Too often we witness the dismantling of marriages by couples in the public light as well as those of friends and acquaintances because of an affair. Almost always outsiders feel compelled to condemn, condone and debate the question: Can a marriage survive an affair?
The fact is, regardless of what the world thinks, only the couple can decide if their marriage can survive.
In my work with couples standing in the emotional debris of an affair, I have found that if both partners want to recommit to an exclusive relationship and have the courage to trust and reignite their love – they can rebuild a marriage.
Difficult Beginnings are Understandable
Rebuilding sounds good but at the beginning – it is not easy. Often, no one is sure of anything but the wish to make the pain “go away.” Emotionally, the feelings of devastation, anger, betrayal, guilt and blame, don’t just go away.
- There is sometimes an urge to bury them and re-connect as if nothing has happened.
- There is the pull of the immediate world to do or not to do something. (It is interesting how many people who vote against taking him/her back – will fight for their own marriage when put in the same situation)
In face of this, the couple needs to give themselves permission and time to deal with the situation in their own way and heal together.
Here are some important steps towards this goal:
An apology is a verbal, sometimes written, expression of guilt that conveys remorse or sorrow for having injured or wronged the other. In the aftermath of an affair an apology is a way of bearing witness to the pain of betrayal one partner has caused the other.
An apology is neither a “get out of jail free card” nor a “ license to kill.” It is not the preface to blame, excuses or retaliation. A true apology after an affair sends the message that no matter what the reason – violating the bond is never the answer.
An apology is important because it repairs a sense of safety between the partners – it promises change.
For a couple to move on there has to be recognition of the apology and a willingness to forgive. In many ways this is a mutual process that implies a belief in the other’s willingness and capacity to change – sometimes it is a leap of faith worth taking.
Forgiveness is not incompatible with cycles of emotion and upset. Much like any other trauma, one or the other partner may react from the triggers that remind them of the affair.
The betrayed partner may be thrown back into feelings of anger, hurt or rejection. If the betraying partner recognizes this as understandable to the healing process, it is very productive to validate their partner’s pain and upset. This is much more effective in reducing the feelings and creating a sense of reassurance than become angry with the return of the feelings – “I thought we were past this?”
The worst that happens is for the tables to turn and the marriage to become an endless scene of “crime and punishment” toward the betraying partner. Rarely will that support the re-building of a marriage bond. Instead, it locks the partners into the roles of perpetrator and victim.
Re-setting the Trust Point
In the aftermath of an affair the greatest symptom is mistrust. Because verbal exchange has been compromised by lying – the truth now has to be expressed. Often the betrayed partner needs to know the story of the affair. They need to make sense of reality and their perception of what has happened, who their partner is, who this “other person was,” and who they are now to each other.
Although the request for information may come at different times, the clarification is important. HOWEVER, clarification is different than endless ruminating, obsessing or interrogating the partner. I have told partners who continue to interrogate their partner that – they are now the one “keeping the affair going.”
One of the most effective steps in recovery is the non-blameful examination of what the state of the relationship was before the affair. This does not equate to condoning betrayal. It is an honest self-reflection by each partner and a mutual exchange of what each was giving and getting in the relationship, what issues each was dealing with and what each wants and needs now.
- “I need to be with someone who wants to be with me more than a few evenings a week.”
- “I need to recognize that I stopped feeling good about myself and avoided connection with you.”
- “I need someone who wants to try new things and keep on living.”
- “I realize that I pushed you out of my life with my work.”
Help Along the Way
- While it is the couple that really makes the recovery possible, help along the way is often very valuable. Given that verbal intimacy has been compromised, it is not easy for partners to just start talking without an overload of anger and blame. Often the partner who has had the affair is feeling so guilty and embarrassed he/she has no words, the betrayed partner often has so much rage and pain, he/she can’t stop expressing it.
- A professional counselor by reason of being the “neutral” third serves as a safety point that expands the field enough to contain and consider feelings, examine causes and support resiliency.
New Partners to Each Other
Essential to the process of rebuilding a marriage is becoming new partners and new confidantes to each other, by leaving the affair behind. For most couples, building new memories with new experiences together, as well as trying out new interests or challenges invites sharing from a different perspective and invigorates interest and intimacy.
Dealing with the Loss- Appreciating the Gains
As with any trauma, healing together in the aftermath of an affair involves mourning loss.
- For many it means coming to grips with the illusion that everything was perfect.
- It means accepting what is human and less than perfect in self and partner.
- It ultimately means the freedom to love self and partner with an appreciation of a new marriage built together.
One word frees us all from the weight and pain of life: That word is love.
Listen in to Psych Up Live to hear Keith Wilson discuss The Road to Reconciliation: Pitfalls and Possibilities
Photo by Quinn Dombrowsky, available under a Creative Commons attribution license.