Healing after an Affair
An interesting new study confirms something you perhaps knew intuitively. The findings? When someone forgives and stays with a cheating spouse, we tend to think less of that person, especially if he or she is in a leadership role.
I think there’s definitely a societal expectation to dump a spouse who is caught cheating. Just look at how many more popular songs there are about taking revenge on philanderers vs. taking them back!
At the root of that expectation might be some self-righteousness. People tend to think that an affair would never happen in their marriage. But I can tell you as a psychologist that affairs happen to all types of couples, and that some people who have affairs are the last people you’d ever suspect. Affairs don’t just happen to serial philanderers or die-hard cheaters. They happen to people who love their spouses, care about their marriages and never intended to cheat.
We’re all vulnerable sometimes in our marriages. Dr. Janis Abrahms Spring, a leading expert on the topic of affairs, confirms that there are often external stressors preceding an affair, such as the birth of a child, career success, or job loss. In our busy lives, meeting each other’s needs takes work. And sometimes opportunity lines up with unmet needs and disconnection in a way that leads to an affair.
Infidelity brings pain and distrust to a relationship, but if both partners still care about the marriage and each other, it doesn’t automatically mean the end of the relationship. (Again, we’re not talking about serial philanderers here — that’s a bigger problem and a very different situation than the average affair.)
How does healing happen? First, the partner who cheated has to be transparent. He must be willing to admit what he has done and acknowledge the hurt it caused. This process goes a lot deeper than just saying “I’m sorry, now let’s move on.”
The unfaithful partner also has to be willing to help the hurt spouse heal. She must answer questions, be with the partner through the considerable pain that comes after an affair and do what she can to help her spouse trust her again. This process can be lengthy and very emotionally difficult.
As scary as it may be, the hurt spouse has to be open to the repair attempts of their partner. Although there is a natural tendency to want to make your spouse “pay” for what they’ve done, in the long run doing so sabotages your attempts to heal. Opening your heart to your partner knowing there’s some risk of being hurt again can be terribly frightening, but if your partner seems genuinely remorseful, know that taking these risks is a critical part of the healing process.
At some point, it’s important for both parties to see if there is anything that made their relationship vulnerable to the affair. Infidelity can be a indication that something else was going wrong in the relationship. According to relationships expert Dr. Sue Johnson, affairs often take root when partners are disconnected or feel unappreciated.
Even though the trust in the marriage has been heavily compromised, the wronged spouse can’t constantly play watchdog. Although shattered trust may never be fully repaired, it doesn’t mean you can’t rebuild a strong, emotionally-close relationship. I’ve seen some clients’ relationships become healthier in many ways after an affair because it forced them to finally deal with their issues.
I wish I could tell you that the path back from infidelity is an easier one, but, contrary to what popular opinion tells us, there is a path there.
Note: If you are dealing with an affair, consider reading After the Affair: Healing the Pain and Rebuilding Trust When a Partner Has Been Unfaithful by Dr. Janis Abrahms Spring for some great advice on dealing with the aftermath of infidelity.