Healing as a Couple
Healing from infidelity is usually the most challenging issue with which people in a relationship will have to cope.
This is because infidelity hits such basic issues as trust, betrayal, and abandonment. Therefore how it is handled is of utmost importance in terms of whether it will result in making a relationship ultimately stronger and more resilient or whether it will leave one or both partners permanently wounded and/or bitter.
Remember infidelity is mostly about betrayal, and loss of trust, and the potential loss of the relationship, and only somewhat about sex, etc.
One of the difficulties is that the two partners in the relationship start the recovery process from VERY different perspectives; let me depict a typical scenario: [I will refer to the partner who had the affair as the unfaithful partner and the partner who feels betrayed as the hurt partner] The unfaithful partner has known about the infidelity for some time and has had time to think, ponder, worry, try to problem-solve, and deal with conflicting feelings such as guilt or remorse or anxiety . The hurt partner is new to the scene and has had no time to get any perspective and furthermore may have had weeks/months/years of suspicions that were never validated and that led to feelings of “ I feel crazy – my intuition tells me one thing and my partner tells me the opposite” and this usually leads to feelings of self-doubt and a sense of vulnerability and confusion.
This is how the stage is set when the affair gets revealed either by accident or confession. Because it is such a different situation for each person the next section will addressed to the hurt and unfaithful partner respectively. These guidelines are primarily designed for couples who are planning on making the relationship stronger as a result of the infidelity.
Here are some tips for you to keep in mind during your recovery journey:
1] Healing will take longer than you think so you can plan on 1-2 years [this varies, of course, depending on all the factors].
2] You cannot side-step your feelings. You will have to find a safe way to share them and work through them, hopefully with your partner. Don’t forget to look at any responsibility or contribution you may have had to creating the whole situation. If you absolutely can’t see anything you did, then you may need some help looking more objectively at all the circumstances. It is rare when a relationship issue is totally of one partner’s making.
3] Remember that your partner is in a really different emotional place than you and that doesn’t necessarily mean he/she doesn’t love you, isn’t genuinely sorry, etc.
4] It is normal to have extremely intense and chaotic feelings [maybe like you have never experienced before] It is not constructive to “dump” or “vent” these feelings in unstructured and uncontrolled ways with your partner. Doing this just makes it feel unsafe for them and less likely that they will be receptive to hearing you and makes you feel, perhaps, out of control. There are fairly easy ways to structure this such as: “ I need 30 minutes of your time this evening to fill you in on some things that have been troubling me today” (be sure to keep it to 30 minutes by setting a timer or some other such cue)
5] It is important for you to share ALL your feelings with your partner if this can be arranged in a safe way for you both; otherwise you may have to have vent/dump sessions with a counselor and get his/her help in expressing them to your partner so your partner can truly listen . In some cases certain therapeutic strategies may be needed, e.g. a joint session facilitated by the therapist.
6] It is critical that you get answers to the questions about the infidelity that you absolutely need to ask for your peace of mind, and it is also important that you do not ask questions whose answers are not that important to you.
7] Practice containment. That is to say, only spend limited times talking about the infidelity and then switch to neutral or positive topics.
8] Ask for clarification and reassurance as you need it, i.e. what the infidelity meant and DID NOT MEAN to your partner about you and the relationship and/or about the affair partner.
9] Don’t use negative communication unless that is what you want in return, e.g. verbal attacks, accusations, mean-spirited/snide remarks, sarcastic jabs, etc.
10] Do not make any hasty decisions about the future right now.
11]Take responsibility for your personal healing. This means figuring our what you need from your partner and asking for it (e.g. a genuine apology, specific behaviors for rebuilding trust, etc.) in a clear operationally well-defined manner. You may need some help getting clear about the specifics of this and how to ask for it in the most effective way.
12] Receive graciously what your partner offers you in the spirit with which it is intended even if it is not perfect and ‘just right’ the first time. Express appreciation for his/her efforts. Remember your partner is likely hurt and vulnerable at this stage also.
Here are some tips that will help you and your partner deal the most constructively with the infidelity:
1] You have had more time to deal with the infidelity than your partner and therefore you two will be operating on whole different time-lines. You must therefore be extraordinarily patient especially in the beginning and realize that it often takes 1-2 years to successfully work through the issues of infidelity. The longer the deception/lying has persisted the longer the recovery may take.
2] The following conditions make for the FASTEST and often the most positive recovery from infidelity:
a] the sooner you completely stop all contact with the affair partner the better.
b] It’s best that you tell the complete truth about everything so that no partial truths/lies will ambush the recovery and reset the process to ‘start’, thus eroding trust yet again, making healing a bit harder each time. Up front honesty will save you a lot of time and trouble later on and your partner will likely eventually be very grateful to you (hard to believe now, isn’t it?) It really isn’t protecting your partner to sugar-coating the truth or to tell half-truths at this point..
