Recovering from an Affair: Learning How to Cope
You may be in a situation where you have suspected or recently discovered that your partner had an affair. If so, it is more than understandable that this can be a very painful and scary time. Given the circumstance, how could you not be having those feelings?
It is certainly true that affairs can happen for a variety of reasons: loneliness, missing the feeling of emotional and physical intimacy; revenge, curiosity, or boredom. It also may simply mean that one or both of you have fallen out of love.
It’s not pleasant to think about, but it’s the reality. It happens. And then, sometimes the signs were there but we ignored them. Other times, we simply did not see it coming. Perhaps you as a couple are under so much stress that you may have lost the desire that you once experienced earlier in their relationship.
All of this may very well be true, but before we start, there is also a specific belief that we need to dispel.
I believe the #1 myth surrounding infidelity and affairs is that they only happen in unhappy or already failing marriages, that the cheater is out looking for an affair to escape a miserable home life. It’s simply not true that this is the only reason that affairs happen.
In fact, most affairs begin as friendships and evolve over time. Feelings develop slowly for this new person over a shared interest or work environment.
While any relationship is susceptible to an affair, I do not recommend that you start questioning your spouse or getting suspicious of every person in their life. It’s best that you go with your instinct.
However, if your intuition is telling you something might be off, what do you do?
Start the Conversation
There are any number of ways to approach this if your gut is telling you something. Not talking about it may leave you feeling troubled and alone with all the thoughts and feelings you might be having. In general, it’s important to have the talk. You are likely feeling scared. That’s completely natural.
Once you’ve gathered up the courage be as clear as you can and ask your spouse directly.
“I’ve been feeling very scared to bring this up, but something has been bothering me for a while. I need to ask you something.” Pause and take a deep breath at this point. Then proceed with the question, “Are you emotionally or sexually involved with someone else?”
Then what? What if your spouse says “yes”? Will your relationship survive this affair? Can you learn to forgive? Do you want to forgive? These are all valid questions and we will be examining what indicators show that your relationship may or may not survive an affair. It is completely up to you and your partner.
Practical Things You Can Try
Here is my list of 10 things you need to do to give yourself and your partner the best chance of working toward forgiveness. If you can forgive, the chances increase that the damage done can be repaired.
1. Refrain from Making a Major Decision
Do not make any big decisions right away. Deciding that the marriage is over or becoming obsessed with “fixing” it while you’re still wrapped up in the confusion of what’s going on is not helpful for either party. Give yourself time to breathe and really hear everything. Understand why this happened and then decide what you want.
Upon first hearing about her or his affair, you may have taken off your ring. I get it. But it’s important to know the following: trying to make a good decision in the middle of what could be overwhelming and understandably intense emotions and thoughts is usually not the best idea. Ultimately you may decide to stay in your marriage.
Or you may decide that you simply cannot continue. Either way, give yourself enough time to evaluate what has happened, what the impact is, and what your assessment is of your marriage and how viable it may or may not be to continue.
2. Be Open to Conversation
The worst thing you can do is pretend like the affair never happened. If either spouse cannot talk about it openly, the healing cannot truly begin. Acting as if it didn’t happen only stuffs away the negative feelings of distrust and disrespect and delays an inevitable explosion of those negative feelings.
3. Don’t Ask Unnecessary Questions
While it’s imperative that conversation happens, and that, as the cheater, you answer any questions your spouse may have regarding your affair, it’s also important that you, as the spouse who was cheated on, don’t ask for the dirty and often X-Rated details.
It may be tempting to ask your partner to compare you to the affair or ask about details, but I assure you this will lead to deeper pain, from which it will be much harder to recover.
Questions you may want answers to might include things around what lies they told you to conceal the affair, or how long it’s been going on.
4. Embrace ALL of Your Feelings
For lack of a better word, it sucks to hear your partner say they’ve cheated on you or to discover it otherwise. Allow yourself to be vulnerable. You don’t have to be a pillar of strength in this scenario.
It’s quite ok to be sad and angry and disappointed and whatever other feelings flow through you. Everything you know of your marriage and/or relationship is changing. It can get better and you can move forward together, but it will never be the same.
In the meantime, it’s important for you to embrace the feelings, this includes the cheater.
As the one who had the affair, try to offer comfort and listen to your partner’s emotions as best you can. It may be hard to hear, but since you violated them, their immediate need to express themselves need to be the clear priority.
In addition, saying to the violated partner, the following words, “get over it,” in any variation should absolutely NEVER come out of your mouth. Instead, the more helpful thing you can do is to support your partner in whatever ways they feel that they need right now. This will likely take quite some time as this level of breaking trust is extremely difficult to get over.
