I'm going to talk about the highly sensitive topic of affair recovery. Research shows around 50% of all marriages will experience infidelity on some level over the course of their relationship. In my private practice at least half of all my couples I work with have had infidelity and that's why they're there. So today I'd like to go through ten different steps to the recovery process if there's been an affair in your relationship.
Now an affair, just to define our terms, can be anywhere from an emotional affair all the way up to a sexual affair. The emotional affair is when you develop an inappropriately close emotional attachment with someone other than your spouse and that person becomes your best friend, your soul mate. You share everything with them and you start falling in love with them. With an emotional fair, it's usually just a matter of time before it turns sexual unless it's stopped. Then obviously a sexual affair is when there's sexual contact.
All forms of affairs are highly traumatic to marriages across the globe. The number one things that rocks the foundation of security in a relationship is infidelity. No matter what language you speak, no matter what the color of your skin, no matter what ethnicity or cultural background, infidelity rocks the foundation of relationships like nothing else. And the person on the receiving end of an affair usually has symptoms akin to PTSD, Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. A lot of the symptoms can include intrusive thoughts, irritability, panic attacks, flashbacks, feeling numb to life, etc. It's one of the most devastating things you can go through being on the other side of an affair. So these steps are to help couples who have experienced infidelity in their relationship.
Affair Recovery: 10 Steps
The first step is you have to stop all contact with the person you've had the affair with. That may require a variety of things. For some of you, that may mean you have to quit your job. For others of you, you may have to move to a different state or you may need to move houses or change churches, whatever it is for you. The first step is you have to cut out all contact with this person you've had the affair with because if you don't cut out contact, the affair will linger. A lot of people are under the misconception that they can stop the affair but still be friends with the person or still see them once in awhile. That is impossible. An affair is an addiction. One way to think about affairs is the feel good brain chemicals in your head were low because of things going on in your life and you marriage. And then this person came around and met your needs and flooded your brain with feel good chemicals, which turned them into an addiction. Just like any type of addiction, whether it's heroin or cocaine or whatever, if you get around it, you're going to fall back into it. And likewise with affairs, if you've had an affair with somebody, that person has become your addiction so if you come in contact with them on any level, most likely you're going to fall right back into the affair. So right from the top, the first step of recovery is you have to stop all contact. If you don't, you can kiss your marriage goodbye because the betrayed spouse won't be able to withstand the ongoing betrayal and they're going to want out of the marriage. If you're the betrayed partner reading this and your partner won't end the affair your first round of offense is to expose the affair to all of your family and friends. If that social pressure doesn't make your partner end the affair your next move should be separation with zero contact until your partner can prove the affair has ended. If after 3-6 months your partner still hasn't ended the affair then divorce them.
Step number two is you have to share all accounts and all passwords with your partner. You have to open up all of your social media accounts, all your emails, etc. You have to voluntarily give your phone over whenever your spouse desires it. You've broken trust. To earn that trust back, you have to open up all accounts. Sometimes it can be tempting to have secret accounts or secret this or secret that. But if you really want your marriage to recover, there's no point in having these secret pockets. You have to turn it all over. It will help the betrayed spouse slowly start trusting you again because at this point your word means nothing. You've broken trust, you've lied. What you say doesn't matter. Your actions are what matters. You have to open up all accounts because it helps the betrayed spouse. But it also helps you because affairs thrive in secrecy. So if you've been nurturing an affair and it's in the shadows, it's going to continue to linger on. But if it's out in the open and exposed and nowhere to grow, it's going to die. One way to think about affairs is the person who steps outside the marriage and has the affair, that's 100% their fault. However, the dynamic and the climate in the marriage that made them susceptible to stepping outside the marriage is usually both people's fault. Usually there's some type of climate, something going on in the marriage that increases the risk of the person to have an affair, but it's still their choice to step outside and have one.
