Statistically, roughly 22% of men and 19% of women will have an affair over the lifetime of their marriage. Those numbers are expected to rise as proximity, availability, and desire take center stage and oust the concept of marriage. And, despite the messiness that affairs cause ( they do indeed cause a lot of chaos, grief, and sadness), the reasons why people have affairs remain plentiful.
Yet, despite the unraveling of a marriage that an affair creates, you can recover from infidelity and save your marriage. I have been witness to that time and time again – but it is important to remember that it is a process, albeit a long process. Both people have to be on board and vested in salvaging their marriage for it to work. Both people must be willing to work on individual issues that led to the marital strife in the first place and then begin the hard work of rebuilding trust. It is not a fast process – but it is worth it. Often the one who committed the infidelity will want to speed up the process.
So what steps does this process entail?
1.) Stop the affair. This is the most critical and important step. Completely. This means no communication – in any form. This means no emails, Snapchats, texting, sexting, or phone calls. All contact must cease. If it is with a co-worker, you must keep your relationship business-like, meaning no ‘coffee get togethers.’ Any encounters need to be shared with your spouse. Do not be afraid to talk about the conversation if one took place. If the former lover contacts you, inform your spouse. Keep transparency.
2.) Take ownership. People often take the route of “if we didn’t have marital strife, then I wouldn’t have had the affair.” They also tend to play the blame game. It doesn’t work that way! Sure, there was marital strife made by two – however, only one person made the unilateral decision to have the affair. Taking ownership by showing sincere regret and remorse helps build a strong foundation and start you down a path of rebuilding the trust in your marriage.
3.) Don’t dodge the questions. Marriage experts agree that couples heal better when all the information requested by the betrayed party is provided. This creates greater honesty and transparency – both keys to resolving issues and saving the marriage. Healing means talking about the affair, not not talking about it. If a couple never discusses the problems, what led to the affair, and the pain that ensued, they will never recover from the affair. It will always be something that every issue will go back to; all the fights will encourage the affair to be brought up again because it hasn’t been resolved. Willingness to talk and not holding back really rebuilds trust and helps strengthen the relationship.
4.)More talking and listening. You can’t rush the process, but you can make sure you’re doing your part. It took a marriage significant time to get to the place it did and it will take time to rebuild what was once there. Don’t rush the process. You can’t sweep it under the rug. This just doesn’t work. Answer all questions. Be patient. How would you feel if the shoe were on the other foot? Would you want to know? Of course. You are trying to understand your new marriage narrative that, just a short time ago, made more sense to you. Now your world has been turned upside down and you are trying to wrap your head around how this could have all happened.
If you are the betrayed spouse, ask a lot of questions – but know that if you ask, he/she will tell you. Your questions may be all over the place, but make sure to manage your feelings to know everything with knowledge. Lack of information creates greater inner angst and obsessing. Asking questions lessens the obsessing and creating scenarios that may have not existed. But this also means curbing your impulse to lash out and attack your partner – which prevents open and honest dialogue. When you lash out it often sends a message that it will be a marathon and that you will continue to unravel with no end in sight. Learn how to regulate your emotions and take a timeout when you need it.
5.) Give empathy. Even in those more difficult and trying times, as you sit with your spouse’s pain and strong emotions, one of the best indicators of surviving infidelity is the amount of empathy the unfaithful partner demonstrates when the betrayed or hurt part is in pain.
6.) Learn to ride the emotional roller coaster. No two days will be the same following the disclosure of an affair. Don’t expect speedy results or recovery. There will be good and bad days. Some days the betrayed partner will be ok with things and other days, he/she will be struggling. They will want to forgive, but will be hesitant to let go and learn to trust again. Couples that learn how to talk about their feelings of betrayal, loss of trust, abandonment, and sadness fair better long term.
7.) Set a timeline for affair talk. For example, restricting your conversations to 30 minutes (give or take) will give some boundaries – for both parties. This is needed. Affairs can easily take over your life if you allow them to. And this creates greater resentment and ongoing lists of questions. Couples should also be having conversations that are not about the affair because, in order to rebuild trust, you have to have time away from the affair.
The truth is this: you will never forget the affair, but over time, painful memories fade. You learn how to live with it. Embracing forgiveness (which is for you, the betrayed person, not the one who had the affair) will allow you to most past the sadness, anger, resentment, and loss. You will know when you are ready to forgive and let go of your negative feelings. When this happens (and it often does), a more honest and transparent relationship evolves, with greater trust in your partner.
After the Affair – Janis Abrahms Spring, Ph.D.