Is it Possible to Get Past an Affair?

05/26/2015 02:44 pm ET | Updated May 26, 2016
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Hilary Clinton recently announced she is running for President. Many people still remember when Bill Clinton was President and had his infamous affair with Monica Lewinsky. Hilary chose back then to stay with Bill. Did they really get past the affair? They seem happy enough in public. Perhaps they really are.

It is true that many couples can get past an affair and move on -- some are even happier as a result. It can force them to work on their marriage and discover what led to the affair, leading them to become closer and more connected.

I see many couples who have gone through the crisis of an affair. I am a psychotherapist and author of several books, including one about infidelity and monogamy. Couples come to me who have lost hope, who are frustrated, angry, feel betrayed and sometimes already have one foot out the door. After an affair, many couples come in ostensibly to save their marriage, but with a hidden agenda -- to drop their partner off and check the imaginary box that says they tried therapy. Yet, these couples may feel hopeless and have already given up on their marriage. Like most people, they doubt that a relationship can survive infidelity.

President Clinton, former Senator John Edwards, Eliot Spitzer, former Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger and General David Petraeus, a four star general and former CIA director, have all been examples of men who have publicly cheated on their spouses. Whoopi Goldberg, Leeann Rimes and Madonna all cheated on their husbands. And they stand in line with over half of the general population who has cheated at some point in their marriage.

Monogamy these days is not easy. With the challenge of the Internet, pornography, online dating sites that cater to married folks looking to cheat and the prevalence of social media that can connect us with pretty much anyone, it is hard to resist the temptation of variety. We, as humans, can find it hard to maintain desire for one person for the lifetime of a marriage.

And yet, monogamy is not a sexual dilemma as much as it is moral dilemma. Making a promise to stay faithful to one person and then breaking that promise is less about sex and more about lying. This means affairs are a dilemma of integrity. If we are at heart a moral person, as most of us like to think of ourselves, how do we preserve our integrity in the face of our basic desire for variety or adventure, as well as a basic weakness when it comes to keeping our promises?

Researchers claim that monogamy may not be genetically inherent to humans as a species. Even man's closest primate relative, the bonobo chimp, is sexually active without distinction for any particular partner, nor do they care about pair bonding in the way we think about traditional marriage. In fact, the female bonobo monkeys are one of the most promiscuous mammals on earth. She chooses a mate, drags the male out into the jungle and has hot monkey sex for two weeks, and then drags him back into the pack (one would assume that he is then spent and exhausted),and then she chooses another male and repeats. This would imply that because we are made of similar DNA, if left to our own base instincts, we would do the same.

Yet, we are not monkeys. We learn to control our baser more impulsive urges. And although we may want to drag another person off into the jungle, we (most of us) resist the urge; in fact there are laws about that -- important laws -- for good reason.

For most humans, monogamy is a choice. We don't have to make it. It is totally optional. It is a learned choice, whether we are biologically predisposed to it or not.

But if we do choose a monogamous relationship, we have made a promise, a commitment -- sometimes a legal agreement -- and there is the dilemma. Monogamy as a choice means that we can work on being married, but no one said it was easy. It is a personal and perpetual decision, and as such, it is something that must be chosen over and over, every day. And sometimes we can mess it up.

Individuals sometimes struggle with how to live in a relationship, how to honor and commit to the promise they made to their partner and at the same time honor their individual desire for passion and aliveness. Integrity means honoring our commitment to self and to others, a difficult balance at times.

It is clear that the moral code of honor for a new monogamy begins with honesty. It is the hiding and the lying is what gets us into real trouble. The dishonesty, secrecy and lying creates the lack of trust, challenges our moral code and makes it difficult for couples to repair after one has cheated.

There are three stages of recovery after an affair: the crisis, the insight phase and the vision phase. In the crisis phase, both partners are in shock. They have discovered the affair or disclosed it. They are distraught, there is an adjustment period to a new reality where the truth has come out and a new level of honesty actually takes some time to adjust to. This new reality can be harsh, and both partners need to take care of themselves and not make any major decisions about the relationship until the emotional dust has had time to settle.

