In a recent article in The Wall Street Journal, "How Couples Stay Together After An Affair", columnist Elizabeth Bernstein advises couples that want to stay together after an affair to stay calm and to put aside anger. Other experts in the article say to apologize twice, end the affair, and accept that your partner will be suspicious.
Recommendations include do everything together, have fun, and don't tell anyone.
When I work with couples after infidelity, there are three identifiable stages that they all experience in my office. The first phase is shock. This stage happens after an affair is discovered or disclosed when everyone is in crisis; no long-term decisions about staying or going should be made at all. Things are in upheaval and couples can't decide if they should stay or go, much less if they should throw something or fall apart. This is when couples for sure need to stay calm, but may not be able to. Maybe they need to deal with their anger but probably won't be able to put it aside.
As the crisis period starts to calm, I tell couples that they are now experiencing the Insight Stage. This is when both partners try to figure out what happened, and as they have more understanding, they take more responsibility and they learn to communicate. They take ownership and begin to call the incident, "Our Affair" instead of "Your Affair." At this phase they may still be acting like detectives, searching for clues and evidence, because they are trying to understand this new story in their lives as a couple. If they are still searching it may be because many times the details of the affair haven't answered the real questions that are more likely, "How could you do this to me?" or "What were you really feeling when you cheated?" No matter how many phone records or receipts you find, the answers to the real questions can't be found in the number of texts or the amount of dollars spent on a credit card. The real questions are not about "What," but "Why?" did this happen?
Also in stage two, both partners are grieving the vision that they each held of how your relationship was supposed to turn out. Neither of you had a dream of being cheated on, or of cheating on your loved one. Your explicit monogamy agreement has been violated and this vision that you held of your monogamy has to be grieved.
In the Wall Street Journal article, it seems that the most crucial piece of the story was in the last paragraph, where the couple wrote a new "constitution" to express their desires.
This is a stage three agreement. In stage three, the Vision stage, couples begin to talk about ways to create a new vision of their marriage going forward. They realize there is no going back, and they renegotiate their relationship to begin, instead, a whole new marriage going forward. Their old rules didn't work for them, and they for sure don't want to end up again where they are now.
They can, however, end the old marriage and begin again, with each other. In therapy we ritualize ending the old marriage and then create a new contract, what I call a "New Monogamy" agreement, committing to revisit both the explicit and implicit assumptions about the partnership. This includes assumptions about a new erotic life and all the relationship expectations going forward.
After an affair, many couples can create a whole new relationship, together. But they cannot go back to their old relationship. They must decide to create a whole new vision of a new marriage, to each other. In order to move on to this new vision of a life together, this time they must create a new monogamy where their expectations are explicit and focused on both of their needs. In this way they can have a new partnership with each other where they can, hopefully, avoid any future betrayals.
I recommend that couples check in with each other often about their expectations and how they are living up to the vision of their new monogamy. Making a new monogamy agreement is like renewing your vows and should be revisited every five years or even more often if necessary. If you are lucky enough to get to this phase, then you may be one of the lucky ones that can work on a loving and committed partnership that really lasts. Maybe then you can tell everyone how you did it.
Dr. Tammy Nelson is a world renowned expert in relationships, a psychotherapist in private practice and a trainer and seminar leader worldwide. She is the author of several books including "Getting The Sex You Want; Shed Your Inhibitions and Reach New Heights of Passion Together" and the upcoming "The New Monogamy: Redefining Your Relationship After Infidelity." Dr. Nelson is a popular and engaging speaker sought after for international lectures and workshops on sexuality and human relationships. She can be found at www.drtammynelson.com and her Facebook page, Getting the Sex You Want, where she has almost 100,000 fans.
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