Written By: Deidre Prewitt, MSMFC, LPC
One of the hardest things for couples who are trying to recover from infidelity 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 breech, 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) know 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 its 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 perceive 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 successful 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 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 the fights if they wish to heal. Each component is a building block, 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 was 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
Doesn't all couple's therapy cover infidelity (affair) recovery?
The short answer is....no.
Being in relationship counseling does not automatically mean infidelity recovery. Very often, couples come to counseling to improve their relationship, but do not disclose previous affairs. They may come asking for assistance with communication or managing conflict. Many couples believe that they have "gotten over" the affair because they choose to no longer discuss it. Some avoid it until they fight when the conversation continually circles back to the breach of trust. Unresolved issues in a relationship have a way of finding their way into almost any argument. The normal way that we clinicians conduct relationship counseling needs to be adjusted to accommodate and process the trauma of an affair if the couple ever expects to heal.
Affair/infidelity recovery is a very complex experience. Some couples are able to recover without professional intervention based on their own hard work and dedication to the process. This is no easy feat, but once they are able to work through the breakdown, they can emerge stronger than ever before. Some couples need intervention because they need the blueprint to construct a new marriage out of the rubble of the old one. Learning communication tools, fighting fair, or spending quality time together will not heal the wounds of the infidelity. Doing this type of relationship work requires a special set of skills to help couples recover from the trauma and then open themselves up to co-creating their new relationship.
Ignoring The Affair Maintains The Trauma
Infidelity is an earth shattering event in a relationship. When trust is broken the entire relationship is left shattered. Some relationship theorists will discourage a couple from talking about the pain of the affair. This is detrimental to rebuilding trust going forward. After discovery, both partners have distinct experiences that need to be processed and respected. Most offending partners struggle with coping with and forgiving themselves for their actions. They may struggle with rectifying who they are with what they have done. The other partner struggles to understand the world around them. Both are hurting and reeling from the experience. Although the initial upheaval of emotion may subside over time; one or both partners will struggle with moving on completely. Decades may have passed but the pain hovers like a cloud over them. Clinicians skilled in infidelity recovery are able to acknowledge the wound and dress it appropriately, even when it is painful, to get to the healing. Avoiding the potential conflict will only continue to alienate the hurt partner and oppose the intimacy and closeness needed to allow them to be more intimate partners.
Traditional Methods May Not Get To The "Heart Of The Matter"
As a budding therapist I was lead to believe if I help a couple build intimacy, empathize with one another, or work through other issues; then infidelity scars would heal on their own. I could not have been more wrong. I found that even when I attempted to navigate the couple to heal other challenges in their marriage the infidelity would continue to resurface. Couples could complete a course of therapy and feel better only to return months or years later exactly where they were before. Traditional couples counseling was like putting a band-aid on a gushing wound. It may stop the bleeding for a short while but is not a permanent "fix". My primary goal is to put myself out of business so I had to find out what the core issue was if I wanted to prevent the revolving door of couple's therapy.
Getting to the core issues in relationship counseling is a challenge in all therapeutic relationships. The presence of infidelity trauma only serves to deepen the complexity. Partners find themselves contending with the seemingly never-ending questions of "who", "when", "how" and the all-encompassing "why". Avoiding these answers leave distrust and hurt in a relationship. The heart of the matter lies in how to prevent the infidelity from happening again. This cannot be addressed without a structured, systematic way to address what the hurt is in the relationship.
One of the most difficult things to learn as a counselor who specializes in infidelity is finding a delicate balance in validating both partners' experiences while not alienating the other. Both partners have valid emotions and neither is a bad person. Striking a balance between challenging thoughts/behaviors that destroy trust and validating the emotions that motivate them is not an easy task. The approach is much more active and directive as the couple needs to feel safe that the counselor has a direct path to healing. Many times, affair/infidelity recovery requires a crisis-oriented approach that may break the "rules" of allowing a client to find the answer themselves. It also requires that the therapist is not liked at some point as they challenge behavior that may throw recovery off course.
