One of the most painful experiences you may go through in your life is the discovery of an affair. Whether it is you or your partner who has been unfaithful, when infidelity is uncovered, life is turned upside down. Both partners – and the marriage – are in crisis.
Most people believe they would never stay married if their spouse cheated. However, infidelity can often be a wake-up call to issues that have been overlooked, and an opportunity to deconstruct what isn’t working and rebuild something stronger and deeper than it was.
*Read here for things to consider when deciding whether to leave the marriage
or stay and rebuild.
If infidelity has rocked your world and you and your partner want to rebuild, here are some things you need to know:
1. Keep it private – or at least semi-private.
It’s very hard to recommit to your relationship when a marital infidelity has been broadcast to the world. Depending on the circumstances, the fallout may be hard to contain, but if possible, try to keep the situation a private matter. Here’s why:
Opinions are like assholes – everybody has one. Friends and family, who have very little understanding of your complex feelings, will likely have advice about what you should or shouldn’t do. This is a decision that you need to make for yourself and your family. A lot of outside input is often more harmful than helpful.
People can’t unknow what they know. Friends and family can easily form attitudes about your partner in response to the fracture in your marriage. If you decide to reconcile, they might have difficulty accepting your partner even though you have decided to stay. Additionally, sometimes loved ones can feel hurt and angry, even though they are indirectly affected by the betrayal. This adds another level of healing that will need to take place.
Shame. No matter which side of the affair you are on, infidelity causes a huge amount of shame. It can be very hard for either partner to face that shame with humility and grace and return to the marriage when outside pressure is added.
That being said… the discovery of infidelity can be a very isolating, lonely experience. You may need someone trustworthy in whom you can confide. This might be a skilled therapist; a friend who will listen and support you no matter what you decide; or a family member who can offer unconditional love to both you and your spouse. Choose your confidants wisely, because no matter how much you trust someone, if you share information outside of a professional counseling relationship, you lose control of that information.
2. The hurt spouse is likely to have PTSD-like symptoms.
Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) is a distressing reaction to possible death, loss, or serious injury. Although the discovery of infidelity does not meet the criteria for this clinical diagnosis, it’s important to understand that the discovery of an affair is a truly traumatic experience. The betrayed spouse frequently feels overwhelmed by feelings of shock, loss, and fear. I often hear from the betrayed spouse, “My life is completely shattered,” “I don’t know who I am anymore,” “Everything I thought I knew about my life is just gone!” They are disoriented and panicked. Intrusive and obsessive thoughts, nightmares, and emotional and physical reactions to reminders of the betrayal are normal reactions to the discovery of infidelity.
Being deeply hurt by the person you trusted most can cause you to question everything you thought to be true about yourself, others, and the world. A betrayed spouse will become suspicious of everything, and may be hypervigilant about checking their partner’s phone, email, or whereabouts in an effort to reassure that they are safe from further harm. It becomes difficult to concentrate, eat, sleep, or enjoy life. Moods can swing widely from irritability and anger to despair and self-loathing.
Healing after the hurt of betrayal is an emotional process that cannot be ignored.
Note to The Unfaithful Partner: If you are trying to help your spouse heal from your infidelity, the worst thing you can say is “Can’t we just get past this and move on?” You must acknowledge their pain, show remorse, and reassure them of your commitment. This is like salve on the wound of the hurt spouse.
3. The unfaithful spouse is probably experiencing a meltdown of their own.
There are many reasons why a person can become involved in an affair. But what is true across the board is that an unfaithful partner has undoubtedly been putting much effort into managing a secret – sometimes for a very long time. As this deception goes on, a sort of “fog” begins to form in the person’s mind, and reality gets murky. When an affair comes to light and the bubble bursts, there is a shock factor for the unfaithful spouse as well. Having a bright light shined upon your darkest secret can induce panic, shame, anger, fear, and can send people into a tail spin.
An unfaithful partner whose affair is discovered usually experiences a deep sense of shame as they come to terms with the fact that they have let down their spouse, family, friends, parents, coworkers – and even themselves.
They fear that they have ruined their life and will lose everything. They worry that they can never fix the damage done and if they stay in the marriage, their spouse will hold it against them forever. They feel hopeless.
Unfaithful partners may be confused about whether they should stay in the marriage or leave to be with the other person. They may have difficulty letting go of the attachment they have formed with the other person – both the romance and the friendship. Sometimes (and this is especially true for men) they feel guilt and a sense of responsibility for the pain of their affair partner.
Sometimes an unfaithful partner feels angry at their spouse for past grievances. Certainly each spouse has flaws, but the unfaithful partner sometimes blows out of proportion the flaws of the hurt partner as an unconscious justification for their affair.
Note to The Hurt Partner: Understanding the fear, confusion, and hopelessness of your unfaithful spouse can offer insight into their behavior that may seem out of character. Offering compassion to your partner at this time might be the hardest thing you will ever do, but try to remember that your partner is also taking a leap of faith in recommitting to the marriage.
