Finding out that your partner is having an affair can be devastating, shaking you to your core, leaving you feeling unmoored and vulnerable. To use the analogy of a relationship being like a house, infidelity tears the house down to the foundation. Like the aftermath of any disaster, you might wonder if it’s worth rebuilding, or if you should just cut your losses and walk away while you’re still in one piece. Like most things, the answer isn’t black and white. Here are the three primary factors to explore when you’re considering rebuilding your relationship after infidelity.
- Your partner’s capacity for atonement: Psychologist Dr. Shirley Glass noted that the hurt partner often demonstrates symptoms of PTSD in the aftermath of an affair. Hypervigilance, intrusive thoughts, loss of interest, intense feelings of anger, shame, grief and hopelessness about the future are all common after learning that your partner has had an affair. It is important that the partner who strayed is aware and sensitive to their partner’s intense emotional experience and provide empathy, support and validation. Transparency is key when healing from an affair. The hurt partner is most likely feeling betrayed, insecure, and fearful. It’s important that their partner is fully transparent. The hurt partner may ask for emails, passwords to social media, access to phone, etc. This might feel invasive to the partner who strayed, but this offering of transparency is a vital piece of demonstrating trust. *Note: Transparency is important, but it should not include sexual details of the affair, which can be retraumatizing to the hurt partner. A therapist trained in couples therapy can help manage these difficult conversations and avoid details that may be damaging.
- How did we get here?: The hurt partner will likely attempt to piece the whole thing together, like a puzzle, so they can clearly see what led their partner to turn outside of the relationship. The whys are relevant, but they are also tricky territory, as the hurt partner can feel blamed if not handled carefully. Couples therapist and researcher John Gottman advises couples to refrain from discussing the whys until healing through atonement has taken place. Discussing an emotionally charged topic like this requires communication skills like connectedness, empathy, and active listening between partners. To be clear, infidelity is never the hurt partner’s fault, but rather evidence of a breakdown in the system. It’s helpful to the healing process for both partners to identify how they have each contributed to the situation. Regardless of whether the couple stays together, having this insight about yourself and your partner is helpful knowledge in any relationship in the future.
- Our Marriage, the 2nd Act: In couples therapy, the idea that after an affair your first marriage is over and if you choose to stay together, that is when your second marriage begins. While this concept resonates with some couples, others find the idea of ending their “first marriage” unsettling and too final. A possible compromise is to think of your marriage after an infidelity as a 2nd Act that acts as a continuation of the story from the 1st Act, but also marks a new beginning and offers an opportunity for character growth and plot development. The 2nd Act is when a couple reemerges and puts the relationship back together. Again, if we think of the relationship as a house, this is the rebuilding stage where friendship, connection, trust, and intimacy serve as the foundation.
As you can imagine, healing from an affair is a difficult journey, and many couples find it beneficial to enlist the help of a therapist trained in couples therapy. Processing infidelity in your relationship, in addition to exploring the work that it takes to repair your relationship are two major steps you may be currently taking. It is enough work to take in the above information to help you decide if you are up for this journey to heal the relationship. This is hard work, and it’s even harder work to do on your own. A trained couples therapist can help a couple stay on track, steer clear of un helpful and potentially damaging conversations, and has the tools to help you rebuild when the if and when the time is right.