There are few things more devastating to a relationship than an affair. The breach of trust is catastrophic, and many relationships do not recover. There is also the fact that affairs don’t happen in relationships which are happy and the couple is well connected, so when there is an affair it is testament to a rift that the other party may not have been aware of, or if they were, didn’t recognise as serious.
But healing a relationship after an affair is possible, if both of you want it. If one continues to hang on to the past, to want to continue an extramarital relationship or to be unable to accept and move past the pain and damage, then there is little hope. Acceptance and forgiveness are essential if the relationship is to recover. If both are present then the couple can go on to have an even stronger bond.
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So, where do you start? The keyword is honesty. This starts with the aggrieved party rather than the cheater. They need to be heard and their pain needs to be acknowledged, however there may be a tendency to want to know all the details of the affair, and encouragement to ruminate is not healthy. There is nothing to be gained by hearing intimacies such as when, where, how often and so forth – indulging in these requests from the injured spouse only reinforces the imagination and makes it harder to overcome the damage. But the hurt person needs the other to hear how much they are hurt, and the Imago Relationship Therapy process allows for this to happen in a safe, positive way.
As part of this process, the cheater needs to acknowledge how much pain their action has caused, and to recognise that there is a grieving process going on in their partner. As with any grief, it needs to be seen and acknowledged, not buried and ignored. This takes time and cannot be rushed. Both partners may be grieving – at the loss of the perfect relationship and high ideals that they once had. They have both lost something, and it is healthy to for this to be spoken about. Once that is done, then the healing can begin.
As part of the Imago Forgiveness Dialogue, we encourage the couple to discuss what was going on for them around the time that the affair started. The chances are that everything was not as rosy as they may have been pretending. Ideally, these dissatisfactions should have been discussed at the time, but people are often afraid of speaking out for fear of losing the relationship, so, paradoxically, they will have an affair to draw attention to their unhappiness. Of course this is completely the wrong way to alert your partner that all is not well.
Once those dissatisfactions have been aired, it is necessary for both partners to accept some responsibility for them. It is never the case that one partner is completely innocent and squeaky-clean. The ‘innocent’ party may not be the one that stepped outside the marriage, but they would have been wilfully blind in some way so that the other felt that they could cheat. Usually there has been a loss of intimacy which the cheatee has chosen to ignore.
Sometimes one or both partners thinks that they have fallen out of love with the other. This can be hard to restore, but it is possible by some frank conversations and diligent use of loving caring behaviours. Connection and desire can be recreated. Think back to what the other used to do when you were courting and falling in love – by sharing these with each other and by consciously doing them again, love can be restored and rebuilt.
With some skilled professional intervention it is possible to create an even closer relationship after an affair, however if the cheater refuses to promise never to cheat again, or the cheatee is unable to let go of the images in their mind and allows themselves to be haunted by their imagination, sometimes a break is helpful to allow things to settle and to be able to see the relationship in perspective. If there is still love there, the couple will reconnect in time.
Here are three things you should not do after an affair:
1. Keep talking about the past, especially any details about the affair.
2. Make changes which are short-term and only reflect self-doubt, such as giving up pleasurable activities or making dramatic unsustainable pledges like losing weight. (Maybe lose some weight over time, but don’t aim for anything rapid.)
3. Maintain any behaviours or contact which are likely to threaten the future – by not avoiding those people and places resonant of the affair, you are showing that you are unable to go forward.
And here are three things you should do:
1. Talk about the future you want. Share your dreams for a re-connected partnership, and the joys of being together.
2. Make changes which show that you mean things to be different, such as some loving behaviours, and more time together.
3. Be honest about what was happening for you before the affair, and why you became disconnected from the relationship and your partner.
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