Of all the traumas potentially affecting a marriage or life-partner relationship, infidelity is among the most devastating from which to recover. While accurate statistics are hard to verify, it is estimated that anywhere from 25% to 50% of all partners have had an affair. Data from lawyers shows that about one third of all divorces are caused by an affair. And a study by anthropologist, Laura Betzig, shows that an extramarital affair is the most common cause of divorce in 150 different cultures including, of course, the United States. Affairs are costly and damaging. Because there are many causes and variables contributing to extramarital affairs, it is virtually impossible to create a generalized recipe for repair and recovery. If there is to be any hope of recovery after an affair, understanding what went wrong and what drove a person to go outside the marriage is crucial. Many relationships survive after an affair and some grow even stronger than before. Typically though, professional assistance is needed to fully explore and repair a love relationship. The suggestions here are intended to create more understanding of how affairs evolve and provide a few ideas on how to begin the healing process.
It is extremely easy for people who are discontented in their relationships to find others willing to have an affair. People who don't know how to address what’s missing in their relationships, those who need guidance on how to cope with new challenges like parentng, job changes or financial challenges and even those who have tried to address their problems on their own, are all exposed to many ways for an affair to evolve. Affairs begin with a common connection like work, neighbors, PTA meetings and other activities. But these days people are finding more deliberate and discreet ways to find romantic partners on Internet sites like Ashley Madison dot com. Ashley Madison actually promotes extramarital affairs. Their sole purpose is a registered trademark: “ Life is Short. Have an Affair. ” Even after their security was breached and many of their members were publicly outed with sometimes calamitus results, Ashley Madison still claims to have over 43 million members. Other websites like Tinder, OK Cupid, Match, Facebook and dozens of others provide a tempting breeding ground for those looking for partners outside their relationship. Once an affair evolves and is then discovered, the damage can be insurmountable. Repair and recovery require tremendous effort. Many relationships simply don't recover. Some that do survive have lasting damage with hugely impaired bonds and trust. But some couples actually recover quite well with partners discovering far more about each other than they ever knew and evolve into far more mature relationships than ever before.
There’s no doubt that the results of an affair to the victim, perpetrator and other family members is potentially devastating. But getting beyond an affair with a relationship intact is very possible. However, both partners must agree that taking a close look at not only the transgressor’s actions, but also at what was going on or missing in the relationship prior to the affair is critical if long-lasting happiness is to be developed. So, if you and your partner are game, here are 7 Steps to Recovering from an Affair.
1. Immediately sever all ties and communication. Your partner must end all communication with the person with whom they’ve had an affair. This must be non-negotiable and needs to take place immediately. No attempt to reconcile your relationship can proceed until your partner agrees to completely end all contact. Any equivocation or delay is evidence that they’re not ready to look at or repair your relationship and worsens the injuries. Unfaithful partners sometimes ask, “Why should I give up my lover? What if things don’t work out in my marriage?” Because they chose to take a huge risk when they started their affair, the offender must be willing to take the risk on your relationship. If not, repair won’t happen.
2. Honesty . The perpetrator of the affair must answer any and all questions and apologize over and over. Having and expressing honest remorse must be part of the equation. Secrets and withholding information after an affair deepens the mistrust and does nothing to rebuild it. Even though hearing some of the details may hurt, the risk of not revealing information means that if some day new details emerge, the wounds of mistrust will come back as fresh as ever. Being open and honest means making all computers, e mail and phones accessible. If not, there’s something to hide and rebuilding real trust isn’t possible.
3. Understanding and empathy are required by everyone involved for as long as it takes – recovery can take anywhere from months to years . If there’s a sincere commitment to rebuilding the relationship, understanding what went wrong and working to rebuild trust must be present every day. Listen to your partner’s feelings and accept them unconditionally. Feelings are not negotiable. They can change, but only when true acceptance and empathy exist. As hard as it might be, listening and acceptance must occur if there’s any hope of repair. Blaming and defending is a murky dynamic and should be avoided.
