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 the couples I work with are recovering from infidelity. Before going further, let me define my terms.
What is affair recovery?
Affair recovery is the process of healing a relationship mentally, emotionally, and physically after it has experienced infidelity. Affair recovery usually takes anywhere from six months to two years and is often a painful process yet a possible one for couples who possess humility, compassion, and tenacity.An affair can be anywhere from an emotional affair all the way 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 affair, it's usually just a matter of time before it turns sexual unless it's stopped. Obviously, a sexual affair is when there's sexual contact. Emotional affairs are usually more difficult to recover from instead of one night stands because of the attachment. In an emotional affair, a strong attachment has formed, which can be hard to break. In contrast, a one night stand often involves little to no attachment so is much easier to break.
All forms of affairs are highly traumatic to marriages across the globe. The number one thing that rocks the foundation of security in a relationship is infidelity. No matter what language you speak, no matter what color of your skin, no matter what ethnicity or cultural background, infidelity rocks the foundation of relationships like nothing else. The betrayed partner usually develops symptoms akin to PTSD, Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, because of the massive pain and loss of control. A lot of the symptoms can include intrusive thoughts, irritability, panic attacks, flashbacks, feeling numb to life, etc. The following steps are designed to help your relationship heal.
Affair Recovery: 10 Steps
Step One- Cease all contact
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. Depending on your situation, this may include quitting your job, moving to a different neighborhood or state, changing churches, etc. You have to cut out all contact with the affair person because if you don't, 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. The feel good chemicals in your brain were low because of things going on in your life and your marriage. 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. 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. In addition, each time you have repeated contact with the affair person it will retraumatize your spouse and all healing in your marriage will be lost.
If you're the betrayed partner reading this and your partner won't end all contact with their lover your first round of offense is to expose the affair to all your family and friends, which creates social pressure for your partner to end the affair. When you're in an affair you've lost touch with reality. However, when you have family and friends confronting you about your hurtful behavior it often snaps you back to reality. If that social pressure doesn't make your partner end all contact with their lover your next move should be separation with zero contact until your partner can prove they have no more contact with their lover. This is important for two reasons. First, it allows you to establish a boundary so you're not continually emotionally abused by your partner's ongoing contact with their lover. Second, it gives your partner a chance to see what life without you would be like. If after 3-6 months your partner still hasn't ended all contact with their lover then proceed with divorce.
Also, it's important for the wayward partner to take an STD test in case they contracted something during the affair. It's important for the betrayed partner to go with them for the results to hear it firsthand. This should be required even if the wayward partner promises it was only an emotional affair and nothing physical happened. You don't want to take any chances. The only thing worse than recovering from an affair is also getting an STD from your partner because of their affair.
Step Two- Open all accounts
Step number two is you have to share all accounts and your phone with your partner to show you have no more contact with your lover. This is also recommended for couples where there's been no infidelity to foster trust and transparency. It communicates, I have nothing to hide. 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. But if you really want your marriage to recover, there's no point in having any secrets. You have to turn it all over. It will help your 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. Voluntarily opening up all accounts and sharing your phone with your partner will help them start to heal. They can't start the healing journey until they know you have no more contact with your lover. Practicing openness also helps the wayward partner because affairs thrive in secrecy. Therefore, if there's no opportunity for it to grow in secrecy it will eventually die.
If your partner refuses or is angry about sharing all accounts and their phone to prove they have no more contact with their lover remember the two steps of offense above. Expose the affair to all friends and family to create social pressure and if that's not enough for them to cooperate get a separation until they do. If your partner is angry or resistant about sharing everything with you it's probably because they are trying to stay in touch with their lover and don't want to end it.
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 climate in the marriage that made them susceptible to stepping outside the marriage is usually both partner's fault.
Step Three- Show remorse
Step three is you have to show sincere remorse. If you've had an affair then act indifferent toward the impact it's had on 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 betrayed them. Therefore, 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 - Process the hurts
Step four is processing through your hurts, which may go both directions. Obviously the betrayed spouse is going to have a lot of hurt they'll need to express. But the wayward partner may also have hurts because perhaps one of the reasons they had the affair is their needs were unmet repeatedly for years despite their frequent complaints. So both of you need a method to get out your hurts. I teach couples a conflict resolution method called the reunite tool, which is a set of guidelines on how to keep conversations safe. When the hurt is not fully vented and released, it will come out in destructive ways through yelling, harsh comments, and contemptuous remarks, which will only make matters worse. Hurt people hurt people but that just damages the relationship further. So, having some type of method to work through your hurts constructively is key. You may need to work with a relationship coach to effectively do this.
