Can a marriage recover from an affair?
Can a Marriage
Recover From an Affair?
The answer is–Yes.
But it won’t be easy.
The process of recovering from an Affair is grueling and, for many, just too great a mountain to climb. Healing a marriage after an affair takes a total commitment to three principles: honesty, vulnerability and patiently rebuilding trust. With my clients, I often use an analogy of a house that has been burnt to the ground. So many valuable things, especially trust and loyalty, have been lost. Besides separation, the only option you two seemed to have is to rebuild that house from scratch. To literally bulldoze the lot and to rebuild a brand new home starting with the very first bricks.
It’s hard to picture things ever being the same. That’s probably the most important point; it won’t.
For all intents and purposes, your old marriage (or relationship) is over–done. In this article, I’m gonna specifically focus on the beginning stage of healing a marriage directly after infidelity. Regardless of whether the affair was an emotional or physical one, the pain and damage done by the affair itself must be dealt with first.
Here are some sobering facts about marriage. A recent reliable study showed that 20% of married woman have been unfaithful in their partner in the course of their marriage. Nearly double, 37% of married men have also strayed. If your parents had infidelity in their marriage, you are at high, high risk of picking a partner who will be unfaithful in the future or become one yourself. It’s genetic. It’s complicated.
So the real question is: What do you want to do now? Divorce and find someone new? Or dig in and re-commit to your partner?
Here’s the good news: many couples have successfully healed from infidelity and come out the other side happier and healthier. They no longer wake up with that pit in their stomach, the constant anger or the shock of how, suddenly, their lives have totally changed. So in case you’re considering being one of the courageous and brave, here are some insights into how couples take the first step towards repairing their marriages.
Four crucial steps to begin healing a marriage after an Affair
Here are the steps to successfully repairing a marriage after infidelity:
1. The unfaithful partner must answer ALL questions about the affair in great detail: For starters, a couple must be rigorously honest when talking about the affair. The unfaithful party needs to patiently and with great details answer every question their partner wants answered; even if they need to hear it more than once. No small detail is unimportant when it comes to someone who has been betrayed and lied to. The couple must, first, talk about, exactly what, when, where and for how long the affair went on.
I always remind the hurt partner to think long and hard about what they ask. Once a question is answered, you can’t go back in time and erase it. There may be some details that are so wounding and might be unnecessary to uncover; e.g. Was she a better lover? Are you more attracted to him? The hurt partner must be satisfied that they have the entire truth otherwise they can’t move on and take the risk of trusting once again.
That being said, it crucial to shift and move the communication forward to even more important questions. These questions focus on the meaning of the affair; What were you able to experience or express with her that you could no longer do with us? Beside the sex, what was it about the affair that you valued? Honest answers from these kinds of question can turn crisis into an opportunity. You may discover more honesty and depth in your relationship than ever before.
The unfaithful partner has to say “goodbye” to their lover
2. The affair relationship must end–100%: The lovers can’t remain friends. There needs to be a public closure and a final goodbye from the unfaithful one to his lover. A supervised phone call with a clear script or an approved email can work.
Depending on the situation both small, medium and large changes may also need to take place. Small changes might mean going to a different gym. A medium change could actually be asking for a transfer at work if the lover is there. A large change could be something like moving out of state or to another town. The unfaithful party should consider doing whatever is necessary to protect their partner and to clean house.
Many unfaithful partners have come to couples counseling hoping to keep the friendship (with their lover) and their options open. This won’t work. The key question for any couples’ therapist to ask the unfaithful partner is “Which relationship are you in?”
They can’t be in both. If the unfaithful one refuses to “end it”, then the answer and the future of the relationship seems clear. Frankly, no couples’ counseling and no relationship can move forward on those terms.
The unfaithful partner must listen to the hurt party’s painful feelings
3. The unfaithful party must listen and validate all the painful feelings they’ve caused. To forgive and rebuild trust after an affair is not a quick process. A sincere apology is not gonna cut it. Forgiveness and healing require time. Think less “I’m so sorry” and more “How can I prove to you that I will never cheat on you again?”
Before the hurt partner can start to heal, they first need to vent. Anger, betrayal, humiliation, and sadness are inevitable feelings that must be expressed. The hurt one needs to know that their partner truly comprehends the depth of damage done. Understanding and sympathizing with this deep level of emotional pain is crucial. Patient listening is an irreplaceable pre-cursor to any couple that hopes to recover and start healing.
The unfaithful partner must lead a “healing vigil”
4. The unfaithful partner protects the hurt party by using a “healing vigil.” After an affair, the hurt partner often has something similar to Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. Suspicions of more cheating or feeling unloved are common. The responsibility of beginning to rebuild trust must lie solely on the shoulders of the unfaithful party. For this, I recommend a “healing vigil.”
So what is that?
A healing vigil is a practical and symbolic process of courting and protecting one’s partner. This can last for months. Here’s how it works: The unfaithful party does not wait for their partner to feel doubts, suspicions or anxiety but instead ANTICIPATE these normal reactions and does everything to stay on top of reassuring the hurt partner. It becomes a second job.
The unfaithful one takes on the role of the personal protector and shields their partner against doubt and vulnerability. Trust is rebuilt, brick by brick. It requires consistency, effort, and the right thing being done, over and over again.
Sharing one’s phone, giving up their computer passwords, calling to check regularly when you are out of the house and repeatedly asking the hurt partner “if they’re feeling worried or insecure”? Asking “What else can I do, today, to reassure you that there is nobody else in my life?” Think of this “healing vigil” as a process of penitence.
So there you have it, how to take this incredibly difficult first step towards healing a marriage after an affair. Of course, the next step is in learning how to improve your communication with each other. Most couples therapist would say that both partners need to examine their roles in the disconnect that has occurred. That being said, only the unfaithful partner cheated. If a marriage is to recover the unfaithful party must take the first step and lead the couple towards healing and rebuilding trust.
If you have any further questions or would like to talk with me about couples therapy than contact me on my website: addictioncouplestherapy.com.
Good-bye for now.
Max Yusim, LCSW
Couples therapist and addiction expert