4. Expect strong emotions and questions at any time . Denial of your partner’s feelings or stating, “Let’s not talk about it again,” is not an option. Extremely strong emotions can flare up at any time and can be triggered by an event, a movie or practically anything else. As long as the same gory details aren’t rehashed over and over, it’s fair and understandable that your partner express their feelings. They need to feel free to ask questions until trust is restored. When ready, moving forward should also mean both parties are ready to explore what, if anything, the victim contributed to allowing a disconnection deep enough to have their partner go elsewhere for an emotional connection or sex. It’s easy to point a finger at the one who had the affair. But it’s important that both parties together and sometimes individually, have deep, honest introspection before repair can take place and solidify. If details of the affair that were already disclosed are brought up over and over again, then a gentle, understanding response that the information about the number of times and the precise activity engaged in was already revealed should be mentioned. Give sincere, gentle and empathic assurance that nothing else is being hidden and apologize.
5. Never ever blame the wronged partner for your affair . No matter how ignored you may have felt, no matter what you think your partner may have done to make you stray, if you go down the road of blame you will likely end up on it alone. You were the one who chose to cheat instead of openly exploring what was missing before you cheated. If you attempted to talk about the problems before you had an affair and were rejected, then professional help was needed. If professional intervention was rejected, then honest consideration of leaving the relationship was needed – not an affair. There are cases where the cheater may have an addiction, a personality disorder or other mental health problem. If these can be ruled out, and extreme caution not to blame the victim is exercised, looking at problems that existed before the affair began has to be part of the repair process. Only then can deeper mutual understanding and trust evolve. Without understanding what the disconnection was before the affair and what role - if any - the cheated-on partner played in the feelings of disconnection, a long-lasting connection won’t develop. It is almost always appropriate to explore what was missing in your relationship and how it can be improved. But putting these problems in the context of blaming your partner is almost certain disaster. Realize that trying to do all this without professional help is a huge risk. Most people are just not equipped to explore and negotiate this kind of difficulty without a therapist. There are many to choose from so do your research and get some help.
6. Patience is required . Approximately 65 percent of all couples who divorced said they wished they tried harder before they made the decision to divorce. Hindsight is, well . . . you know. Forgiveness and trust can only evolve in time if you do the hard work, but they cannot be forced or demanded. Like a serious physical injury, there may always be residual pain and recall of the events and injuries. Expect it and be patient and understanding when it occurs – forever. Long-lasting repair and recovery depend on this. If children become aware of a parent's affair, their problems with trust, loyalty and their reactions may infinitely multiply the obstacles to recovery. But it can be done. Few people can navigate all this alone so find a good marriage counselor and get some help for yourselves and your children.
7. Continue your life together . Unless you’ve been forced to separate (which can sometimes be helpful even though painful), continuing your life together is critical. Talking about an affair for more than 30 to 45 minutes can be excruciating and if not handled well can worsen the situation. For some, the pain of discovering an affair can be traumatizing so be careful to try and limit the time you spend exploring all of it. It's a lot to cope with - often too much - especially if trying to repair the damage without a professional. This includes the issues leading up to the affair. So put a time limit on talks and continue your lives. Getting everyone else’s opinion won’t solve anything either – keep it between yourselves. If you need to talk to someone else, talk with a therapist. It's a rare couple that has suffered an affair who can fully recover without professional help. Stopping your life until, “everything goes back to normal,” should not be an option. There is no going back and there is no normal. There is only what was and was not working before, what you have now and how it is assessed and what you envision, plan and work toward for your future.
Remember, about 65% of all partners who divorced said they wished they’d tried harder to reconcile. So before bailing out, it’s important to take steps to rescue the commitment of your marriage or life-partnership. If you feel hopeless about moving past the affair, a professional counselor should be consulted – most couples who’ve suffered an affair need professional assistance. Getting professional help, taking the time to do the hard work and having plenty of patience can make the difference between staying together and splitting up. And after all, if you work things out, wouldn't the time and effort invested in creating a renewed and stronger bond be worth it? © Joshua Kates 2019
Josh Kates, LCSW is a Psychotherapist, Schema Therapist. He specializes in individual and couples therapy for adults and adolescents and maintains a private practice in West Palm Beach, FL. Over the past 25 years, Josh has been on staff as an outpatient and inpatient therapist at a number of hospitals and has engaged in crisis intervention and assessment. With over 20 years' experience as a psychotherapist, and as a graduate of New York University's School of Social Work specializing in Cognitive Behavior Therapy, Dialectical Behavior Therapy and Schema Therapy, Josh works with a broad spectrum of client issues.