In finding balance in the therapeutic relationship, the clinician is also given the task of finding balance in changing or competing goals for the session and the therapy. Some couples may not come in with the same goals (reconciliation vs. separation). Sometimes it is the therapist's responsibility to help them find their true motivations to help them meet their real goals when they cannot bear to say it. Not all couples who start the process of recovery want to continue together. Both need support in their decisions.
Marriage counseling is a great option for those are struggling in aspects of their relationship. Going to therapy to heal the trauma of infidelity brings a different challenge to the situation. Many couples come into recovery in the midst of relational crisis and addressing other issues can make healing more difficult. If you are struggling with the trauma of infidelity it may not be best to assume that all counseling is "one size fits all".
If you live in Columbus, Ohio or nearby I would be honored to help you through the process. Click Here to contact me.
Couples attempting to restore their relationships in the wake of an affair experience a swarm of emotions. One minute they are enemies, the next they are starving for intimacy and connection. The relationship has changed and no one seems to know how to get through it. The whole world seems different and yet, it just keeps going as if life as you know it has not completely crumbled. When I see couples in my counseling office there is one question that continues to hang in the air like a million-dollar chandelier hanging by a single thread of dental floss. "How could you do this to me?"
This single question continues to repeat like a mantra under hushed voices at midnight and loud voices in the middle of dinner. It seems to be the theme of almost every question asked about the affair. It keeps offended spouses awake at night and unfaithful partners in constant defense. This is the question that is asking so many other questions and begs to be addressed before healing can begin.
How Could YOU Do This To Me?
How could you, the person that told me that I was the most special person in the world, betray me like this? This question is about trust in the commitment to be responsible with a loved one's emotions. This is also about attachment. In most couples I see for infidelity recovery they are one another's most trusted person. Many times partners are the only trusted person. The offended spouse questions if this is the person they thought they knew. They question if they ever really knew this person at all, or if they should ever trust anyone again. To address this question is to address the identity of the person that was unfaithful. The hurting partner needs reassurance that the behavior does not define the whole person or their entire relationship.
How Could You Do THIS To Me?
How could you do this very personal, (assuming) mean-spirited, hurtful thing? This question is wondering was this premeditated? The query asks about the intent behind the specific behavior. It assumes that the offending spouse considered alternatives and willfully chose this action to use as attack. Some hurt partners read ill intent in the thought that their spouse conjured up this plan to hurt them in a very personal way. To address this question is to convey the absence of intent to harm by specific actions. Helping an aggrieved spouse to understand the actions are not purposeful in creating the depth of the pain.
How Could You Do This To ME?
This is the way the question is framed most in my office. How could you do this hurtful thing to create so much pain and punish me? The affair feels like a personal attack to most offended partners. It feels as though their spouse wanted to hurt them and knew this would destroy them most effectively. Many describe it as a dagger being hurled directly into their heart, with a twist and a smile. Others take it as confirmation that they are worthless and unlovable. To address this question is to address the feeling that this is a personal attack. An offended partner would need to be reminded (numerous times) that the act was not an intentional assault.
Infidelity recovery requires many questions to be answered in order to successfully heal. These are only some of the ways this question can be delivered and received. This very complex question is an accurate representation of many questions asked during the restoration process. Recovering from an affair is difficult but not impossible. Couples can and have come back stronger than ever before. Repair may not be easy, but it could one of your relationship's greatest accomplishments.
I'm usually not a fan of Jay Z's music; however I was intrigued when the articles about 4:44 flooded my timeline. I had to check it out. What I found was the most honest, emotional, vulnerable Hip Hop track I've heard in a very long time. The lyrics reminded me of all of the partners who found themselves drowning in guilt and despair after their affair. As it is a response to his wife Beyonce's Lemonade album, I noticed it also parallels many of the "power couples" I meet in my counseling office, grasping to hold together the pieces of their own marriages after infidelity.
What was most striking was his very public, very personal apology. He didn't try to hide behind excuses, he took responsibility without being defensive. As a Marriage Counselor who specializes in affair recovery I applaud his effort. He gets it. A couple will never recover without the heartfelt, vulnerable, emotional apology.
