Let me clarify right away that I never condone affairs. However, if an affair has happened, and you’re left wondering “what next?,” the good news is that affair recovery work can absolutely lead to a stronger, healthier marriage than there was before.
When an affair (or worse yet, multiple affairs) is discovered, it may feel like your house has burned to the ground or been swallowed up by an earthquake. Indeed, an affair is a deep rupture in the relationship. Everything you thought you could count on suddenly is gone. The foundation you trusted is in ashes at your feet. It’s as if the sun didn’t rise in the east one day and you’re left shaken and baffled: how is this possible? Not only does an affair instantly call into question beliefs about your marriage and partner, but even more fundamentally, you may start to question your own identity. Feelings of worthlessness, self-doubt and self-recrimination are common. Meanwhile, you’re in the middle of a trauma and the one person you should be turning to for support is the one who started the fire.
Do you walk away? Do you rebuild the house? Do you move to another city and start over?
In the first few days or weeks, it’s far too soon to know. First, take care of your basic needs. Gather yourself as best you can, get support from friends and family, and find a way to get emotionally regulated if you have fallen apart. Take time to cry and time to use your resources to gain strength. By resources, I mean whatever helps you in difficult times– meditation, breath work, music, prayer, nature, moving your body, connecting with trusted friends, family, or professional helpers. Take some space from your partner if it helps. Ask the questions you simply must need to know the answer to and then stop. It’s rarely helpful to ask for details about the affair(s). If you’re experiencing symptoms of depression, anxiety, or acute distress disorder (a disruption of normal thinking and feeling following a trauma), know that you are not alone in having a big reaction to discovering an affair. Get the help you need.
The next step is to decide whether to attempt to repair the relationship. Both of you must commit to the process of repair and be prepared to take ownership for ways that you have harmed the relationship. While only one person is responsible for having ultimately made the choice to have an affair, both of you are responsible for contributing to the climate of the relationship that left it vulnerable to an infidelity. (If this concept is not sitting well with you, please read my article I’m sorry, too: The role of the hurt partner in recovering from an affair).
Finding the right therapist to guide you through the process of recovery is critical. Search for someone with experience and training specific to affair recovery. Ask questions such as, “Do you have a specific process for couples recovering from an affair?” Find someone you both feel comfortable with and challenged by. If either of you feels shamed or humiliated, find someone else. The attitude of the therapist should be something like this: “All humans struggle with love and connection. Mistakes were made, but that does not make you a bad person. Let’s hear this and learn from it together.”
Learn your strengths and weaknesses
Then you begin sorting through the rubble to learn how your house was at risk for fire. As you sift through the layers, you both discover things about yourself, your partner and your relationship that you did not know. You learn to connect the dots between earlier experiences—in your marriage, in earlier relationships, and even in childhood—and the factors that culminated in the great fire. In the process, you get clear about both your strengths and your weaknesses as a couple. And you learn some things crucial to a healthy marriage: do we both have the capacity for deep self-reflection and remorse, even when it hurts? Are we both open and willing to change ourselves, to learn the lessons inherent in painful situations? Do we have room in our hearts for making amends and forgiving consciously and deeply?
Sometimes the answer is no, and it becomes clear that rebuilding the relationship is too fraught with danger because one of you is not willing or able to take on the project wholeheartedly. In that case, a therapist can guide you through a healthy ending. Even if you decide to end the relationship, it’s worth the effort to learn and heal as much as you can, so you don’t carry the pain and trauma with you.
If the answer is yes, the work will culminate with amends-making. Importantly, note that, like rebuilding a house, it’s a process. Superficial asking for and granting of forgiveness is as dangerous as building your house on sand. Planning and preparation is imperative. Having an experienced and wise leader in charge is key. And doing it right is a better choice than rushing through it, skimping and cutting corners, or making surface repairs. While it is difficult to experience the full range of big feelings that are part of this work, the process of learning how to sit with, learn from, and transform these feelings is a worthy endeavor that can fortify the spirit and your relationship.
The ideas of making amends and forgiveness are important to explore. Some people believe in “forgive and forget.” Some people believe that forgiving someone is condoning or excusing their behavior. Others believe that penance earns absolution. None of these ideas are useful in healing a marriage.
“You do not have to walk on your knees for a hundred miles through the desert, repenting” (to quote a Mary Oliver poem)
Rather than embodying the roles of victim and perpetrator, both partners need to look at the ways pain has crept in and taken up residence in your marriage. Both of you have known this, and now it’s time to take responsibility for healing it and replacing the pain of disconnect with compassionate truth telling, rebuilding connection and trust, and learning how to tend to the marriage differently to keep it safe.
Healthy amends making is a process of coming to understand exactly how the unthinkable came to be. What were the myriad contributing factors, both internally and externally, that ultimately led to the decision to have an affair? Sometimes people will say, “I don’t know, it just happened.” It never just happened. Recognizing exactly what disappointments, negative beliefs, escape mechanisms, and failures to “show up” in the marriage were part of the recipe for disaster is the unraveling that has the potential to both heal and strengthen the relationship. Making amends is about finding the deep levels of understanding exactly in what ways both of you hurt your partner and feeling true regret for your actions, steeped in the understanding of how even a good person can make bad decisions.
When skin is cut, the tissue of the scar that forms to heal it is stronger. Similarly, a couple that dives in deep to heal after the trauma of an affair can emerge more conscious, more connected, and more committed than ever before. Sometimes a trauma viewed as a wake-up call is the doorway to a richer, deeper, happier life together.