4. It takes teamwork to hold each other’s pain and rebuild trust.
If you are a couple trying to heal and rebuild your relationship after infidelity, you are probably both quite fragile at this point. You both need your partner to help you through this, yet some days neither one of you has the strength to hold the other’s pain. Here is what you can do:
Note to The Unfaithful Partner:
Pain - The hurt partner needs to process their emotions of pain, fear, suspicion, anger, grief, etc. Feeling and expressing these emotions is part of the healing process, and as I mentioned before, it can’t be ignored. The pain of betrayal is an open wound. You can help your spouse heal by acknowledging their pain, apologizing for your betrayal, and reassuring him or her that you are committed to healing the marriage. This is salve on the wound - apply it liberally.
Trust - Another way you can help your spouse to heal and rebuild trust in the relationship is to be completely honest. Willingness to answer questions, allowing your spouse to have access to your technology, and sharing your whereabouts goes a long way toward helping your partner trust again. Any expert in infidelity will tell you that if you want to rebuild a marriage after an affair, you must have no contact with your affair partner. If this is not possible, then you must be completely honest with your spouse about when you have contact.
Note to The Hurt Partner:
Pain - On the other side of the coin, your unfaithful partner is human and can only hold so much. It’s very hard to be reminded constantly of the biggest mistake of your life and it takes a very strong person to witness the anger and devastation that your actions have caused. Recognizing that your unfaithful spouse is trying to make things right, but that they may not be strong enough some days to hold all your pain and anger, might be a difficult pill to swallow. But finding strength when your spouse has none can also be very empowering.
Trust - Although you, as the hurt partner, should be free to process painful emotions and have good reason to be distrustful, you should be clear that you are working toward trust and forgiveness. Let your partner know that you don’t want to be the watchdog, always checking up on them, that you don’t want to be angry, sad, or suspicious for the rest of your life, and that you want a healthy marriage through all of this. The unfaithful partner needs to believe they can be successful in their attempts to fix the relationship. They need to believe they won’t be punished for the rest of their life. Otherwise, why stay?
5. Hard truths need safe spaces.
A betrayed partner deserves the truth and should be the one to decide what details will be revealed.
However, the unfaithful partner often has a very hard time revealing the whole truth. Why?
They have been lying for so long, it’s hard to break the habit.
They are trying to avoid the wrath of their spouse.
They believe they are protecting their spouse from painful details.
They are afraid that their spouse will leave if they know the whole truth.
They are trying to protect their affair partner from the fallout.
Note to The Hurt Partner: First of all, you need to be damn sure you really want to know the details. Once something is revealed, it's yours to hold forever. Ask yourself honestly, which is more likely to be worse: the not knowing, or the knowing?
After careful consideration, if you decide you need the hard truth, you must create a safe space for your partner to share painful things. This does not mean you can’t be angry or grief-stricken when you learn something painful. But if you can manage your reactions and treat your partner with respect through your pain and anger, then your partner is more likely to feel safe enough to give you truthful answers.
Note to The Unfaithful Partner: If you are committed to rebuilding your marriage and making it stronger than it was before, share whatever truth the betrayed spouse wants to know. Learning the truth directly from you is less painful and anger-inducing than finding out indirectly – and believe me, if there are still lies to be uncovered, your hurt partner will sense this. If the foundation on which you begin to rebuild the relationship still contains lies, then you are building a house of cards that will soon collapse.
The Bare-Naked Ladies have a song called “Shoebox of Lies” and I’ve always liked this metaphor for what happens if you hold onto secrets in a relationship. If you keep a shoebox of lies hidden away, then there will always be a place to put future lies. Empty the shoebox and throw it away. There is no place for lies in a marriage.
*Read here for an exercise I often suggest to couples
who are trying to navigate the unanswered questions of an affair.
6. Commit to understanding the WHY.
If you and your partner do not want to repeat the same mistakes that led to the affair, then you must commit to understanding why and how the affair happened. A skilled therapist can help you figure out why the unfaithful partner turned toward another person, and what circumstances led to crossing the boundary. This process takes a lot of self-examination and humility from both partners.
Note to The Unfaithful Partner: Commitment to understanding why you were unfaithful is paramount to rebuilding a stronger, more trusting relationship. Hint: “I don’t know” is not an answer.
Note to The Hurt Partner: Self-examination can help you understand what part you may have played in the breakdown of the relationship. This is NOT the same as accepting blame for your spouse’s affair!
*Read here to understand how and why most affairs happen.
7. It’s a process!
Recovery from infidelity is not easy, not quick, and it’s not a straight line. It takes time and you must be willing to ride the rollercoaster through the tough stuff. Sometimes the process may feel like one step forward and two steps back. But please believe me when I tell you, with two committed partners willing to bring compassion and humility to the process, your marriage can be stronger, happier, and more resilient than you ever thought possible.
-Valerie Allen, MEd, LPCC
If your relationship has been shaken to it's core by infidelity, I can help you stop the hemorrhaging,
navigate the fallout, make tough decisions, and heal and strengthen your relationship.
Please contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org or 513-317-8113.