Affairs can cause significant emotional trauma to a marriage and to the individuals involved. Yet, surviving the emotional trauma of an affair is possible. As many as 40 to 50% of marriages will experience infidelity at some point during the relationship. What happens next in the marriage (e.g., does the marriage die, survive, or even thrive?) depends on a number of variables.
Post-affair recovery may be brutal, both for the person who was cheated on as well as the individual who had the affair. For many, the process to recovery is similar to experiencing a traumatic loss – the loss of the trust, the marriage you thought you had, who you thought your partner was – so it can resemble the grieving process. With grief, there are no right or wrong feelings. Any combination of feelings is okay and we often see a range from rage, anger, betrayal, resentment, confusion, sadness, despair, jealousy, to, in some instances, relief that the affair was finally revealed. Despite the history and struggles that lie head, healing and recovery are possible! In fact, a marriage can be stronger because of the work that couples put into the marriage after an affair is unveiled. Fighting to save the marriage can unify spouses as they realize that, in the face of the potential loss of their marriage, their union is that much more precious.
- Give it time. And then choose a timeline. Affairs can be incredibly painful for both spouses. There are multiple forms of betrayal for the spouse who has been cheated on (e.g., emotional, sexual, physical, deception, the series of lies to keep the affair a secret, even after it has been discovered, etc). The spouse who committed the affair may have strong feelings of guilt and sadness over the pain they have caused their spouse. And, although the spouse who has been cheated on may not want to hear this, the unfaithful spouse may have to mourn the loss of the affair. No matter what, rash decisions should not be made in the tumultuous period after an affair has been revealed. For example, it may be necessary in many instances to establish a timeline of one full year – and then reassess at that time point – to see what strides can be made after emotions die down and healing can occur to determine whether or not the marriage can recover from the affair or whether it makes the most sense for the individuals, and the couple, to separate.
- Is the person who cheated a habitual offender? If so, the prognosis for recovery is poor. Ask about cheating in prior relationships? Have their been other affairs in your marriage? For some individuals who have longstanding histories of repeated cheating, the elements of the actual affair can be wildly intoxicating and become drug-like – and it’s the drink one goes back to repeatedly. For some who become addicted to the intensity, the passion, the secret underground life of an affair, or even the sex, professional assistance may be the only way to break this pattern.
- Is the affair truly over? It may be possible that the unfaithful partner has reasons that he/she must maintain contact with the other person (e.g., work, activities at school, etc.), but this contact should be minimal and/or fully transparent. Ask yourself, is it necessary that this contact remain or is this just another way to stay attached and connected to this person?
- Has there been a true and sincere apology? Has the person who committed the affair felt as if he/she was truly able to apologize (e.g., could the offended spouse hear it at the time?)? Has the spouse who was cheated on felt that the apology was sincere/full of remorse?
- The offending spouse should be an open book. There are no secrets. Now, there is no privacy regarding email, telephone, or the cheating spouse’s whereabouts – he/she lost that right. The spouse who was cheated on does not have to exercise his/her new right to check on the cheating spouse’s communication and/or comings and goings, but this is still his or her right until trust has been reestablished. Although this can feel intrusive to the spouse who committed infidelity, it is necessary in order to reestablish trust.
- "Just enough” knowledge about the affair. Avoid digging into every nitty gritty detail (e.g., what sexual positions did they use, what lingerie did she wear, what secrets did they share, what gifts did he buy her, etc.), but the spouse who was cheated on should know basic information about the affair (e.g., was it a one night stand or a weekly meeting? Did the affair become emotional? Do they love each other?). The spouse who was cheated on should be empowered to ask these questions, but extremely detailed questions can take you into dangerous waters.