3] Realize that your partner looks at the situation very differently from you and will need to ask many, many questions in an effort to make sense out of all this. You need to answer all the questions honestly to the best of your ability (“ I don’t know” may be the most honest answer at times but don’t hide behind it). If the questions truly go on for way too long or are way too excessive, consult a specially trained therapist to check out your perceptions. You may find out that is within normal limits or you may find out that some therapeutic intervention is needed for your partner. In either case, you will have some clarification and some support for yourself.
4] Do some introspection and try to figure out why you engaged in this behavior. In the past it was often thought that infidelity always meant something was missing in the relationship but that is not always the case. It will mean a lot to your partner to know that you are doing soul-searching in an effort to get insight which will help define some of the directions for healing and give very welcome clarification to your partner.
5] Apologize, Apologize, Apologize—let me count the ways– Do it frequently, more than once daily in the beginning and in numerous ways, e.g. cards, poems, verbal expressions, etc. For more on apologies see the section on this website on apologies. One tip is to find out what a “genuine” or “heartfelt” apology sounds like to your partner (it varies from person to person). I cant emphasize how important the ongoing need for apologies is. Don’t expect that the early apologies can even be accepted–but still offer them.
6] Expect emotional fireworks from your partner. He/she is devastated and shattered and desperately trying to find a way to cope. Do your best to be patient, kind and NON-DEFENSIVE.
7] Give your partner reassurance. Try to ascertain what are the most vulnerable areas that were hurt the most and then try to address those with reassurances, e.g. “I have never loved anyone but you”,”you are so much more_______ than he/she ever was or will be”etc.
8] Recommit to monogamy. Tell your partner that you really want to design a relationship where monogamy is the goal and take the initiative in thinking of ways you can change to facilitate that. Expect that the recovery in the beginning will take one step forward and two steps back fairly regularly and then it will move to two steps forward and one step back and then for a long period of time you can still expect infrequent but periodic flashbacks out of the blue just when everything seems wonderful. Just remember that each of these negative times is a potential for positive growth for the relationship. Design an intervention strategy for how to handle these times.
9] It is normal to feel a sense of loss about the affair partner and some of the good feelings you had during the infidelity [often the attention and admiration is what infidelity is all about] and what you may have shared with the third party. Don’t expect your partner to be able to listen very comfortably to this, especially in the beginning . You may need to talk to someone else about those feelings. Eventually you and your partner need to figure out how to get many of those same feelings in your relationship
10] You may feel paralyzed with conflicting feelings yourself. It might be wise to talk to a therapist before even attempting to share these types of feelings with your partner.
11] Earning forgiveness can be a liberating concept for both of you. You, however, have to know exactly when, where, and what to do. For more on this, look at the section on this website about forgiveness. Making amends, atonement, making reparation and similar concepts all apply at this juncture and are very helpful in healing the wounds and rebuilding trust. All require high quality information from the hurt partner so you can “hit the mark” with your behaviors and know that they will be received in the spirit which is intended.
12] Praise your partner for having the courage to work this out with you despite being so wounded.
With these tips in mind, the steps of a constructive recovery might go something like this:
1] Convey and explore the full range of emotional responses to the infidelity [using good communication skills and the principles of containment and safety].
2] Spend quality time together talking or doing things unrelated to the infidelity.
3] Clarify where the relationship is for each of you and what the infidelity means and does not mean for each of you. Discuss strengths and weaknesses of your relationship and what you would like changed.
4] If possible recommit to a ‘new’ relationship’. [ In counseling, I take the position that the relationship, as you knew it, is over. You are starting a new relationship. Couples often have more than one marriage without ever getting a divorce, e.g. there is the marriage before kids, and the one during kids, or the one during a certain educationally or professionally demanding time, the empty nest marriage, etc.]. The new relationship has new “rules” and new operating procedures.
5] Interweave forgiveness and atonement with trust- rebuilding behaviors and activities
6] re-establish connection, intimacy, and a mutually satisfying sexual relationship. Become each other’s best friends for life!
All this takes time.
Be patient with yourself and your partner.
There is more information available on this topic, if you still have questions not answered by this section please call me. I’m usually available within 24-48 hrs to answer questions, schedule phone coaching sessions or office coaching/therapy sessions, or direct you to other resources.
Remember: Research / statistics on infidelity indicates that receiving counseling after the discovery of an affair is the single best predictor of recovery.