Without a doubt, an affair is a devastating event in any relationship. It can take a very long time for one or both partners to heal, and it requires work on both sides to make it happen. Many relationships don’t survive this particular trauma, but for purposes of our discussion today, we are going to assume that you have made the decision to remain in the relationship and work toward repairing your marriage.
So how do you move forward in a relationship where the trust has been breached?
As a therapist, I see specific actions time and again with couples in this situation. The biggest source of friction, and the thing that prevents partners from helping one another heal, is INFORMATION. The person who has been cheated on frequently craves information about the specifics of the affair, while the cheater typically feels shame and guilt, and may not want to hurt their spouse further by revealing the details.
The How and the Why
It’s certainly true that some spouses may not care to know the intimate details of their partner’s affair, and they just want to move forward in some fashion. However, the majority of spouses feel a strong desire to know the how and the why of the situation.
Why did this happen to us?
How did we get in this situation?
Where do we go from here?
Most of all, they usually want to know if it was an emotional affair, or a purely physical attraction. It doesn’t make much sense, but if it was simply physical, the healing process is often swifter. Perhaps it is easier to believe that the flesh is weak, and that the affair was a momentary lapse in judgment.
For the other partner, the real pain of cheating seems to reside within the emotional connection formed between the cheater and their cohort. It is often difficult for the other spouse to accept that their beloved could have a romantic relationship with anyone other than them. Vows have been broken, trust is no longer authentic. For most people, this leads to questioning their own actions (How did I let my spouse down? What could I have done differently?) It may also lead to assumptions about the other person’s motivations (He/she didn’t even care how this would affect me; they’re so selfish!) Oftentimes, knowing some of the details of the illicit relationship helps the other spouse arrive at a new level of understanding. It provides an opportunity for them to reconsider the relationship, perhaps taking seriously complaints they’ve heard from their partner for years. At the very least, it opens the door for new dialogue about the primary relationship.
The Cheater’s Feelings
But what about the cheating spouse? Oftentimes they don’t cheat to hurt their partner – they simply aren’t being fulfilled in the marital relationship, so they seek validation elsewhere. Those actions can be accompanied by intense feelings of guilt and shame. This can lead to “blocking”, meaning that they are unwilling or unable to talk about the incident. They may become irritable or defensive because they don’t want to relive their actions, making it difficult for the other spouse to get the information that will help them jump-start the healing process.
It is critical at this stage that information be shared, and it is very difficult for a couple to do it by themselves. This is a good time to seek a competent therapist. As a neutral third party, therapists are trained to help couples decipher their emotions and unravel the events that led to the affair. A good therapist will guide the discussion, asking questions that help each spouse understand their part in the relationship. The therapist does not assume the role of judge, but rather more of a facilitator, encouraging each side to acknowledge their actions and understand their partner’s actions as well.
The next step is to begin openly sharing information. Each partner has a specific job to do during this process. The other spouse is responsible for asking questions that will help them understand the reasons for the affair, and they must gather all the information they need in order to mentally process what happened. It is the obligation of the cheater to address the questions as honestly as possible, regardless of the embarrassment or shame caused by the answers. This can be very painful, but it is necessary in order to begin rebuilding trust. Often, when we don’t want to relive a situation, we block the memory, making it harder to recall the information. So this process can sometimes proceed slowly, but if the commitment to the marriage is strong, eventually the desired information will be revealed, and healing can begin.
Frequently the revelation process is also frustrating, because the partner may ask the same question many times, as they struggle to deal with the emotions surrounding the answer. Realize that this is a sincere attempt to come to terms with a devastating breach of trust, and not a personal attack. It is an attempt to heal. Instead of becoming impatient and refusing to answer the question again, the cheater needs to just repeat the information as many times as necessary. Not only will that help the cheating spouse move away from shame and guilt, but it also demonstrates their willingness to be open, and their intention to change the relationship for the better.