- Do you have the capacity to forgive? Research suggests that more than any other factor (e.g., length of the marriage, level of commitment, time), forgiveness is the most essential element of post-traumatic growth after an affair. Ask yourself, are you the type of person who holds grudges? Do you have difficulty letting go of times when someone has wronged you? Are you a black and white thinker? If so, it may be more difficult for you to move toward forgiveness versus someone who is able to move past wrongs with relative ease and not hold onto resentment and grudges. If you do think more dichotomously and/or if you do hold grudges, it does not mean that you cannot ultimately forgive, just that the road to forgiveness will be that much more difficult.
- Assess your marriage, pre-affair. Take a good hard look at your marriage. Affairs do not happen in a vacuum. While it is true that there are some instances in which infidelity is a random occurrence (e.g., one night stands), most of the time, affairs do not happen in isolation and may be a symptom of a much larger problem. There may have been a decrease in emotional or physical intimacy, one partner may have pulled away due to depression or work demands or the demands of caring for young children, one spouse have been feeling unfulfilled during a particular life stage and seeking stimulation. Despite the origins, there may have been multiple ways in which the marriage has been neglected which can be revealed by taking stock of the marriage. This exploration will require open minds and work, by both spouses, and may warrant outside help.
- Seek coaching, consultation, and/or therapy. For both the individuals, as well as the couple. For the person who was cheated on, this is sometimes difficult to do. Avoid saying “I wasn’t the one who had the affair, so it’s not my problem to fix.” Remember, an affair can be a form of emotional trauma – and sometimes, professional help is necessary for us to achieve post-traumatic growth and to process the feelings of pain, sadness, betrayal, jealousy, confusion, and anger that inevitably surface.
- An emphasis on post-traumatic growth. Even in our darkest times, it is possible to make meaning of our experiences. Although having an affair is not recommended as the first-line method of ending a bad marriage, sometimes an affair can shine a light on what is largely missing in our marriage. They may be a signal that the relationship has run its course or that spouses have outgrown each other or were vastly mismatched from the start.
TOOLS TO ASSIST IN POST-TRAUMATIC GROWTH AFTER AN AFFAIR:
- Letter writing. These letters can be written to each other but are developed over a series of letters. The primary purpose of the letters is for each party to process their own feelings. Do not initially write the letters with a concern for how the other person may hear the words – you are not going to be giving them your initial series of letters as these letters are for your own individual healing and growth. Start by writing one letter to the other person, and then modify this draft over time, or create new letters. Sometimes, after several drafts, spouses may choose to share these letters. Often times, this is best done in the forum of couples’ therapy.
- Challenging your thoughts (e.g., rather than “She is Selfish” or “She engaged in some Selfish behaviors.”). This can have an impact on your feelings in your situation and, in turn, can affect your behavior and the impact on your spouse/marriage. There are a number of techniques you can use to challenge your “stuck” thinking (See Dr. Jessica’s suggested, “Change your Thinking, Change your Life”).
- Alternate Date Nights – Each of you takes turns choosing a “date night” activity – a minimum of once/week, preferably more frequently. Do not use this time to talk about the affair, the future of your marriage, but as an opportunity to reengage with each other. Seeing a movie, going to dinner, doing a shared activity, trying something you have not tried before together, even participating in dates w/other couples… will remind both of you of the reasons you were together in the first place and/or discover parts of each other you weren’t aware of or perhaps had ignored or neglected for some time.
- Work on your communication skills as a couple. Active listening is one strategy that may be helpful – where a couple discusses a situation and each partner focuses on what the other is saying with the ultimate goals of resolving conflicts, helping increase mutual understanding, and deepening your relationship – One partner says 1) what they feel (using specific feelings words) and 2) what is concerning them. The other partner states back what they heard their partner say including 1) the stated feelings and 2) what is concerning their partner. Remember, even professional baseball players have to practice, practice, practice before they can hit home-runs. In the same vein, communication skills require practice. Practice may needto be done with a coach, just like the big leagues. Thus, it may be necessary to seek professional help in the form of therapy, consultation, or coaching, as described above.