I apologize. Our love was one for the ages and I contained us in all this rachet s***. We are more expansive now. Meant to cry and die alone in these mansions or sleep with our back turned. We're supposed to vacate till our backs burn. We're supposed to laugh till our hearts stops and then meet in the space where the dark stops and let love light the way.- Jay Z's 4:44
There are so many themes in these lyrics that mirror the themes I see in my therapy office. Two people who are on the top of the world being crushed by the hurt that was created between them. People assume they have a perfect life because of what can be seen from the outside. This is a relationship where both powerful and successful in their own rights, yet struggling with the pain of a crumbling marriage behind closed doors. Many people say they would leave if they ever encountered an affair. Some do because many times it is easier than sorting through the emotional wreckage. But, some brave souls who love each other, want desperately to preserve the love they had, and their dreams for their future roll up their sleeves and do the hard work that it takes to save their marriages.
My client couples amaze me with their unwavering hard work and dedication to their careers. They are business people, CEOs, entrepreneurs, professionals, and politicians. They build awesome careers and are usually pillars of the community. They come in broken, hurting, and exhausted. Something incredible happens when they learn to channel the characteristics that made them successful into rebuilding their relationship. They find that they are able to thrive in their career and their relationships.
Jay Z and Beyonce's struggles are not unique to them. The feelings of disconnect, hurt, sadness, grief, guilt, and shame are all part of the experience of infidelity. The therapy comes from the journey back to healing. This journey begins with a very real, very open, very emotionally raw apology. The marriage that is built from the wreckage promises to be stronger than the original. I'm glad they were both brave enough to share this with the world through their music. Hopefully others will be inspired to do the hard work of recovering after infidelity as well.
If you need help recovering after infidelity, I would be happy to help. Click here to learn more.
An affair does not automatically mean that a marriage or relationship is over. Many times people who love their spouses find themselves in situations they never thought they would be in. A friendly co-worker, a Facebook friend, an ex-lover, or a complete stranger can be the temptation that threatens to destroy your marriage. Many partners who have cheated are in disbelief that THIS is the person they have become. Many love their spouses and cannot figure out why they found themselves going outside of their relationship to have their needs met. Considering these points will assist in your attempts to repair your marriage after your affair.
Face Your Grief, Shame, and Hurt
If you are interested in repairing your marriage after your affair you are probably very familiar with the guilt and shame of your decisions. Some unfaithful spouses fight back in defensiveness and blame when faced with the hurt the affair has caused. Some have been drowning in the pain of their actions and were secretly hoping the affair be revealed so that they can be released from the pain. Very few people will support an unfaithful spouse when an affair is revealed because the actions are difficult to accept. You never thought you would be "that person". You didn't notice the subtle changes in you that made you turn to someone outside of your marriage. Now you want to turn back to your hurting spouse. Acting defensively or blaming your spouse is almost as damaging as the affair itself. Resist the temptation to point the finger at your spouse. Owning up to your actions is a great first step to the healing that needs to occur in your marriage.
Affairs are kept alive in secrets. Revealing all of the secrets of how you deceived your partner is difficult and necessary if you want to rebuild trust. Saving your marriage may mean you will have to tell your spouse about the other bank accounts, how you covered your expenditures, where you were in the night(s) in question, etc. This requires complete transparency in a way that may make you uncomfortable. Know that every secret you tell (particularly if you volunteer it) will be a brick in rebuilding your spouse's trust and faith in you. The rewards may not be immediately apparent but they will have lasting effects. The betrayed partners is dealing with a host of emotions that may look like anger at first, but know this is part of the process in healing your marriage. If you need to better understand what you spouse is going through click here: http://www.reconnectingcolumbus.com/deidres-blog/my-partner-cheatedwhy-cant-i-get-past-it
Find Your "Why"
At this point you have at least considered why you cheated. Your spouse was either emotionally or sexually distant. You didn't feel loved or appreciated in your marriage. You needed to feel alive and find joy in life again. Spouses cheat for many reasons, but not all spouses cheat when they feel this way. When you have decided you want to repair your marriage, blame will destroy those hopes. Yes, it is important that your "why" for cheating is discussed. This discussion must take place when both of you have worked through the pain, resentment, disconnect, and shock of the affair. When first attempting to save your marriage, make mental note of your "why" or discuss it with a trusted friend. Discussing it with your spouse to early could end your marriage. First the two of you must work through the initial shock, disappointment, rage, and hurt. Once a safe space is created in your marriage, healing will come from a "why" conversation.
