Many couples cannot weather the repercussions after betrayal. Yet some can. What makes them different? What will ever help you to move past your deep hurt, into a happy relationship with your spouse or loved one again? In this brief article, I cannot offer in-depth guidance for the intricacies of your specific challenges; that may require counseling or a workshop. In empathy to you, I offer a few beginning steps.
Observe and allow your feelings. It may feel good to fixate on your anger at first, or obsess about “the other” person, but you’ll get through this more wholeheartedly and faster if you acknowledge your own pain, your hurt, the sadness. This is a traumatic situation. Feeling what is underneath anger is brave, and digs down to the roots. Accept that it will take some time, and you won’t add pressure to your distress. “People who wade into discomfort and vulnerability, telling the truth about their stories, are the real badasses” (Brene’Brown). How do you know what matters, what to focus on and what to let go of? Let your purest feelings guide you, not the vengeful ones. Both your pained and hopeful emotions are tethered to your wisdom. How can you know what to do, unless you know what you feel? Perhaps you feel raw, shocked, miffed, or not good enough. Grieve this. The affair marks the ending to an old way of operating in your relationship. But it’s an opportunity for a more authentic love to develop, a love which can subsequently outlast further devastations in your family, with friends, and in life. You’ll carry your new tools forward into different arenas.
Extend empathy. If your partner cheated on you, go inward, mindfully exerting huge empathy for yourself. This breach damaged you more than you could imagine, knocked you off your feet. You feel immobilized, past the point of forgiveness. Comfort yourself. This pain feels incomprehensible. Experience your own deep, soulful consolation for awhile. Do the messy work of truly receiving your partner’s comfort too. Usually, an affair involves the neglect and actions of both parties in the coupleship. Ask, how were you not present for them? Who had you become? Have compassion for both yourself and the person you love. They made this seemingly unconscious choice and have been engaged sexually and/or emotionally with someone else. It’s unthinkable, most likely. Imagine how much they must have been clouded by their own hurt to take such a step, into disloyalty. Equally unimaginable is how you might have contributed. For now, extend generous consolation to your inner brokenness. You just did not see what led you both to this shocking place.
Decide to stay, for now. You can change your mind later, based on whether or not your partner and you can reestablish trust, retrieve intimacy and connection. But for now, choose to see this as a gaping wound in the relationship, an emergency that you will respond to and heal from, without ending things. Why? Because you chose your soulpartner for many good reasons, years ago. Leaving may feel easier, and staying might seem more tough now, but in the beginning you were in love and chose them well. An unhealed affair will only have negative effects both now, and in any future relationship. Mend things for your own well being, also. Decide to heal from this, whether or not you two stay together.
Create a safety zone. Take charge of what you can control: you. Find at least one place in your home that is your own, and make it a sacred place where you go to spend time writing, breathing, crying, popping water balloons, singing, doing yoga, and/or meditating.
Aim for your coupleship to be a new haven. Down the road, if the healing is fragmentary and too much is irrepairable, you can end things. For now, take this on together like your house is on fire and the two of you must both put it out in different places. Then clean up the soot, the odor, restore, repaint and redesign it as your remodeled home. Your relationship must be different from before. It will feel awkward and uncomfortable as you go; anger, hurt and sadness will accompany the rebuilding. You may read a book together, or do couples’ therapy. Making it your goal to create a union which feels like a safe haven will help you both to rediscover and share specifics about what each of you need and want now, in this new place.
Talk about it together. Offer your feelings, ask what happened, explain where you are confused. Get down in the dirt of vulnerability, then rise back up with bravery. Don’t accuse, or even blame; those are defense mechanisms that don’t accomplish anything but false protection. Being vulnerable means risking raw, healthy communication, like, “I need you now.” “I need you to hear me.” “Do you still love me? Do you love her?” Try “I-messages, “ such as, “I trusted you, but knowing you slept with him, I feel violated, crushed.” Or, “Now that I know you lied and called her while we were on vacation together, I feel betrayed and manipulated.” I-messages are: “When you X, I feel Y. “ Or, “When you ______-ed I felt _____. “ They are nonthreatening statements which honestly but safely convey emotions. There is no judgment or accusation in an I-message. No one can argue with your feelings; they are just your experience. The words are hard to say and hear. The goal is to be understood, and validated, not to shame your partner or make them “bad.”
