It’s not hard to imagine why the act of rebuilding a marriage/relationship after an affair is a major challenge. The pathways to healing are often circuitous and frustrating. Couples who expect a linear, short-term fix to getting their marriage back on track are likely to give up prematurely.
Understanding the inherent challenges in working through the fallout of an affair can help you maintain the commitment needed to rebuild even when the process feels daunting.
What follows isn’t meant to fuel cynicism about the affair recovery process. Rather, it is meant to give you and your spouse/partner information to help you effectively navigate the twists and turns that are part of healing your marriage/relationship.
Rebuilding after an affair: 4 challenges to overcome
1) Normalizing intense feelings
The affair-betrayal can feel absolutely devastating. Couples are frequently surprised by the intensity of emotions that result: Depression, hopelessness, despair, anger, rage, suspiciousness, etc.
When we’re flooded by intense feelings, our ability to hold onto a sense of emotional balance or groundedness is precarious at best. Working through these feelings is essential to healing, and it will be important to remind yourself (or be reminded by someone) that the emotional storms you’re experiencing will eventually diminish. This doesn’t mean that your pain should be denied.
Rather, set an agenda that gives you the time and space to process your feelings as well as opportunities to move away from them when needed. Allow your feelings to arise as they must, process them with trusted others so that they do not go underground. But you will need a break from this intensity. Go for a walk, listen to music, watch TV, take a nap…find something that gives you a momentary respite from the emotional upheavals.
2) Exhausted by doubt/insecurity
You will each feel exhausted at times. Fatigued by the heaviness of despair, sleepless nights, talking and worrying about the same issues over and over again, as well as coming to terms with the reality that the security that once blanketed your relationship has been replaced with waves of crushing doubt. This is all to be expected—none of it means that you’re not “handling it well.”
“I’ve become paranoid. I’m always thinking the worst: I’m convinced my wife isn’t really going to the gym; instead, she must be meeting him. I’m constantly worried about what will happen if she runs into him somewhere. And worst of all, I tell myself that she must love him and not me… It’s like I’ve lost control of my mind and I can’t find my way back.” ~Troy, four months after his wife’s affair
Even the most secure among us can be wracked by debilitating doubt after we’ve learned that our spouse/partner has had an affair. In the emotional tsunami that follows, we can feel unrecognizable to ourselves.
Chronic insecurity takes a toll on us. It is an emotionally and physically exhausting experience. Remember that it is normal to feel this. And while it may feel interminable, try to remind yourself that you will eventually emerge from the painful intensity.
3) Slammed by a backslide
Healing is about movement. Trust slowly reemerges; moments of openness and vulnerability reenter the marital dance; emotional closeness becomes possible; play and humor are rediscovered; the desire to sexually connect is re-awakened.
“Over time I stopped thinking about the affair so much. And then one evening Lou and I began kissing and caressing. It felt so good. I hadn’t realized how much I missed this with him. And then out of nowhere, I thought about the woman he cheated with. Did they kiss like this? Did he touch her the way he was touching me? And I just went numb and then I started to sob…” ~Dee, one year after her husband’s affair
The re-introduction of physical affection and sexual intimacy into the relationship is a big step. And it’s also a positive sign of forward movement. But this can be triggering. Like Dee, you might be flooded with intense feelings, feelings you thought you’d already “worked through.”
The pathways to healing are studded with triggers — experiences that vividly bring back the pain of the affair. And once those are triggered, it can feel like the gains you’ve made are lost. It’s important to remember that while painful, backsliding is normal. And therefore, it doesn’t signify that the gains you’ve made have been erased.
A note about handling emotional triggers: Being emotionally triggered isn’t the problem. What happens after you’ve been triggered should be highlighted. In the example above, if Dee’s husband became angry and pulled away from her after she started crying, Dee would have been left alone with her pain. This would have added significant pain on top of the pain she was already feeling. If, instead, he held her and let his wife know that he was there for her, the triggering event could lead to a healing moment that furthered overall healing.
4) Placing a timeline on recovery
Patience is essential to post-affair rebuilding. The journey back can test each of you.
And, at some point, one or both of you might question whether it’s worth it: “Why are we still struggling?” “We should be better by now!” “Things are never going to change!” are common reactions as time passes. This is especially the case if you’ve placed a timeline on the recovery process (“It’s been a year, we shouldn’t still be struggling!”)
It’s not uncommon for the person who had the affair to start expressing his/her frustration about the slow pace of rebuilding. At the beginning of the post-affair recovery process, the partner who had the affair is usually contrite and states that s/he will do anything to make the relationship work. S/he often genuinely feels terrible for the pain s/he has caused. There may be a desperateness to make the other’s pain go away and bring back normalcy.
But sooner or later, even the most patient people can become frustrated by the backsliding that can occur. Again, this is normal. Expect this. Plan for it. Talk about it.
It’s important to highlight that this frustration is borne out of an increase in helplessness (feeling inadequate to bring about change) and hopelessness (doubting that positive change can happen). Discuss these feelings with each other as well as with your marriage/couples counselor (if you are working with one).
There is not one-size-fits-all approach to affair recovery. Couples differ on how long it takes to regain the security that is the foundation of a strong marriage/relationship.
Essential to the healing journey is learning how to tolerate uncertainty — the familiar has given way to the unknown and unpredictable.
You will discover that there are parts of the relationship that worked well for you both and that should remain in place. And in the healing process, you and your partner will discover new patterns and routines, a newness that both grounds you and instills new life into the marriage.
And, above all, remember that healing requires patience—a patience that you may both decide is well worth it.
Until next time,
Dr. Rich Nicastro
1006 Rock Street, Georgetown, Texas 78626
(Featured image courtesy of Stuart Miles at FreeDigitalPhotos.net)