding on to enduring resentment—but only if the betrayed individual allows him or herself to accept the betrayer's genuine apologies.
A desire to hurt the betraying spouse back can inadvertently block this acceptance. So can distrust. Beware. Blocking acceptance of the partner's remorse is a mistaken strategy for healing.
Shock and rage are common initial reactions to a betrayal. Gradually however the betrayed spouse needs to be able to describe his or her feelings rather than act them out by lashing out in anger. Quiet admissions of “I feel so hurt” will be heard more, and therefore lead to faster healing, than yelling or other dramatizing expressions of anger. The betrayer who reacts with empathy hopefully will then, in a heartfelt way, be able to express sadness and shame that his/her actions have caused this pain.
Crying, which indicates vulnerability, generally can be tolerated and heard by the betrayer more readily than accusatory anger. Most spouses have limited long-term ability to tolerate the intense blame, accusation and fury that are normal during the initial period of shock.
Sustained anger tends to intensify rather than ease the hurt of a betrayed spouse, slowing his/her personal recovery. Showing the partner "look how much I'm suffering" can feel tempting for purposes of punishment or guilt induction. Ultimately however punishment and guilt-induction tends to be counter-productive.
So rather than continue to explode with angry outbursts over an extended period of time, a betrayed spouse gradually needs to be able to calm down enough to discuss the painful feelings quietly. Continuing to verbally lash out at the betrayer actually delays healing.
Information offers a key to healing, which is why the deceiver's transparency is so vital. When a partner has been unfaithful, how and why the infidelity happened needs to be addressed. Only the deceiver’s spouse can provide the answers.
The betrayed individual however has to make this kind of transparency safe by listening without criticism or judgment. Such openness is difficult when the deceived individual feels profoundly hurt and angry. Still, openness to hearing without blame and to listening without judging keep couples on the healing pathway.
Any belief that the role of a betrayed spouse is to punish the wrong-doer can retard the healing process. In addition to verbal lashings, repeated stingers, that is, comments intended to induce guilt, shame or humiliation will be counter-productive for both partners.
By contrast, listening openly can prove surprisingly soothing. Keep reminding yourself of the saying "the data are always friendly." And "information is power."
A betrayed spouse benefits especially from hearing what the partner has learned from the betrayal. The betrayed spouse needs to hear if the deceiving spouse has garnered enough insight to avoid traveling down the hurtful paths of deception and infidelity again. Asking what and how questions can elicit this information. "What have you learned?" "What would you do different in the future?" "How would you react in the future if ....?"
Asking for a full accounting of the betrayal can help a betrayed spouse to feel like trust will again be possible. Yet discretion is important. Seeking too much information about the deceiver's intimate interactions with the affair partner can implant potent negative images that make healing from the trauma more difficult. Excessive details can be challenging to erase from memory.
Paradoxically, the more aware a betrayed spouse becomes of his or her own role in the development of the affair, the more quickly he or she is likely to recover. These mistakes may include, for example, having been emotionally unavailable to the betrayed spouse, having been a difficult person to live with because of critical or anger tendencies, or not having followed up on early hints of potential infidelity.
Insight into one’s own mistakes also empowers a person to make changes that will strengthen the marriage in the future. In this regard, discovery of the seeds of blessing that lie in the upsetting affair can help to ease the pain of betrayal.
Humans are meaning-giving animals. 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 a more sympathetic and nuanced understanding.
The key sign that recovery is proceeding positively is if both members of the couple begin to see that, while painful and mistaken, the affair can ultimately lead to better lives for both partners.
Recovery for the marriage hopefully includes a radical marriage upgrade. To the extent that spouses learn how to communicate more sensitively, how to listen with more respect, how to talk about sensitive issues without anger or criticism, and how to share more positivity like smiles, hugs, fun times together and sexual pleasure, the odds go up that the post-affair marriage will end up being far more gratifying for both partners than the pre-affair relationship.
Three sample cases
1) 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 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.
2) In this same case the wife had herself had a brief affair twenty years earlier. There had been insufficient marital recovery afterwards. The marriage had continued on but without forgiveness or 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.
3) 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 of either type 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).
--Emotional devastation (pain, self-pity, depression, anger, resentment).
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.
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
--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.
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.
Susan Heitler, PhD, a Denver clinical psychologist who is a graduate of Harvard and NYU, has authored The Power of Two and PowerOfTwoMarriage.com for couples who want to learn the secrets to enjoying a strong and loving marriage partnership. These resources teach the communication, conflict resolution and anger management skills for healthy relationships.