Focus upon the two of you, not the third party. The “other” person should not be in contact with your partner and vice versa. This allows safety, to find out what’s been missing, for both of you. Investigate what needs you two have not been meeting for one another, instead of getting every detail about “her,” or “him,” or “their sexual encounters.” It’s easy for couples to keep throwing logs on the chaotic fire, instead of purposefully letting it die down, and sitting by the smoldering coals looking heart-to-heart into what started and kept this thing going. Don’t give the “other” too much power. Your partner should cut off all communications with them, however, not receiving or giving information. You must be able to feel certain their affair has ended, able to read emails, look at their phone texts, etc., not compulsively, but as needed. If your partner wants to stay committed to you, and drop the affair, choose to believe them. Over time, you’ll obsess less, and will have the energy it takes to put back into daily rebuilding. Create weekly date nights, and weekend getaways. Ask your partner to put the effort they exerted into surreptitious meetings with their lover into exciting outings with you. This is a part of them you may not know, which came alive and must stay alive – the hot, sexy, creative or playful person they allowed themselves to be in their affair. Encourage your partner to find these sides of him/herself without the “other,” then to be that person with you.
The healthy triangle is you, your partner and your relationship. Not you, them and the other. Don’t let this phase become more crazymaking than the prior secrecy and lies already were. Dig in the muddy trenches with new vulnerability and honesty. Metaphorically wipe off as you go, shaking off the caked dirt. Try to have some fun together. Being with friends you trust as a unit can support the rebuilding process. All couples have had their big struggles. Part of what you fell in love with in your partner was how the two of you were as a team. There is a third entity that has been lost, a role that “the other woman or man” stepped into: your relationship. Find that third entity again, the garden of your relationship, and replant, water and care for it together. Keep the bugs and predators away, and this part of the triangle can be the foundation upon which you both rely during the tough patches, when you don’t have the wherewithal inside of yourself.
Take the risk of loving your partner again. J.R.R. Tolkien said, “To love at all is to be vulnerable. Love anything and your heart will be wrung and possibly broken. If you want to make sure of keeping it intact you must give it to no one, not even an animal. Wrap it carefully ‘round with hobbies and little luxuries; avoid all entanglements. Lock it up safe in the casket or coffin of your selfishness. But in that casket, safe, dark, motionless, airless, it will change. It will not be broken; it will become unbreakable, impenetrable, irredeemable. To love is to be vulnerable.” I mostly agree with Tolkien, except that it is out of fear, not selfishness, that we sometimes lock up our hearts. So, step out on the ledge, holding your fear with the arms of faith, and risk loving your partner again. The two of you are peers, and you are not lording anything over them. The worst thing that can happen is that they betray you again, and yet the person who does that after being forgiven deserves to be left behind; if that occurs, leave then. Couples I work with often struggle to their relationship’s end because the person who had the one-time-affair doesn’t feel trusted or loved again, and the affair was partly an unconscious test to see if their partner could love them insurmountably. If you choose to love them as if they are worthy, they have no reason not to offer their very best back to you. If they don’t, your partner needs help learning fidelity, and the relationship begs for even greater repair. I’m not saying I’m a fan of being taken advantage of; only that if you can learn to love with an open heart again, not closing up, you’ll take that into both your marriage and your life. Hopefully, you will never regret developing this paramount skill. Other people you care about will disappoint you too, since we are all imperfectly human. To be vulnerable means acting with strength, and strength only arises from risk-taking.
Decide to forgive. Forgiveness is a choice, an art, and a process. You’ve been through a trauma, and, you make the decision to move toward forgiveness, learning how to do it as you go. Clarissa P. Estes’ wisely said that to begin to forgive requires at least four stages. 1) To forgo: take some breaks from thinking about the other person(s) or event for awhile. Let go of the constant heartbreak. Give your wounded heart and psyche some balm, resting a bit here and there. 2) To forebear: have patience, abstain from punishing, bear up against, and practice generosity by channeling devastated emotions elsewhere. “This is a cleansing regime.” It’s as if you were riding your bike, crashed & slid on asphalt, submitted to scrubbing the wound getting all of the gravel out, and now you are resting, Neosporin applied and bandaged. Afford “a bit of grace to the situation, and see how that assists.” These things do not mean you “go blind or deaf or lose self-protective vigilance.” 3) To forget: release the grip on the wound, not insisting that the pain stay in the forefront of your memory. Instead, “willfully drop the practice of obsessing,” intentionally outdistancing and losing sight of it, thereby “creating new life and new experiences to think about instead of the old ones.” 4) To forgive: “a conscious decision to cease to harbor resentment,” giving up one’s resolve to retaliate. It is two sides of the same coin: a willingness to surrender, to let go, and an assertive, gutsy step forward into fresh territory, holding your partner’s hand. It is a choice, again and again, not necessarily a feeling, bringing compassion to oneself, to the other, and to the creation of a new relationship. Forgiveness may not be “deserved,” but we are the ones who benefit most when we do.
