Recovery From an Affair: What Both Spouses Need To Heal
Sexual infidelity can destroy a marriage—or lead to major improvements.
Posted November 1, 2011 | Reviewed by Matt Huston
The secret addition of a third party into the intimate circle of a couple's shared world can wreak devastation on a long-term relationship. Affairs, next to addictions and abusive anger, are one of the leading causes of divorce. The betrayals of trust and of sexual fidelity require much talking together to heal. On such a sensitive subject, couples need especially strong cooperative dialogue skills and still need to proceed with caution.
Thus far, I've written multiple blog posts on affair prevention, including posts on resisting the three main temptations that destroy marriages and on keeping your marriage strong, which helps to ward off infidelity (just like keeping your body healthy helps ward off infections). While prevention is vital, however, after an affair has happened, the challenge becomes recovery. Is it really possible to put the past behind you when the past includes your or your partner's affair?
Recovery after upsetting events is a skill set that all couples need—one that they especially need to utilize after the trauma of an infidelity. The good news is that full recovery, even after 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 cellphone records, texts, emails, and more helps to rebuild trust. Continued hiding behaviors, by contrast, are likely to undermine the spouse's recovery process. Recovery is as much about recovery from the breach of honesty as from the breach of sexual and emotional agreements.
At the same time, sharing excessive details 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 the understanding of the pathway that led to the affair. The deceiver likely needs to do some personal thinking in order to fully understand how the affair happened, step by step. At what juncture would making a different choice have prevented the affair? Was there too much time alone with the other party, perhaps at work? Were deeply personal issues discussed with someone other than the spouse? Was there an agreement to meet in a private setting? Was alcohol involved? And so on. 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 acted seductively? Insufficient prioritizing of the marriage?
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, 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 the history of the affair enables one to prevent its reoccurrence. This understanding, however, has to be observational rather than self-flagellating. Becoming excessively angry at oneself can block real learning.
Recovery for the Deceived
Recovery for the spouse or partner who was cheated on begins with the healing of the pain from the breach itself. Healing can be facilitated when a deceiver expresses genuine compassion for the pain that the betrayal has caused.
Empathy on the part of the deceiving partner 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, as 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 such as “I feel so hurt” will be heard more, and therefore lead to faster healing, than yelling or other more dramatic expressions of anger. Hopefully, the betrayer will then, in a heartfelt way, be able to express sadness and shame that his or her actions have caused this pain.
Sustained anger tends to intensify, rather than ease, the hurt of a betrayed spouse, slowing his or her personal recovery. Showing the partner how much one is suffering can feel tempting for purposes of punishment or guilt induction. Ultimately, however, the strategy tends to be counter-productive.
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 keeps couples on the healing pathway.
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 differently in the future?" "How would you react in the future if...?"
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 angry 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," or "You were so selfish." Over time, however, these meanings need to shift toward a more sympathetic and nuanced understanding.
Is Recovery Working?
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 difficult 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 more gratifying for both partners than the pre-affair relationship.