In continuing my work to share stories of couples who sit on my couch, it is my goal to provide hope and encouragment out there to those who are struggling in their marriage.
Infidelity is one of the most painful and difficult challenges for a couple to work through because it pulls the floor of safety and security right out from under you. But the marriage can be restored. In fact, it can be better than before. It's been said that time heals all wounds. When it comes to infidelity, time is certainly a factor, but it's not the only one. There is work to be done in that time to restore trust, emotional safety and connection to the relationship. Time alone won't solve those problems.
This story is about a young couple I'll call Tom and Suzanne (fictitious names, of course). Suzanne had lost her father at a young age which left her feeling abandoned. She grew up never having felt "good enough". When she married Tom, she had a lot of insecurities and needed a lot of approval. Because of this she avoided conflict like the plague. She was afraid if Tom got upset with her, he would abandon her. He would see the qualities that she saw in herself and he would not want to be with her any longer. Because of this fear, she manipulated herself to please him, never really being authentic. As some years past, she felt a loss of her sense of self.
When betrayal occurs in a relationship or marriage, it breaks the foundation of trust and safety. Everything you thought you knew now comes into question and there is doubt and insecurity. When going through the pain and trauma of betrayal, often the question is asked, can the relationship be saved? And if so, how?
Here are some key steps to healing from betrayal asÂ illustrated by John Gottman:
There must be believable and genuine remorse
Behavior change with understanding and insight. (One must understand the reason behind the choice, why conflict was avoided, emotions stayed hidden.)
Compensation: the act of making it good again. Making changes in the relationship to rebuild trust and positive connection.
Building a new relationship to include: creating the sacred in the relationship, honesty, transparency, the cherishing of your partner on a continuing basis.
Building emotional attunement.
What is emotional attunment? It is very important to a healthy relationship. It means being in-tune with each other. Noticing when your partner is experiencing negative emotions. Awareness of what your partner’s in the moment experiences are. Understanding and being tuned into your partners world and making the choice to turn toward your partner, not away, during times of vulnerability.
These are just an outline of some basic essential ingredients in healing a relationship after a betrayal. It is often very important to get outside help to understand what happened, why it happened and to begin the process of rebuilding.
Where do you begin when you’ve just found out your spouse has had an affair? Or, what if you are the one who’s had the affair and your partner has just found out?
If you’ve just found out your partner has had an affair, be prepared for the roller coaster of emotions. It is not a time to make any permanent life-changing decisions. Here are some important things to consider:
You do not have to know right now if you are going to stay or go. You are in crisis and may feel like the rug has been pulled out from under you. Give yourself time to make important decisions. Emotions are very raw right now so it’s okay to not know which direction to go yet.
Some people make the mistake of telling friends and family and then regret it later. So be choosy about who you share this with, the best route is to seek out a counselor who can help you sort through all the challenges that are in front of you. It’s also important to have a support system, again, select confidants carefully. There may be support groups in your area, seek these out through your local church or counseling center.
You are going to experience a lot of different emotions from anger to sadness, betrayal and fear, confusion and frustration. All this is normal. Research has shown that individuals who have been betrayed show symptoms of post traumatic stress. You may have flashbacks of the affair and images that you never even experienced. You will have triggers like when the phone rings or your partner gets a text message, where the fear and anger comes alive. You may want to cry one minute and scream the next.
In this kind of situation, the fight or flight response kicks in, but neither are conducive to moving forward. If you want to save your marriage, you can neither fight nor flight. A normal human reaction is to act out the rage and blame, yell at, accuse, distrust or check up on your partner. While these are normal reactions, they do continued damage to the relationship and to your own self esteem. Sometimes what might make you temporarily feel better in the moment, makes matters worse in the long run.
Self care is critical during the time of healing. Self care includes things such as exercise, going for walks, getting enough sleep, spending time with those who are supportive, getting counseling, making sure you eat well and enough. These small things might seem trivial or difficult to do, but it is important to take care of yourself.
You may want to ask questions or know details about the affair. It is okay to ask these questions, just be sure that you really want to know the answers. For some people the not knowing causes suffering and they would rather know, for others they would rather not know. There is no right or wrong, only you can know what is going to be helpful.
If you are the person who has had the affair, some important things to consider:
There is no right time frame for getting over an affair. So do not push your partner. Your patience and support is critical. Do not avoid talking about the affair, do not give excuses or blame. Right now your partner needs to know that you understand the impact this has had. This is not going to be easy for you either, but it is important that you remain supportive during this challenging period.
This may seem obvious but it bears pointing out: be honest. Be where you say you will be, do what you say you will do, don’t leave anything out no matter how insignificant it seems. Rebuilding trust is going to take time, but it starts now
Listen to your partner. If they ask questions and want to know the answers, it is important that you answer them with total honesty. Do not decide for them what they should and should not need to know. It is important to allow your partner to make the determination what he/she needs to or wants to know.
Be an open book for your partner. And remember, this is temporary. But this is an important time to be in close physical proximity to your partner to maintain a sense of safety. Allow your partner to see your phone, text messages, emails, to regain a sense of safety. You can, and it is necessary to, have your privacy back at some point, but for right now your partner may need this to begin the process of rebuilding trust and feeling safe.
You are going to go through difficult emotions as well. Guilt, shame, regret are all normal feelings to experience. It is important not to let them get in the way of being there and listening to your partner. It is also a good idea for you to seek counseling as well to deal with these emotions and to understand why you made this choice.
If you want to save the marriage (or even if you are unsure) it is important to seek couples counseling as soon as possible. It may take some time to find a counselor that you feel comfortable with. Remember, affairs happen in good marriages and to good people. There are many reasons why an affair occurs and it can take one to two years to recover whether you stay in the marriage or not. Take your time, seek help and work together to begin the healing process.