Rediscover. Usually, an affair involves the neglect and actions of both parties. Take some accountability yourself. Did you give them enough of your full attention? Did they feel important to you? Did you do things that hurt them, or make them feel they weren’t treasured? Perhaps you were living in a fog yourself? Who had you become? Feel empathy for the partner you love, knowing how angry, hurt, devastated and/or unaware they must have been to turn to someone else. Rediscover your generosity. What have you put on the back burner? Your creativity? Self-care, healthy eating and exercise? A fun you, who can have seductive, exciting, loving sex? Did frequent arguing, or silence take over your relationship? What did you lose inside of yourself? Confidence? Have you become jaded? Where have you stopped growing? Work as hard on yourself as you ask your partner to work on her or himself. Rediscovering involves seeing things with untinted eyes. No matter what happens to your relationship, you can transform, and will benefit long-term, with them or without.
Highs and lows. Allow the natural ups, downs, forward, backward and sidesteps in your progress. Notice what is working, and offer gratitude for those, while also accepting the ripples or the periodic turbulent waters of unexpected conflicts, triggers, or relapses. Don’t get stuck in your fear. Accept that fear will accompany you on this trek, without making decisions from a scared or reactive place. Keep your heart open, overriding the tendency to close it. Even though your partner cheated on you, you can still be a receptive, loving, trusting person. If you feel overridden with rage, shame or resentment, allow those feelings, then revisit the stages of forgiveness. Reach out to a therapist if you become immobilized.
Be purposeful in your healing. Recovery doesn’t just happen magically, and time, in and of itself, doesn’t heal. Structure will increase and support your successes. This is a journey that needs some clear navigation. Include supportive practices into your days, like meditation, working-out, yoga, music, reading, art, dancing, going out and laughing with friends – things that get you in the zone and keep you creative, centered, fun and fresh. Don’t just deny this, avoid it, or disappear into Netflix, a book, sleep, drinking, or video games. Let the pain transform you a bit. You want to be an attractive person whom You like to be with, and someone your partner is attracted to as well. Ask, if I just met myself, would I be attracted to “me?“
Set and keep good boundaries. Boundaries make us “less sweet, but far more loving” (B.Brown). If a relationship breach has occurred, new boundaries are crucial. Decide what you want for yourself, what’s o.k. and what’s not o.k. for the relationship. Ask and discuss what your partner wants. Then start living more boundaried lives. Carve out what this means for yourselves and the relationship. If it feels uncomfortable, it’s probably right; living a boundaried life means saying more purposeful “No’s” to things we used to tolerate, but more “Yes’” to things we need. The healthiest, most content people I know are the most boundaried ones, and Brene’ Brown shows this to be true in her recent research.
Trust your own intuition, over time. Don’t just take the advice of friends. They are different people; you are the one who has to live with your partner, and what you decide. In fact, be discreet, perhaps only sharing with one or two trustworthy friends who can keep complete confidentiality and have integrity about what has occurred. You don’t need anyone judging you or your partner on top of all this. No two situations are alike; every couple must uncover for themselves what they can and can’t do. If you make your own choices mindfully as you go, you’ll become more confident in them, living strong, and will be closely tuned in to what matters.
Read a book and/or get marriage counseling. My suggestions here are only a few ideas on ways to begin rebuilding trust and healing from the pain of an affair. Your relationship is unique, and will require specific inquiry, pledges, communication, skill development, and creative effort. The old relationship has died, and you want and need a new beginning. With the guidance of an accomplished professional you can find some peace, more quickly and certainly.
~Pamela W. Brinker, LCSW, Copyright 2016. All rights reserved.
Resources: After the Affair, by Spring; After a Good Man Cheats, by Madden; Private Lies, by Frank Pittman; Rising Strong, by Brene’ Brown; The Untethered Soul, by Michael Singer; Women Who Run With the Wolves, by Clarissa Pinkola Estes.’