When couples get stuck trying to emerge from the emotional devastation of an affair, it feels awful. The same hurtful arguments are repeated over and over, resulting in scabs yet again being torn off emotional wounds, and new injuries being inflicted. After a while it can seem like divorce is the only answer.
It may feel counter-intuitive, but many couples do recover from the devastation of infidelity and go on to have a relationship that they never thought was possible.
There are two basic stages in the healing process. First
we deal with the immediate emotional crisis. The discovery of a partner’s affair is most often emotionally traumatizing. The discoverer needs to be able to convey the full range of their emotional turmoil to their partner and feel not only understood, but that the partner cares about how they are feeling, is truly remorseful, and will not run away from their intense feelings. There are many questions that need to be answered and the discoverer needs to feel welcome to ask them and that they will get an honest, even if painful, response. This can be difficult because the person who had the affair frequently feels guilty and/or ashamed about their actions, so it is hard to “have their nose rubbed in it,” which is what it can feel like from their perspective. This takes time to work out.
Once the feeling of traumatization becomes more manageable couples move into the “making meaning” stage. To really heal from an affair many marriages need an “emotional overhaul.” It’s not only the person who had the affair who may not have been able to talk about things that weren’t working for them in the marriage. I often hear, “I wasn’t so happy either, but I didn’t go out and have an affair because of it!”
There are so many things that couples can be afraid to talk about! Why is this? It comes down to fear… fear of hurting a spouse’s feelings, or angering them… fear of appearing overly sensitive, wimpy, bossy, naggy, petty, critical or controlling. Fear that the ice is too thin.
Many times an affair can function as a a big road closure sign. There’s been an earthquake, and then a landslide, and major restructuring and repair is required for the road ahead to be safe. When healing is approached carefully and thoughtfully, the structure of the marriage will grow stronger and be able to withstand future threats to its integrity.
To do this kind of work as a couple requires curiosity about what the affair was really all about. There are many levels at which this can be explored. What were the unspoken rules and agreements operating in the marriage that dictated what could and could not be said and/or done? What is it in each spouse’s personal history that may be somehow being expressed through the infidelity? What is the unique story that the spouses have lived as a couple that has lead to the current situation?
Even considering posing these questions can evoke an intense reaction in the spouse that has discovered the affair. A common reaction I hear when meaning-making starts is, “that’s no excuse!” At the moment the couple’s work turns from dealing w/ the initial traumatic effects to being curious about the meanings the infidelity carries, the discoverer can become quite frightened that the devastation they have experienced will be forgotten or minimized, or that they will be blamed.
It is hard for many couples to navigate this transition on their own. Both spouses may feel that the solution should be for the infidel to simply live with the guilt and shame, which will prevent this from ever happening again. But that is an awful way to live and does not promote true emotional intimacy in the relationship. It actually prevents it. Lack of emotional intimacy in a marriage is fertile ground for infidelity. This plan has a good possibility of backfiring.
Real, deep healing necessitates departing from looking at what happened only on moral grounds, with its strict dogma of blame and punishment. If the work of healing is done right, and the relationship is strengthened by the discoverer feeling somewhat buoyed by their partner’s supportive responses to the effects of the trauma, a genuine curiosity can develop as to what the affair was really all about. It can open up dialogues that allow each spouse to discover dimensions of thoughts, feelings, and emotional capacities in the other that they had no idea existed. As what has been hidden from each other comes to light, a sense of possibility and potential begins to replace the devastation and hopelessness.
If you are struggling with the aftermath of an affair and this sounds intriguing, feel free to call to discuss the possibility of starting marriage counseling. I have offices in San Francisco and Walnut Creek. If you live outside of that area, there is a geographical listing of therapists that are especially effective with affairs at http://beyondaffairsnetwork.com/find-affair-recovery-therapist/