Written By: Deidre Prewitt, MSMFC, LPCC
One of the hardest things for couples who are trying to recover from infidelity to understand is the need for conflict in order to heal. Many couples take the constant conflict as a sign that they are not doing well or have “unhealthy” patterns. This could be the case, but the presence of conflict does not signal a problem in recovery. In most cases, the lack of communication is one of the ways infidelity made its way into the relationship. Resentment breeds in the silence of a hurt and angry partner. Infidelity inhabits the relationship shrouded in that resentment. This resentment can morph into the justification and disconnection that can lead to an affair. The presence of conflict in affair recovery signals that this pattern has been disrupted. It may seem counter-intuitive but, many couples say they have the most honest conversations in the weeks and months that follow the discovery of the affair.
In my practice, I equip couples and other clinicians with the knowledge that conflict is necessary for infidelity recovery. There are several ways a couple can use conflict to promote the healing they need to heal from the devastation of betrayal. My choice for the number 500 is arbitrary for the most part. I selected this number to make the point that it takes considerable effort from both the hurt and involved parties to heal after infidelity. If you want your relationship to heal from the breach, you will both have to work for it. I also think the number 500 speaks to the perseverance it takes to come back from the brink of ending a relationship. Honestly, no one (including the partners themselves) knows how long it will take to repair. I assure you, whatever the number is, it is possible if BOTH partners are willing to put in the work it takes.
Not Just Any Conflict Will Do
The “fight” is not just any argument. It is not without purpose or resolution. The “fight” I am referring to has distinct components that will heal more than hurt the bond in a relationship. Most fights start with the hurt partner being triggered by some thought, event, or feelings. They experience some distress and seek to rectify it. In a couple working toward healing, the hurt partner learns to share their feelings with their partner. They learn to reach out instead of feeding their own internal hurt, anger, and resentment. Their partner learns that (while difficult and sometimes hurtful) this is a sign their hurt partner wants to move toward feeling better and hopefully reconciliation. The reaching out may not seem positive. It may come wrapped in rage, sadness, or grief. The unfaithful partner can choose to interpret this engagement as a reach for them and respond in a way that promotes healing the hurt. The unfaithful partner can respond with empathy, compassion, and love. This response does several things. It shows the hurt partner that their feelings are valid (because they are, perhaps it's their approach that is ineffective), the unfaithful partner is showing remorse, and the hurt partner is cared for. These messages help to calm the overtly negative reactions in the future. From this “call and response,” a new communication pattern emerges. The couple learns to tolerate emotions they once perceived as negative and use that energy to heal the breach between them.
1 Down, 499 To Go
When I am involved as the therapist in the healing of infidelity, I help couples to recognize when the opportunity to move closer to one another has presented itself. The first few fights are often extremely difficult to identify as opportunities and even more difficult to navigate. Inevitably, the unfaithful spouse will feel attacked and doubt that anything will calm their hurt partner. I work very hard to create a safe place where both partners are able to engage in the conflict and I guide them in communicating their emotions and feelings in a way that helps the relationship. Many couples can find this delicate dance without therapeutic intervention, the intervention simply helps them along. Once they are able to successfully complete this call and response, I encourage them by announcing they have one more fight under their belt and they are getting closer. Being successful in these fights also creates the safety and security the unfaithful partner needs to vocalize their own emotions. It is absolutely necessary for an unfaithful spouse to be able to express their emotions also if the couple ever wants to repair after infidelity. An unfaithful spouse needs to feel safe to vocalize their own hurt, sadness, and even anger if the couple hopes to extinguish the resentment that can feed infidelity.
Bringing It All Together, But Not Yet
The 500 fights can be very effective in accelerating the process of infidelity recovery. I often tell couples that their “number” may be considerably less or more than 500, but they will have to engage in fights if they wish to heal. Each component is a building block, that must be learned in order, and necessary to be effective. If the hurt partner doesn’t feel safe to share their emotions and be validated, they will not be able to do offer this act of love to the unfaithful partner.
In many relationships, one or both partners assume they already have this skill until infidelity is discovered. Discovery is a very hard way to learn that the bond in a relationship is a façade. The process of infidelity recovery is often an exploration of what is real in a relationship. The perfect couple learns they are not so perfect and they are going to have to destroy the illusion. The couple is forced to look inside themselves, look at the not-so-great parts of themselves and their partner, and then decide if they want to build a new relationship on sometimes really ugly truths.
Infidelity discovery is a painful, sad, and sometimes even freeing experience. The process can be healing, bonding, hurtful, and just plain hard. Many of my couples say their marriage is stronger after the process, even if they regret what it took to earn that strength. The feelings and experiences are life-altering and traumatic; so, it makes sense that couples would want to hurry to get to the end. Unfortunately, there is no easy button to healing. Hurrying the process means that the healing is only happening on the surface and is not penetrating the foundation of the relationship. Invest the time, energy, resources, and emotion to make sure you heal correctly so that you are not forced to repeat the process later. Take the time it takes, fight your 500 fights, and rebuild your love for one another. It is hard work, but it is certainly worth it!
Photo by Anthony Tran on Unsplash