You love your partner, and never dreamed they would be unfaithful. Now you found out. Perhaps you had been noticing different behaviors in your partner, or you found a heap of text messages or phone calls to the other person. Maybe you found the restaurant or hotel receipts, or the credit card bills, or a mutual friend saw your partner out with the other person and reported it to you. It may be that your partner came out and told you directly. You are grief-stricken, and your whole life appears not to be what you thought it was. Now what?
If you are married, love your spouse, andhave children and a whole life together, it's a big decision to give up all your dreams because of their affair. Infidelity is wrong, and involves a third person in your relationship. Practically speaking, it is also very common. Can couples heal and move on together after an affair?
I have seen many couples deal with the aftermath of one partner's affair, and some couples really can heal and get past it. An affair can, but often does not have to, end your marriage. If you choose to stay and repair the marriage, you have a whole journey of healing ahead of you. It helps to know what to expect, what to talk with your partner about, and what to do on your own to take responsibility for your own healing.
Your partner's response when the details of the affair matters: Were they remorseful? Did they sincerely ask for your forgiveness? Were they more arrogant and defensive? Were they willing to work hard to repair the marriage with you? If they weren't truly repentant and deeply sorry, you may want out of the marriage, because this affair may be foreshadowing of more affairs to come.
What if they really regret the affair and want to repair things with you? How do you manage the myriad of feelings the spouse feels who has been cheated on? How do you work through the trust being broken with your partner? How do you move through the current hell you are living through,with an eye to rebuilding the future of your marriage?
1. You need to take time to grieve. Finding out that your beloved spouse was unfaithful to you---physically, emotionally, or both, is a huge loss. In some ways it's worse than a death, because it was a willful decision to turn to someone else without regard to hurting you.To grieve, you mustfeel all the feelings that you experience: shock, anger, bargaining, sadness, hurt, and eventually, acceptance.Grief comes in waves. It can be very intense.You can feel it as physical symptoms, including an inability to sleep, not being able to eat, a hollow feeling in your chest, etc.You have lost the trust and the innocence you once had in the marriage. Something has happened that you won't be able to forget, but can work hard to forgive over time. You may want to journal or talk with a therapist on your own to process all your feelings, and decide what you most want to communicate to your partner. It is usually a better choice not to share everything with friends, family, or your children (especially if you want to work it out, as you may forgive your partner, but they might not).
2. Do extreme self-care. In the months following your finding out about your partner's infidelity, it isimportant to rebuild your confidence and self-esteem. Few things in life feel more like a personal hit and rejection that a partner's affair. Take some time to reinvest in yourself. Exercising might save your life during the first few months. Change a few things up about yourself. Find ways to be your own best friend. This is a time to reinvest in yourself, because you have to get stronger to fight for and rebuild your marriage. Whether your repair attempts work, and you are able to rebuild your marriage or not, you are with you either way.
3. After you get the facts on the affair and have talked openly with your partner, try not to obsess about your partner's every move. Better to act with integrity and self-esteem, and put your partner on notice that you are "all in" the relationship with them, as long as they are "all in" as well. Let them know that if you find out they are continuing their unfaithfulness, you may need to end it. This is about reclaiming your own power. You are not willing to be repeatedly victimized. Go on record about this with your partner.
4. Restructure the relationship with your partner. You need to understand what the affair meant to them. Are their unmet needs that they have? How about needs that you have? Create a format where you can each check-in with each other about how you are doing with the other. Do you have a regular date night? Weekends and vacations away together? If not, set it up, take turns making the plans, and get going. Begin having fun together again if you weren't. Find a safe way to make behavior change requests with each other.
5. Require new transparency in the marriage. As a marriage therapist, I don't like couples to have secrets. Discuss and negotiate new boundaries on Facebook, cell phones, email, lunches with the opposite gender, etc. Modern technology makes infidelity an easier temptation, but inappropriate and hurtful behavior needs to be addressed. If your partner can't agree on some reasonable compromises with you, it's a huge red flag. It is reasonable for you to want new boundaries.
6. Coping with triggered grief, anger, and sadness is an inside job. Much like war veterans can get triggered PTSD symptoms, lots of little things can surprisingly trigger the downward emotional spiral of people who have been betrayed. You have to be able to sort it out yourself, or get help doing so. If you fall apart or get angry or paranoid over every little thing,your partner will begin to feel hopeless that you two can get back on track. You have to be able to choose which items are the big things, and how to ask your partner for comfort (as in holding you). You can't stay stuck in angry, attack mode or it will drive your spouse further away. Remind yourself that your partner CHOSE to return to you, rather than pursue a future with the other person. It may help you to keep a list of your negative thoughts and check the evidence, making sure you are not using distorted thinking like emotional reasoning. You need to sort this out and be aware of not coming across as hostile, defeated, and stuck with your partner. Pick your battles, don't beat your partner up every time you get triggered. You can also learn to do thought stopping, where you go run a few miles when triggered, or remind yourself your partner stayed with you.
You need to be able to develop your own internal dialogue to deal with the insecurities that have gotten stirred up inside you. It may be overwhelming to your partner for you to be consistently needy, angry, and hyper-vigilant. You need to stay grounded, and keep a mindful of creating a new, better relationship with each other. Keep in mind that your partner may have given up the other person, but is actually grieving that relationship concurrently to working out things with you.
7. When you feel safe to do so, begin to address the sexual relationship between the two of you. If it has been dormant in recent months or years, heat things up again. I find many marriages have become disconnected in this intimate part of the relationship after having children. Begin to talk about what you would like in this intimate area of your life again, and get your partner to talk about what they have always wanted in this area. If at all possible, do not ask for specifics about sexual activities between your partner and the other person. It will be harder to get rid of these images. Make your partner wonder why they ever got involved with anyone else! Again, get out of victim mode as soon as you can. You can't undo what has happened, but you can try to rebuild and move forward.
8. Develop your spiritual life together as a couple after the affair is uncovered. A shared faith could be a huge help as you try to heal.
9. After the initial grieving, try to introspect about whatever part you may have played in the distance that happened in your marriage. It's perfectly possible you played no role in it, and certainly your partner involving another person was wrong. It is also possible that you need to own things you did or didn't do that distanced your partner (Did you get busy and ignore him? Over-focus on the children? Not invite her for date nights or couples time? Not share responsibility for a great sexual relationship?)
Marriages change after infidelity, but with your strength, the right support, and a good effort from both you and your partner, you may be able to get back on track and not lose your love and your life together. Hopefully, years from now you can look back and be glad you rebuilt your life together. In a world where the divorce rate is this high, being a couple who dug deep and renewed your commitment to each other and rebuilt the trust over time is something to be proud of you both for. There are times in life when digging deep and growing through difficult times can make you grow as an individual and as a partner.