Build A New Marriage
Your marriage as you knew it is dead. The walls of trust and commitment that have held up your marriage have been destroyed. Both of you are attempting to pick up the pieces of your relationship. Honestly, putting your marriage back together is not an option. You have to build a new one. Building a new marriage means starting over with prior experience. It is making your marriage priority over other things in life. It is learning new ways to be honest, open, and transparent in ways you never were before. This is a time where you are shown your hurt partner's vulnerability and must respond with your own. If you want your marriage to work, you must lay out all of your cards.
"How do I know you will not do this again?" This is a normal question from a hurt spouse who is wanting to trust again but does not know how. This question is a good sign that you are working toward reconciliation. No one can (truthfully) promise they will never cross a boundary that could be considered as cheating. Being honest, volunteering information before being asked, revealing all of the deceit, and conveying your commitment to the marriage will help to provide your hurt partner with the answers they need to this question.
Infidelity is a complex human experience and recovery cannot be contained in a blog post. Many couples assume their marriage is over or are too scared to ask for help because the shame of staying together is too great. Recovery feels impossible when each day seems to present more worry, hurt, and anger. The truth is with focused, committed, feverent perseverance a marriage can recover from infidelity. The irony is that many couples find the affair was a symptom in an already dying marriage and recovering from the affair is the catalyst to creating the marriage they have always dreamed of. Realizing that your marriage is worth the work is the first step to saving it.
If your marriage needs support please contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org
When an affair is discovered, a relationship is changed forever. Two people are grieving different things at different times and the world seems to go into a tailspin. Partners who have the affair have their own list of challenges and I will reserve those challenges for another post. This post is about how the very identity of the betrayed partner is shaken to the core.
There must be something wrong with me.
Betrayed partners (at varying levels) will internalize the affair as an insult to who they are and what they provided to the relationship. "If I were younger, more attractive, more attentive"; the list goes on and on. This partner will put their very being under a microscope to extract some kind of meaning out of what they are going through. Most will blame themselves, some only for a short while until the anger sets in. Others may carry that blame for years.
The betrayed partner is trying to make sense of this somehow. The research and my experience with counseling couples recovering from infidelity teaches in most relationships the answer is much more complex than simply lost attraction. Even some of most desirable people in the world have been cheated on.
Post-Traumatic Stress Symptoms Betrayed partners seem to experience a form of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder in many ways. They may experience:
This is a traumatic experience. Trauma is a highly stressful event that is emotionally overwhelming and exhausts a person's ability to cope. This is our brain and body's way to manage risk for re-injury and to regulate emotion.
Crisis of Identity and Loss of Trust in Many Facets of Life
To extend the understanding of the crisis in identity, many betrayed partners will ask: "What does this mean to the world around me?" . They lose trust in themselves to understand the world around them. They lose trust in their partner's love and fidelity. They also lose trust in the "realness" of the world around them. "If I didn't know this, what else is there I don't know?"
Many betrayed partners have to find a new place to put their identity, because the person or relationship they put it in is not as it seems. They are faced with the potential of no longer being part of a couple, and perhaps explaining to other people why the couple split. If they stay, the betrayed partner must contend with the embarrassment of this decision; even if only few people know. The person they were bonded to is not who they thought and the wake of that shock can spread to many (if not all) other aspects of life.
Finding Hope in a Dire Situation
Knowing that this event does not have to permanently define who you are is key. It also does not define your relationship. Affairs are such a taboo subject that statistics vary widely; between 30-60% of all marriages will experience infidelity. It is very likely that you know someone who has survived this. Getting support is key to recovery. For some support is reading books, others it is talking with a pastor or trusted friend. Most couples who are trying to stay together find a trusted therapist to assist them. The most important key to recovery is understanding that you must work to recover. Many couples are able to rebuild after an affair and emerge stronger and better than ever before. Some are better apart. Working toward recovery will help BOTH partners decide if they will be better together or on their own; but better is possible.