Is it possible to move on after a spouse has had an affair?
As a certified sex and licensed couples therapist, I have worked with many couples in the aftermath of an affair. Those first few weeks and months seem crazy to the hurt partner as they try to piece together their life, which is usually in shambles.
Surprisingly, many couples that face infidelity do end up remaining together. However, it is not obvious in the early stage of discovery. For some unfaithful partners, the endless questioning by their spouse frustrates them and makes them feel ashamed constantly. They may truly feel sorry for their actions or they may feel like their admission and apologies have entitled them to move forward without going over the details. I try to balance the information I think the hurt partner has a right to know and what I think may be hurtful to know in the long run. I ask hurt partners to save their questions to ask in a couples' session so I can slowly unwrap the meaning of the question and give my expertise on whether I think the answer to the question will be helpful or hurtful in the long run.
The couples with whom I've worked that ended up staying together worked hard to go over the story of the affair and what new boundaries or guidelines needed to be put into place to prevent it from happening again. They also remained in therapy long enough to explore the aspects of the relationship itself that may have contributed to the partner straying, in addition to deeper feelings related to their childhood (at times there was a parent that abandoned the family either emotionally and/or physically) that were begin replayed in the marriage.
My clients who transformed their relationships after an affair also explored the timing of the affair(s) in their lifecycle. One husband felt abandoned by his wife when she became so involved with child-rearing that she left little time for their relationship. It reminded him of his experience as a child in a large family who was left to himself most of the time because his mother was too busy taking care of younger children and cooking meals. Another woman felt overwhelmed by depression after her mother died of cancer and she thought, "Is that all there is?" Many times a person will use an affair to escape a painful experience because they don't have the words or trust that their partner or anyone else could understand what they're going through. The work in therapy allowed these feelings to come to the surface and allowed the hurt partner to feel empathy for their spouse, thus making them feel closer and more open to sharing in the future.
My clients who didn't remain together after an affair had a cheating partner who already had decided to end the marriage before coming into therapy. Other couples who split had a hurt spouse that couldn't move past the anger phase into the more curious or inquisitive phase of healing. Another couple that had trouble healing was one whose marriage had been in a state of apathy for years. An affair is terribly painful for a couple but with the right steps, divorce can be avoided.
Here are some tips if you find yourself in the aftermath of an affair:
1. Commit to a certain period of time in couples therapy to work on the relationship.
2. Write down questions you have regarding the affair that you would like to understand better and bring them to therapy.
3. Find out why the affair happened when it did.
4. Don't act out by having an affair of your own in retaliation.
5. Establish specific actions which the partner who strayed can do to begin to repair the trust, including showing up when they say they will, giving names of hotels and names of colleagues on business trips (if the affairs took place out of town) and letting your partner know if the person with whom you had the affair has contacted you.
6. Refrain from making a decision about the marriage or threatening divorce while you're working on healing for the agreed upon time in therapy.
7. Make sure there are no more secrets regarding this affair or others that may emerge and thus ruin the trust you are trying to rebuild.
8. Make time to spend outside of therapy alone as a couple without talking about the affair to reestablish some good feeling and bonding.
9. Don't overshare details of what is going on with children. Children need stability to feel safe and secure, and while they can be told you're having troubles, they can also be told you're working on it without going into details. If a decision to divorce ensues, there are steps involved to prepare them for the change.
10. If you can, work with a certified sex therapist who is also an experienced couples therapist. You'll have a better chance of exploring ways to restore and improve the sexual life following an affair.
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