5. Avoid the Need to Numb the Pain with Alcohol or Drugs
So many of my clients have told me that the realization that an affair has or may still be happening can be excruciatingly painful. Frequently they say that the pain is unbearable. It’s been described as someone kicking them in the gut.
Confronting the reality of an affair is nothing short of traumatic. People report a variety of normal signs and symptoms associated with trauma including difficulty sleeping, persistent intrusive thoughts and feelings about the affair, confusion, loneliness, helplessness, embarrassment, shame, feelings of guilt, vulnerability, sadness, and anger just to name a few.
Of course, our first instinct is that we want this pain to go away, by whatever means we can manage. There’s a major downside to this. If you climb into a bottle or anything else that temporarily numbs the pain, you will simply be adding one more layer to the problem of the affair. Numbing all the pain in this way only makes it so much more difficult to begin recovering.
6. Reach Out to A Trusted Friend
One of the biggest mistakes I see people make is trying to go through this alone. Frankly, I think trying to keep all this inside is way too much to ask of yourself. I understand. Maybe you are feeling ashamed and embarrassed, and you just don’t want anyone else to know. Or maybe your partner is pressuring you with urges to “keep this between us,” or saying things like, “we can’t let other people know – we’ll be ruined socially.”
Don’t misunderstand me, I’m not saying go announce this to the world. I’m saying that trying to go through this alone never ever works out, especially for the survivor of the affair.
Everything gets bottled up and the internal stress of trying to contain it all will very likely produce tremendous anxiety and depression. Sharing what’s happening with at least one other person – a person you can trust to be discreet – will help you unload some of the loneliness that people inevitably feel when confronted with an affair.
7. Accept Responsibility
If you are the guilty party, you must accept responsibility for the affair. Yes, there are events that may have happened that lead to the affair, but remember, it was a choice that you made to cross a line. If you’re in denial or placing blame on anyone else, you’re not moving towards rebuilding your partner’s respect or trust. Denial of what happened, and minimizing the impact it had on your partner, is not your friend.
8. Attempt to Rebuild Respect
If the two of you are going to have a chance at moving on, there are two critical things that must happen in order to feel connected again. You will need to develop mutual respect and trust for each other. Right now, in the initial aftermath of the affair, that may or may not be able to happen.
Note: This is not going to be easy. There are going to be some very difficult conversations ahead. Both of you are going to need to accept this fact if you are going to have a decent chance of recovering from the affair.
Assuming you both decide that you want to try to repair the damage and move into a more fulfilling and happy marriage, here are a few things to consider. It’s important to understand that respect comes before trust. When there is infidelity, it’s easy for the spouse who was cheated on, to instantly think of all things they don’t like about their partner. It’s easy to start looking at them in a different light. So, to move forward to a stronger relationship, it’s important to rebuild the respect. That works both ways.
One way to do this to think of all the things you love about your partner. Recall times when you were happy together and your spouse was a great parent, partner or friend. Think about their redeeming qualities and work on building respect.
9. Make Openness and Trust Your Highest Priority
Once the respect is back, moving on to trust will be easier. Not easy, just easier. This step will look different for every couple and every affair. The first, and most crucial, way you can rebuild trust is for the cheater to cut all contact with the ‘other person.’ Draw a firm line here. This is non-negotiable.
A couple of ways of rebuilding trust, of course, include complete honesty and transparency about everything. Often the spouse who was cheated on will set these boundaries and expectations.
Going forward, it is important to understand that the spouse who was cheated on will very likely need to verify that the cheater can be trusted. No more passwords on cell phones. No more private social media or email accounts. Perhaps even changing jobs if the affair started at work.
10. Embrace Your Self Care
One of the most important things to focus on in the wake of an affair is to absolutely commit to your own self-care. You didn’t want this. You didn’t ask for it. But here it is. It happened. You feel wounded. You want and need to try and heal.
This is the time to advocate for yourself. Do things that you know bring you pleasure. Spend time with friends. Get a massage. Take a walk on the beach. Cook your favorite meal. Drink a cup of hot chocolate. Call a family member. Seek out professional counseling with a therapist who understands why affairs happen, what the impact can be, and how to recover. Do whatever healthy things you need to do to help cushion some of the pain of the affair.
Above all, if you have been cheated on, please remember this: you absolutely deserve to be THE number one priority right now!
I’d like to offer you one final thought. Although it may not feel like it right now, you are very likely going to recover from this enough to have a fulfilling and happy life. If you expect that you are going to get better, you very likely will.
I hope that this article is helpful, and especially if you are now facing the reality of an affair or fear that you may be in this situation in the future. It’s vitally important that you not go through this alone. There are numerous potential landmines amidst the hurt, pain, and confusion. If you need some help navigating through all of this, contact me for a free 15-minute phone consultation at 310-208-3105.