If you’re reeling from the emotional fallout of an affair, you know that one blog post can’t put your life back together again. Yet the fact that you landed on this page demonstrates that you’re gathering as much information — and, in the process, strength (or, if you’re the partner who had the affair, compassion) — as you can. Even if you only learn one thing from each source (or you learn the same thing, but hear it in different ways), you are indeed doing all that you can toward healing your marriage/relationship.
I hope you can take away one such piece of information from this post. And what I’d especially like to stress is that I’ve worked with many couples through the years that have healed from an affair (sometimes, even multiple infidelities). Not all couples make it. But the ones that do have certain things in common. Or rather, they exhibit certain behaviors or mindsets along the very painful, very trying road after an affair. And I wanted to share those with you.
If you don’t understand that healing from infidelity is a process, you will be frustrated.
First of all, it’s important to understand that healing from the betrayal of an affair is a process. It’s not a one-time (or even two- or three-time) isolated event where the person who had the affair expresses enough remorse that satisfies the wounded partner. It’s a process (and often not a linear one), and it doesn’t wrap up neatly or within a certain timeframe. Every couple is different.
It’s crucial that both partners understand and acknowledge this. Sometimes the one who had the affair grows weary of apologizing, of fielding common questions from his/her partner (i.e., “Did you do that with him/her?”; “Did you say ‘I love you’ to him/her?”). This can especially be the case if the couple seemed to be making progress (for instance, if laughter or shared interests or sex returned to the marriage/relationship), and the one who had the affair assumed that meant the other partner was “finally over it.”
It’s also important, if you’re the wounded partner, not to tell yourself you “should” be further along in your healing. Honor what you need, when you need it.
The spouse/partner that had the affair must take responsibility for the infidelity.
Taking ownership is a crucial first step for healing to occur. This applies to the one who had the affair. If that individual points fingers (“If you had paid more attention to me, I wouldn’t have looked elsewhere”; “You turned me down when I tried to initiate sex…what was I supposed to do?”), s/he is obviously not taking ownership of the infidelity. And the relationship has no foundation on which both partners can come together to repair.
Admitting responsibility for being unfaithful is an important step in showing your mate that you regret the betrayal and want to rebuild the relationship, but if you only ever say you’re sorry and never show you’re sorry (and try to prove that you can be trusted again), you’ll be missing a key ingredient of marriages that weather infidelity…
2) Be consistent, be predictable (and be patient)
The pattern that I often see in couples that want to rebuild their marriage/relationship is the partner who committed infidelity trying very hard (being on his/her “best behavior”) in the initial stages of recovery (and that includes being transparent so that trust can be rebuilt), but then losing patience when it seems that there will be no end to that need for transparency.
You have to realize that infidelity is one of the very worst betrayals an intimate relationship can face, and your spoken “I’m sorrys” will ultimately ring hollow if you don’t back up that remorse with behavior. That may mean allowing your partner to look through your phone, that means following through on what you say (for example, making sure you’re home when you say you’ll be), and that means being predictable (one of the signs of an affair is uncharacteristic unpredictability, so you can’t blame your partner for worrying about that if you slide from predictable to unpredictable as your remorse wears off).
It’s true that the partner who has done the betraying might feel excessively scrutinized at this point. But if you are serious about showing your mate that you want to rebuild the relationship and that the affair is a mistake that will not be repeated, then you need to bear that level of scrutiny. Transparency is necessary for trust to re-enter the marriage (an essential part of the healing process).
And truly, as uncomfortable or exhausting as it might be to let your partner know your every move and let your partner pore through your emails, it doesn’t come close to the pain the affair has caused your partner (so remember that ownership you took…don’t think of that step as a cameo appearance).
3) Communicate, communicate, communicate
Couples that make it through the turmoil of infidelity tend to be good communicators. This doesn’t necessarily mean that they were always good communicators. Rather, they learned to communicate more openly and effectively for the sake of their marriage. This often means that the partner who committed the betrayal needs to learn how to listen, even when s/he is tired of hearing about how wounded the betrayed partner feels. It also means that both partners need to commit to an open, safe, protected space for communication where each can share thoughts and emotions without fear of setting off a battle.
Effective communication is a learned skill and gets better with practice, so even if you don’t think of yourself as a good communicator at this point, you can use this tool to benefit your marriage/relationship.
Communicating your needs is an essential part of a healthy relationship. This involves asking for what you need from each other to deepen emotional security; and this involves creating opportunities where self-care can be prioritized. For instance, some couples find that it is helpful to create a certain amount of time each week where they intentionally do not talk about the affair (or anything that was emotionally heavy).
At some point, it’s not uncommon to feel beleaguered by the post-affair fallout, and a weekly respite from “dealing with the affair” can allow for moments of emotional refueling. This is not an avoidance tactic. If you find that this can be helpful, clear communication is essential for this to occur (rather than the damaging dynamic of silently pulling away from each other when you feel overwhelmed by the pain).
The post-affair journey is not without its challenges. Many couples do find their way back toward one another. Having a general blueprint about what might unfold can help orient you and your spouse/partner as you start to rebuild a marriage or relationship that brings greater engagement and fulfillment.
Richard Nicastro, Ph.D.
(Dr. Nicastro is a licensed psychologist in Georgetown where he sees individuals, couples and runs groups. He helps couples struggling with a wide range of issues, including those wanting to heal from infidelity).