Three Ways To Recover From Infidelity
It can be devastating when a marital partner steps outside the relationship’s boundaries for an emotional or physical affair. Infidelity is one of the most common and painful relationship experiences, and many people believe they could not remain in a marriage in which there has been an affair. It is a violation of trust, and for some, a deal breaker.
For others, however, infidelity is not the end of the road, but rather an obstacle to overcome. In the beginning, recovery may seem impossible, but in time the relationship can be repaired. There are even couples with whom I have worked who have experienced a stronger marriage after an affair. These couples see the encounter as a sign the relationship was unhealthy. For them, infidelity prompted couple’s therapy to address underlying problems in their relationship.
But it's is not true for everyone. First, what type of affair was it? Was it an emotional or physical affair? Both? Short-lived encounters are different from a long-term affair as are the reasons it began in the first place. Perhaps the partner was looking for an emotional connection that was missing in the marriage. A one-time sexual encounter may not be as obviously destructive unless it becomes repetitive. A long term affair can leave the other partner feeling the marriage is meaningless. He or she may also feel completely betrayed and unwilling to rebuild trust and intimacy. If you’ve ever had this experience, you may question everything about your marriage and your partner’s honesty.
One potential issue is whether each of you is willing to rebuild broken trust, commit to therapy, and work with your partner to repair relationship boundaries. Are you both willing to be completely honest about your respective needs, the limits of acceptable behavior, and to rebuild respect for one another? These questions need to be answered before committing to couples therapy. Depending on the extent of the affair, you may consider programs specifically for relationship concerns. Sometimes, deeper issues may be influencing patterns of affairs or other harmful sexual behaviors. If this is the case, intensive therapy and a twelve-step support group may be warranted. Most importantly, both partners need to heal from issues that contributed to infidelity with the hope the relationship can itself be healed.
That said, I've developed three ways to begin recovering from infidelity:
1. Get therapy.
You will need a safe place in which to honestly discuss your experience and the experience of your partner. Each of you may feel angry, sad, resentful, and anxious. It is important to work with an experienced therapist who can guide your discussions in a respectful, productive way. Your therapist may be able to help identify reasons for the affair and help you improve your communication. Your therapy sessions will require courage and honesty as you navigate your relationship post-affair. What needs to happen for each of you to stay in the relationship? What attracted your partner to an affair? And, how might each of you meet one another’s needs?
2. Know the facts.
The period of time following an affair can be difficult. It’s easy to ask too many questions and to focus on questions like, “What was wrong with me?” While it is very tempting to want the affair’s details, it’s best to use your energy to recover and rebuild your relationship. Emphasizing the very painful aspects of the encounter will only hurt you. Of course, partners have a right to know the context and length of the affair. And, you need to protect yourself. Did your spouse practice safe sex? Once he or she has truthfully answered your questions, try to move forward rather than remaining in the past.
3. Establish new boundaries,
Repairing the trust in one another is significant after an affair. In order to begin the process, boundaries must be established and are a reasonable aspect of rebuilding your relationship. For example, some couples with whom I work will write a list of necessary boundaries. Examples include: arriving at home the same time every night, having a location-tracking device on their phone, and checking in via text message throughout the day. You may agree that any form of physical intimacy is off limits for a period of time. While these ideas may seem extreme, each couple has to figure out the best way to heal individually and as partners. After any form of betrayal, limits are a necessary part of creating a sense of security and empowerment. Create a list, review it with your partner and mutually agree to the terms. In order to rebuild your relationship, you must both be comfortable moving forward.
Infidelity is a painful experience, but it does not have to end the relationship. Only those involved can decide the future of their relationship, but if it’s emotionally or physically abusive, seek the help of a professional. If you have been involved in multiple relationships with recurrent affairs, individual therapy may be helpful to identify unhealthy relationship patterns and ways to introduce healthier behaviors into your romantic relationships.
No amount of couple’s therapy will help a person who is unwilling to change. However, if both you and your partner are committed to improving the relationship and understanding your relationship’s vulnerabilities, a deeper and more intimate connection is possible.