Step three is you have to show sincere remorse. If you're the one who's had the affair and you act indifferent towards the impact it's had on your marriage and your spouse, recovery is not possible. You have to take ownership for how devastating this has been to your relationship. Even if you were unhappy, even if your needs weren't being met, you broke your vows to your spouse and you did something highly traumatic. So it's critical to take ownership for how much you have rocked the foundation of your marriage. Heartfelt remorse for having the affair is paramount. If you don't take ownership for the affair and aren't remorseful, it's going to be next to impossible for your partner to forgive you.
Step four is you need to be able to process through your hurts. Now this may go both directions. Obviously the betrayed spouse is going to have lots of hurt they're going to need to get out. But also the partner who had the affair may have hurts because perhaps one of the reasons they had the affair is because they felt like their needs were unmet repeatedly for years despite their frequent complaints. So both of you need a method to get out your hurts. As I've mentioned in other episodes, I teach couples I work with in my practice a method called the floor. And the floor is a set of guidelines on how to keep conversations safe so both feel able to get out what they really think and feel. So you need some type of method, some type of conflict resolution method like the floor because you both need to be able to get it out. When the hurt is not fully vented and released, it will come out in destructive ways through yelling, harsh comments, and contemptuous remarks and that will just make the marriage worse. It's what you feel like doing because you're so hurt and all you want to do is hurt back. But that just damages the relationship that much further. So having some type of method to work through those hurts and get them out in constructive ways is really key.
People often wonder how much detail should be shared about an affair. Some betrayed spouses want to know every detail while others only want a summary of what happened. Usually the wayward spouse doesn’t want to share any details, so the betrayed spouse keeps asking for them, sometimes for years. Each time the affair gets brought up, it re-traumatizes the relationship. The betrayed spouse should be in charge of how much detail is shared, not the wayward spouse. Therefore, it’s recommended for the betrayed spouse to make a list of all the questions they have about the affair and for the wayward spouse to answer them honestly. Some choose to have the wayward spouse answer the list of questions while connected to a lie detector test to increase the trustworthiness of their answers. After this conversation, both should agree not to bring up questions about the affair again so the marriage can start to heal.
Part of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) is getting triggered. Those who have been in combat will often experience flashbacks of the horrors they went through. Those who have been through natural disasters will often experience flashbacks of the devastation they experienced. Likewise, those who have been betrayed by an affair will often have flashbacks of the pain they suffered. Therefore, learning how to manage triggers is important for all couples who have experienced an affair. When triggered, the betrayed spouse must avoid two extremes. The first is not mentioning the trigger and suffering in silence, which will make you withdrawal emotionally. The second is becoming verbally assaulting towards your partner each time you get triggered, which will lead to bitter conflict. The third and recommended approach is to express each trigger with your tender underbelly. The tender underbelly is the tender feelings underneath your anger, such as sad, hurt, insecure, fearful, etc. For example, a tender underbelly statement when triggered could be “I was watching a movie last night that involved an affair and it triggered me with your affair and brought up all the feelings of sadness, hurt, and fear.” The job of the wayward spouse is to respond with empathy and an apology, such as “I can definitely see how the movie would have triggered your feelings of sadness, hurt, and fear with the affair and I’m so sorry I hurt you.” This type of response to triggers creates healing opportunities for the marriage and if handled this way triggers will occur less with time.
