Affairs can be painful and shocking and can cause betrayal and hurt. Yet some couples do recover. Mattie and Jim had been dating for several years before they got married. They swore in front of their friends and family that they wouldn't cheat on each other. Yet, seven years later, they sat in front of me in my office, broken and ashamed.
"I'm not sure what happened," Mattie said. "First we drifted apart. It sounds so cliché. But I let other things take priority. My job, the house, and then we had a baby. I put everything in front of our marriage. I felt Jim slipping away. I knew that our sex life was off. We never slept together or even went to bed together at the same time anymore. There was damage. But I swear I never dreamt it would get this far."
Jim sat forlorn on the couch in my therapy office, trying to put the pieces back together. "I went online; I was trying to figure out how to find some attention, some thrills I guess. Mattie was totally taken up with the baby. At first it was only flirting with some friends on Facebook. Then I found I was asking girls to meet me for coffee. I don't know how it happened, but eventually I was having drinks with an ex-girlfriend from high school and then we slept together. I know Mattie's crushed, and I regret it. I hope she can forgive me. I know I don't deserve it."
For some couples like Mattie and Jim, divorce after an affair may not be the answer. A strong foundation of love and a desire to make it work may mean that an affair can be a path to a renewed, and even stronger, relationship.
If an affair has affected your marriage or partnership, ask yourself the following questions:
- If you had the affair, are you remorseful, and do you regret the infidelity?
- Do you truly love your partner and want to stay with him or her and work things out?
- Are you ready to work on your relationship and to approach healing and reconciliation with deep honesty, even in the face of some serious pain?
If you answered yes to all three of these questions, you may be able to have a new relationship with your partner going forward.
If you are the person who was cheated on, ask yourself the following three questions:
- When you found out your partner cheated, were you frightened that this would mean your marriage was over?
- When you think about ending your relationship, does it feel wrong and are you willing to try to make things work?
- Are you able to honestly take some responsibility for your own part in why the relationship wasn't working prior to the affair?
If you answered yes to all three of these questions then you may be ready to move to a new monogamy as well. Notice that none of these questions asked you whether or not you can forgive or forget the affair. You may still be on the fence about that. And you may even be on the fence about whether or not to stay together. Creating a new relationship or a new monogamy together means simply exploring the option of giving your relationship another chance.
Jim and Mattie sat across from each other and cried, working through their feelings in my therapy office. This is a normal part of the grieving process. The immediate response after discovering a spouse's affair can be disbelief, anger, sadness, loss, or an overwhelming feeling of grief, almost as if experiencing the death of a loved one. And it may be similar. You are experiencing the death of a dream that you have held about your relationship. The vision you had of your marriage or partnership is no longer.
Don't underestimate this crisis in your relationship. Crisis is an opportunity for change, but change is hard. Take care of yourself during this time, and be gentle while you are both going through this early phase of affair recovery.
As you move through this and decide to work on your relationship, your feelings will change, and if you work together, you will eventually move out of the crisis.
Initially after infidelity, it can be difficult for you to envision this new, shared future. You may long for the partner who always served as the support system in your life, and that time of innocence before you discovered the affair. "Mattie always trusted me implicitly and I blew that. But in a way, now it makes me work harder to earn her trust. I have to really try to let her know how much I care, every day," Jim said.
"And I have to let Jim know that I am here for him too. I know it's both of us that have to work on this relationship. I am willing to work on my part too. If we are both honest with each other, I think things can change. I want it to work too," said Mattie.
Creating a new future together starts with deciding what your new monogamy will look like. No one else can decide that for you. Be clear about your relationship needs going forward. Talk about what your new monogamy will look like and what you each need in order to make the relationship work. The clearer you are and the more you talk about your needs, the more you will understand what it takes to make each other feel safe Trust comes not from promises but from actions.
Like Mattie and Jim, take the steps toward a new monogamy and start the new year off right -- together.
Dr. Tammy Nelson helps couples regain trust, romance, and intimacy after infidelity by redefining their monogamy contract. The new monogamy contract is an explicit relationship agreement created after an affair that allows each partner to openly, honestly, and safely share their desires, expectations, and limitations. The New Monogamy; Redefining Your Relationship After Infidelity is available now on Amazon.com or Barnes & Noble. Dr Tammy Nelson is a world renowned expert in relationships, a psychotherapist in private practice and a speaker 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 New Monogamy; Redefining Your Relationship After Infidelity. She can be found at drtammynelson.com and her Facebook page Getting the Sex You Want.