Learning your partner has had an inappropriate relationship with someone else can be devastating. Whether the infidelity is physical, emotional, virtual (or all of the above) many monogamous relationships do survive an episode of cheating without break-up or divorce, providing the infidelity stops and both partners are willing to do the hard work toward rebuilding trust and connection in their relationship. Surprising to some, when couples were asked about marital satisfaction, 34% of women and 56% of men who were having affairs reported being happy with their partner. Thus the stereotype that cheating is always the product of a poor relationship or that the relationship must end when a partner strays is just not the case.
Infidelity can create hopelessness, anger, powerlessness, and despair. Many couples struggle to let go of these hurts and partners get stuck in that bitter place for the rest of their lives. In counseling, I often see these negative feelings give way to amazing insights, hope, strength, and a more joyful relationship. It is hard to imagine when there has been an episode of cheating, but infidelity can be a catalyst for positive change if partners are willing to commit to the process with openness, honesty, and accountability. After experiencing the journey of infidelity recovery with countless couples, I can say that I deeply understand the process, the emotions, the changes and stages people go through during this huge life adjustment.
Based on the affair recovery models provided by John Gottman, Ph.D. and Esther Perel, I provide a structured treatment plan and encourage clients and couples to take the time they need in therapy to process feelings, establish understanding, and stabilize moods prior to making a life altering decision to stay or go. I offer ambivalence therapy for those who are unsure they want to continue in the relationship as well as infidelity recovery therapy for those who seek to reduce their symptoms or strengthen their relationship post-affair. These options are available for couples and individuals and we will address relationship goals, boundary-setting, as well as self-care.
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Six Steps Toward Infidelity Recovery:
- Ending the affair or behavior: True healing can’t commence if any relationship, sexual activity, or lying continues. Your partner has to know that the inappropriate behavior has ended, although it might take time to convince him or her of it – you’ll learn it’s hard to prove you’re NOT doing something. This may mean working with the partner who cheated to address issues of grief and loss.
- Full disclosure: You’ve already been caught or revealed the infidelity, so you might as well get it all out. Time and time again I hear the guilty partner promise that there is nothing else being kept secret, then the spouse gets a phone call, finds an old email, or finds a receipt or credit card bill that indicates that there was more from the past that wasn’t revealed. This self-defeating behavior by the violator is usually a sign of shame, guilt, and of not wanting to further traumatize the partner, but, of course, it has the opposite effect and can set the healing process back.
- Allowing the violated partner his/her feelings: Recognizing how much your partner has been hurt, as well as your own feeling of guilt and failure, makes it very difficult to let them continue to talk about the cheating. But shutting down the partner will only delay the healing process and possibly make it impossible to ever get beyond the pain, thus ending the relationship. I, however, do stress reason and fairness in this area. It is not ok for the violated partner to insist on rehashing the issue and prodding for details whenever the impulse comes over them (and it will invade their thoughts frequently and invasively in the first months). Rules and boundaries will need to be set – the violator can’t be constantly worried about being blindsided by angry outbursts or the need to talk about it – it is fair for them to ask to delay the next conversation until he or she gets home from work, or when the kids are in bed, or until he or she is in a better psychological place to have a rational discussion. As you go through the process of therapy you will find that the necessity for these discussions will diminish – this is a sign that you are healing.
- Working on the issues that got your marriage to a place where one partner’s solution or outlet was to cheat: discussing and admitting to the problems and deficits in the marriage, learning how to better communicate your frustrations and concerns, and having frank discussions about your sexual wants, needs and frustrations are the core of rebuilding your relationship and the best way to keep infidelity from happening again.
- Committing to allow time for the healing process to take place, and understanding that there will be setbacks, frustrations, discouragement and doubt: There will also be a slow recognition that your relationship is better than it had been, and that there really is a better future for you. You can recover from infidelity if you do the hard work involved, and will find that as it recedes into the past your life and relationship will look very different than it looks today. In a study of couples ten years after the affair, the majority of couples were happy they made the decision to stay together, and that they have a better marriage than before the violations. Like a broken bone that is stronger after it heals, marriages often strengthen after experiencing major crisis.
- Acknowledging that the violated partner will have to work towards forgiveness for a healthy marriage to emerge: I don’t believe in “forgive and forget,” because, let’s face it, forgetting may not be a realistic goal after such a trauma, but if the partner can’t eventually find a way to forgive, the marriage can last but it will never be healthy, happy and satisfying. Keep this in mind: if the couple has children, it is imperative that you build a good example of marriage, love and intimacy for them to have a chance of building their own healthy relationships in the future. One day your children might encounter serious marital challenges – will you be able to tell them that you handled your own with dignity, respect, and with serious consideration of their best interests?