Step seven is the compassion chart. This compassion chart is for the person who has been betrayed because they're going to have high levels of resentment and the compassion chart will walk them through all the different variables that probably led to the affair. First, the compassion chart looks to the unfaithful partner's background growing up with what things may have influenced them to have an affair. For example, many adults raised in a home where they felt inadequate are at higher risk for an affair because an affair makes them feel extremely wanted and important. Next, it looks at what was going on in their circumstances in their life that may have increased their risk of an affair. Then it talks about what were you doing, if anything, that may have increased their risk for an affair. And then it talks about what in your background may be getting triggered with how you're responding to the affair. And last, it focuses on how have you been hurtful, maybe not to the same degree or in the same way, but in what ways have you been hurtful in the past? The goal of the compassion chart is to help you understand what caused the affair. If you can't comprehend why your spouse had an affair, it's almost impossible to forgive them for it. So this compassionate chart explains all of the texture and all of the variables that influenced their behavior. The goal of the compassion chart is not to absolve them from any responsibility. However, the goal is to move it from it's 100% their fault to maybe it's a little bit lower than that because now I'm understanding all of the other pieces that were at play. It increases compassion for why they did it. And research shows forgiveness is often a byproduct of compassion. So instead of starting with forgiveness, which is very difficult, start with cultivating compassion for what made your spouse have the affair. What led to it doesn't make it right and doesn't make it any less painful, but understanding the why will often soften the heart and make forgiveness much easier. So as you're able to see these steps go in order for a reason. You're not going to be able to cultivate compassion towards your partner unless they've stopped all contact, they're sharing all of their accounts with you, they've shown sincere remorse, and you've been able to process all of your hurts. Only then are you in a place to cultivate compassion.
Step eight is doing some cognitive behavioral therapy on yourself or with a therapist on what this affair means about you and your spouse. A lot of times the betrayed spouse will have thoughts such as, "I'm married to a liar" or "I can never trust them" or "If I stay in this relationship I'm a fool" or I'm unlovable or else they wouldn't have cheated." A lot of these statements are generalizations and extreme and need to be adjusted. The person who had the affair can also have a lot of automatic negative thoughts such as "I'm a piece of trash for doing this" or I'm unlovable" or "I don't deserve forgiveness." So working through these thoughts is critical because you have to make sure you're making correct interpretations of what the affair means about you and your partner, no matter which role you're in. To capture the automatic negative thoughts write down every one that you have and then to the right of each one you're going to write down what the truth is. You won't be able to sift through all of these automatic negative thoughts in your mind. It's not gonna work, it's just murky water. But if you write them down where you can see them, then you'll be able to look at them and recognize which are generalizations or negative interpretation of the facts, etc. You'll start to see where your thinking is off or you may not see it. And this is where it's helpful to be working with a trained therapist who has experience working with couples and affairs so they can help you tease apart these automatic negative thoughts. You have to adjust those thoughts to something more accurate and adaptive in order to process through the affair and heal.
Step nine is discovering what the top three things are you both need to fill up your love buckets to feel really loved and satisfied in your marriage and what the top three things are that drain your love buckets. This is going to be in future episodes, but we all have a love bucket inside of us and we all need certain things to fill them up. Some examples can include adoration, affection, recreation, emotional closeness, thoughtful gestures and the list goes on and on. When we're dating our partner fills up our love bucket without even thinking about it. But through the years they usually stop filling up our love bucket and then simultaneously they start doing things that drains our love buckets. Some common drainers are criticism, defensiveness, stonewalling, contempt, being too independent, not sharing power, etc. A marriage is at risk for an affair when one or both partners have low love buckets. Weeds grow in dry ground. So part of the recovery process is finding out what the top three things you both need to fill up your love buckets and the top three things that drain your love buckets. One of the best ways to affair proof your relationship moving forward is making sure you're keeping one another's love buckets full and that requires intentionally filling it while you're simultaneously avoiding draining it. When that's happening, why would you want anybody else? Your bucket's full.
The last step on recovering from an affair is discussing what boundaries you both will follow moving forward to reduce your risk of affairs. What's that going to look like for your relationship? For example, how should boundaries look when you're traveling on business or pleasure away from one another? How should it look if you're going out with your friends for the night without your partner? What boundaries should you have around colleagues? What about at the gym? What should your limits be with alcohol when you're not together? What's not acceptable to discuss with the opposite gender? Working through these boundaries is vital to develop a unified front against future affairs. So many couples fall into affairs because they put themselves in risky situations without realizing the risk and then they're surprised when it turns into an affair.
As you can see, the road to affair recovery is narrow, but couples who stringently put the above 10 tips into practice can recover.
Be sure to check out Dr. Wyatt Fisher's other resources below to better your relationship!
Which step do you feel is hardest in affair recovery and why?