In the next phase of recovery after an affair, the insight phase, the couple can focus more on communicating about what went wrong in their relationship prior to the affair. There is less blame on the cheating partner, and more work on dealing with the conflict in the partnership. Couples in therapy begin to practice the lifelong skills of transparency and honest disclosure that they will need to make the marriage work if they choose to stay together, or if they are going to co-parent in the future.

Learning to trust one another again is always a challenge at this phase. Trusting a partner who has cheated is not simply hoping they will behave in a way that is trustworthy, or wishing and hoping that they wont cheat again. Trust is learning to establish a new level of trust in one's own intuition. In fact, the hard lesson after an affair is learning that a partner can always let you down, and let's face it, we will never really know if they are telling the truth going forward. But learning to trust our own inner voice and our own instincts again is the most important way to heal trust in your relationship.

Most people who have been cheated on are angry at themselves. For example, Karen and Drew came into my office after Drew's affair. Karen said, "I should have known, there were signs. I didn't listen to my gut. I don't know if I can ever forgive myself. I can never believe what he says because my inner radar is always going to be off." Karen's choice to trust her own inner voice as a guide will serve her well in her marriage going forward, and also in her life.

Learning to trust your own instincts is more important than trying to understand and predict your partner's behavior. If Karen can trust her own inner guidance system, she will always whether or not Drew is being real with her, or if he is lying.

The trouble is, it can be hard to discern the difference between intuition and fear. But if you listen close enough, you will begin to understand the subtleties. Your intuition always knows the truth and can tell you what is happening. Try not to confuse the two. Ask yourself when you think you know something, "Is this my fear or my intuition?" When Karen got a phone call from Drew one night saying he would be home late from work, she doubted him. But she went inside to her own quiet space deep down where she could listen to her intuitive voice. She found a quiet place and asked herself if this was her fear or her gut instinct. She realized that her fear was telling her that she couldn't trust him because he had lied to her so often in the past. But if she was honest with herself, she knew he was working on a big project and would probably be working late often this week and probably several nights during the month.

During the insight phase, couples can benefit from couples therapy, retreats and Intensives to work through the trust issues, the betrayal and also re-learn how to be partners again. There are many ways to dialogue and learn to communicate that will set up new patterns for the future, even if they are working purely on co-parenting or on the possibility of an intentional divorce, where avoiding an adversarial, expensive legal battle is important to both partners. Regardless of the outcome, the insight phase allows both partners to find empathy for each other's experience, and to validate a new way of being together.

In the vision phase, couples can create a new vision of a future together. This may include the possibility of a new marriage with one another, a new phase of their life going forward. They can decide if they want to create a new monogamy agreement, a new type of partnership, one that that is not about going back to what they had, but a relationship that can be sustainable for both of them, with new rules and a new future.

If they do decide to stay together, they have to create a whole new monogamy contract in order to clear away the implicit, unspoken expectations that led to the betrayal and hurt that may have contributed to the cheating in the first place.

This new vision of the relationship can lead to a new beginning, one in which many couples say is a fresh start and also a more mature, more connected and many times more intimate experience of marriage. There is no more naiveté, no implicitly agreeing to things they don't want. Some couples even end up saying about their new marriage, "maybe this is the best thing that could have happened to our relationship."

Regardless of the larger question for society about whether or not monogamy can work in our society and the future of marriage as we know it, a couple can recover from an affair once the original monogamy agreement has failed. Or if monogamy fails more than half of the time in the system, are we looking at a system that no longer works?

Perhaps we are holding onto a romanticized notion of love and desire, hoping that we can get it right, but continuing to fail at over and over again. We strive to uphold the moral code of committing to another person for life, but we continue to fall short of our ideal, over and over.

Should we give ourselves and our partner another chance? And another? Should we forgive, forget and learn to start over, to trust that this time it will be different, or are we wrong to think that this time, the promise of monogamy will sustain us? A lifetime of living together and staying monogamous isn't easy.

Let's face it: Desiring one person for half a century doesn't happen effortlessly. It happens when you put in the work, the energy and you practice it. Monogamy is not something that happens automatically because you make a one time vow when you first commit to each other. Monogamy is something you choose every day. It is a gift you give your partner and yourself, it is a sacred practice like yoga or meditation. And with practice, you will get better and better at it.

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Tammy Nelson, PhD is a sex and relationship expert and a licensed therapist and the author of The New Monogamy; Redefining Your Relationship After Infidelity