For many couples, the discovery of a spousal affair is the ultimate betrayal. And yet, the betrayal by one does not necessarily decrease the love of either party for the other. When you still love someone but the trust has been significantly damaged, is it possible to mend the relationship? Can marriages be rebuilt after an affair?
Dr. Janis Spring is a clinical psychologist and author of After the Affair: Healing the Pain and Rebuilding Trust When a Partner Has Been Unfaithful and How Can I Forgive You? The Courage to Forgive, the Freedom Not To. Through her work she has found that relationships can become even stronger after such a betrayal, provided the couples take some crucial steps.
Take Responsibility for the Pain Caused
Many unfaithful partners are overcome with guilt and, because of it, urge their hurt partners to put the deed behind them so they can move on and heal. This is a mistake, and one certainly not fair to the other / hurt partner.
According to Dr. Spring, the offending partner must take responsibility and “bear witness” to the pain they have caused rather than defend or deflect their actions. This step is vital before the couple can begin the healing process. Let’s be honest, repairing a relationship after infidelity- is Difficult work. It is painful and can feel like a horrible roller coaster of up and down emotion.
Avoid Cheap Forgiveness
Sometimes, in an effort to save a marriage, the wronged/hurt partner quickly forgives the cheating partner- before he or she has had a full chance to feel their anger and hurt. Spring calls this “cheap forgiveness” and warns that it can set up a marriage for future infidelities.
The behavior, she has noticed, is prevalent among individuals who are more afraid of being alone than staying in an unhealthy relationship with an unfaithful partner. But, cheap forgiveness essentially lets the cheater off scott-free and sends a message that the behavior is okay. Real forgiveness will take time, lots of tough conversations, and is only possible AFTER GRIEVING the loss of the relationship the hurt partner thought that they had.
There are some situations where, even when only one person has strayed, both parties share guilt. While the unfaithful person has to take responsibility, own up to their guilt, and allow their partner to vent, the wronged party must also acknowledge their own role. What led to feelings of emotional distance and isolation? Where there messages of rejection (overt or covert)? Are there behaviors or conflict patterns that could have indirectly contributed to the cheating partner’s behaviors? This is NOT blaming the hurt partner, just examining the possibility of shared responsibility. This is necessary for healing and true intimacy.
Process of moving forward
Once full responsibility is taken and grieving has happened, it is now time for both parties to “start to move forward” IF that is what both parties WANT to do. The Gottman’s call the steps: Atone, Attune and then Attachment. A couple has no chance of rebuilding trust if the hurt partner is going to hold onto the resentment and use it against their spouse in future situations. Two wrongs don’t make a right and weaponizing the painful past or worse- abusing the cheating/ offending partner is not healthy either. We can communicate that our heart is broken, our trust is damaged and we are scared that our relationship won’t make it through this affair discovery- without behaving in ways that continue to erode trust.
Above all else, Spring advises that rebuilding trust after an affair takes time. Not all couples choose this path. There is no judgment here, as every couple is different. While some may feel closure after six months, others may need a year or year and a half to fully come together. Some couples may find they need the guidance of a therapist to move through their issues. But the important thing is that both parties remain committed and do the work.
If you or a loved one is interested in exploring couples counseling for infidelity or an affair, please contact me today. I would be happy to speak with you about how I may be able to help.