Step Five- Discuss the details
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. 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. However, remember the more detail you hear the more devastated you may become. Therefore, consider carefully how much information you need to know and why. Make a list of all the questions you have about the affair for your wayward partner. Some request their wayward spouse to answer the questions while connected to a lie detector test to increase the trustworthiness of their answers. That's a personal decision up to the betrayed partner. If you're the wayward partner, your job is to work much harder at healing the marriage than your spouse so if they request a lie detector test, do it! However, after the questions, both partners should agree not to bring up the affair any longer, excluding triggers, because each time it's brought up the marriage will suffer.
Step Six- Manage triggers
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 aggressive toward your partner, which will lead to 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, an apology, and reassurance, 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, and I promise never to do something like that again.” This type of response to triggers creates healing opportunities for the marriage and if handled in this way triggers will decrease with time. The opposite is also true. If the betrayed partner expresses triggers with anger and the wayward partner responds with defensiveness, triggers will increase with time.
Step Seven- Develop compassion
Step seven is developing compassion toward your partner's hurtful behavior. Working on compassion is step seven because it's only appropriate after the wayward partner has cut off all contact with their lover, opened all accounts, expressed sincere remorse, has listened effectively to your hurts, has cooperated with answering your questions about the affair, and has responded well to your triggers. Only then does it make sense to start working on compassion toward their hurtful behavior. Developing compassion doesn't excuse away their hurtful behavior but it helps explain why it occurred. There are four questions to answer to foster compassion toward your partner's hurtful behavior and it's important to review these four areas whenever your hurt rises. First, what about your partner's upbringing or past may have influenced their 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. Second, what about your partner's circumstances may have influenced their affair? For example, the more stress people are under the less willpower they have to resist tempting situations. Third, what was your pattern of behavior that may have increased their susceptibility to an affair? For example, perhaps you had been avoiding emotional or physical intimacy for an extended period of time. Fourth, what about your past is getting activated by the affair? For example, perhaps you have a history of feeling rejected or abandoned growing up so that's heightening your reaction to the affair. The goal of the questions is to help you understand all the variables that contributed to the affair. If you don't understand all the variables, it's difficult to move forward. Reviewing the answers to the four questions often acts as ointment to the affair wound when it rises by cultivating compassion.
Step Eight- Watch your self-talk
Step eight is reflecting on what you think the affair says about you. The betrayed spouse will often have negative thoughts, such as, "If I stay in this relationship I'm a fool" or "I'm unlovable or else they wouldn't have cheated." These statements are generalizations and need to be adjusted. The wayward spouse may also have negative thoughts about themselves, such as "I'm a piece of trash for cheating" or "I don't deserve a second chance." How we think determines how we feel and how we behave. Therefore, getting our thoughts straight is paramount. To adjust your negative thoughts start by writing them down so you can look at them more objectively. Next, think of an alternative statement that's more balanced and truthful beside each original thought. For example, if the original thought is "If I stay in this relationship I'm a fool" an adjusted thought could be "If my partner hadn't cut off all contact with their lover, opened all accounts willingly, and expressed sincere remorse, I would be a fool for staying in this relationship. However, they have done those things so my decision to stay in the marriage is warranted." Another example, if the original thought is "I'm a piece of trash for cheating" an adjusted thought could be "I made a very poor decision to cheat that was extremely hurtful to my spouse; however, it doesn't mean I'm a piece of trash. I was in a bad place in life and made a terrible decision."
Step Nine- Fill your love buckets
Step nine is discovering the top things you need to fill up your love bucket to feel loved and satisfied and the top things your partner does that drains your love bucket. We all have a love bucket inside of us and we all need certain things to fill it up. Some common fillers include adoration, affection, sex, emotional closeness, thoughtful gestures, etc. Some common drainers include criticism, defensiveness, stonewalling, contempt, not sharing power, etc. When you're dating you naturally fill up your partner's love bucket. However, after you're together for awhile most people stop filling their partner's love bucket and start draining it instead. Before long, the full bucket that made you fall in love with your partner becomes more and more empty until it's dry. Dry buckets increase susceptibility for affairs. Therefore, one of the best ways to affair proof your relationship moving forward is making sure you're both excelling at your partner's fillers they desire while minimizing the drainers they dislike to keep your buckets full. Here's an article to learn more about this model and reversing a loveless marriage.
Step Ten- Develop boundaries
The last step on recovering from an affair is discussing what boundaries you both will follow moving forward to reduce your affair risk. What's that going to look like for your relationship? For example, how should boundaries look when you're traveling 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 questions 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 it. Don't let that happen to you. Discuss what your boundaries as a couple will be to fortify your marriage from affairs moving forward.
As you can see, the road to affair recovery is narrow, but there is a road! Couples who follow these steps faithfully will recover.
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