Healing After an Affair
Imagine this scenario:
You never thought your partner would have an affair. But now you’re dealing with the shattered pieces of your relationship. Can you ever trust them again? You’re not sure you even want to. You’re in so much pain it’s like you got hit by a truck. And you’re having big fights, big feelings, and big regrets. The world has changed, and not in a way you ever expected or wanted. You miss feeling love and trust, rather than feeling trapped. And you’re dreaming of the day when triggers don’t escalate into major fights that ruin your night. A day when you both finally feel heard and understood.
Although infidelity is one of the most difficult issues a couple can face, many are able to move through it if they’re both committed to the process. There are 3 stages of affair recovery that researcher John Gottman identified: atonement, attunement and attachment. Therapy can help couples to successfully make their way through these stages, but many couples also heal on their own. Here’s more information about the 3 stages.
In this stage, the betraying partner needs to be completely honest and transparent with the hurt partner about what happened. This means answering all of the hurt partner’s questions without defensiveness or lying. It may also mean being more proactive about letting your partner know where you are and what you’re doing. It could mean sharing your email and phone with your partner for awhile, until trust has been restored.
In this stage, partner’s work to rebuild trust over time. The hurt partner may have symptoms of PTSD if they experienced the infidelity as a trauma that shook the foundation of their entire world. This means they may have flashbacks, get triggered, and continue to struggle with big feelings about the affair for long after the initial reveal. It’s the betraying partner’s job to continue to provide empathy and support and love through this difficult phase. If you keep showing up for your hurt partner, eventually they will regain trust. It’s important during this phase that the hurt partner doesn’t use the infidelity as an excuse to become critical, contemptuous or abusive of the betraying partner. Boundaries and respect are still very important. As one seasoned couples therapist once told me, “No one wants to hug a porcupine.” The attunement phase could take as long as 2 years.
This is the beautiful 3rd phase when you and your partner are once again securely attached and the foundation of your relationship feels stable. The key to this phase is to keep talking openly and empathetically with each other about your feelings and desires. In this phase, your relationship may actually become stronger and better than it was before the affair.
The secret sauce for all of these stages is to keep talking but without any of the 4 horsemen, those 4 communication poisons that kill relationships over time. Those are defensiveness, criticism, stonewalling, and contempt. If you can approach each other with love even when you’re hurting, your relationship has a strong chance of survival. Feel free to reach out for a free consultation if you’d like to work with me.