Esther Perel, psychologist and writer of State of Affairs, describes an affair as, “something that is universally forbidden yet universally practiced.”
While accurate statistics are hard to come by, the reality is that in the U.S., 26-70% of folks will experience a partner’s infidelity. “Cheating,” “straying,” “committing adultery” “two-timing”… all these words and phrases we use in our culture to describe infidelity sound judgmental, shaming and final.
Responses and reactions from friends and loved ones like “How could you ever forgive them for that?” or “What are you going to do now? Leave them!” often imply that there is no room for healing after an affair has been discovered within a couple. Perel, however, states that the majority of those who have experienced affairs stay together. This information alone tells us that there is significant potential for couples to heal after an affair.
As a couples therapist, I have observed that the discovery of an affair is a common experience that brings a couple into treatment.
I want to start by emphasizing the importance of language in the healing process. Coming into therapy in the aftermath of an affair, your relationship is not broken, rather, broken open to examine on a deeper level. While one person may have taken the action, an affair is a problem involving two (or more) people.
Further, it can be useful to frame the experience of discovering and coping with an affair as a trauma—a trauma that can cause post-traumatic stress responses such as cognitive distortions (such “I must be unlovable” or “our lives are over”), withdrawal from others/a shut down in emotional response, an increase in irritability/acting out behaviors, and/or intrusive thoughts about the affair, to name a few. Becoming aware of the range of distressing responses either partner(s) may experience can help normalize painful feelings as you begin to heal and humanize your partner despite impulses to view them otherwise.
So, now that we know this information, how can we start the process of healing after an affair? It can feel overwhelming for every partner involved and although no healing process looks the same for everyone, the steps below can help you and your partner(s) begin to organize feelings, thoughts and emotions.
1. Attend to the crisis by making space for big emotions.
It is important to acknowledge that each partner may experience a full range of powerful emotions in response to infidelity. Common reactions for the partner who has discovered the affair (“the discoverer”) include feeling out of control of their emotions, feeling shattered or destroyed, losing one’s sense of identity, losing trust in oneself, and feeling isolated in their emotions as they may not go to their partner for support.
Common reactions for the partner whose affair was discovered (“the discovered”) include feeling threatened with multiple losses, feeling disconnected from loved ones, and feeling isolated in their emotions as well. By making room for these uncomfortable emotions from both the discovered and discoverer, we can begin to process what these feelings are trying to communicate and how to manage them.
2. Make initial agreements for managing day-to-day living.
Healing does not happen overnight and we may wake up in the same bed/living space/work space/etc. as our partner while moving through the stages of healing. It can help reduce anxiety as well as emotional pain to create some relationship guidelines such as how to handle devices/device monitoring (especially if the affair was discovered or maintained via technology), who to tell (or not to), how to talk about this with children, and how living arrangements will be handled. It can be helpful for some couples to create boundaries for when emotional processing can occur, e.g. not after midnight.
3. Begin to process traumatic experiences.
Try and move away from “what” questions regarding details of the affair. Process the meaning of this event. What purpose did the affair serve in your relationship for the unfaithful? Ask, what did this affair do to the discoverer? What did the affair mean to the discovered?
4. Take care of yourself.
No matter which role who identify with—the discovered or the discoverer—it matters how you care for your wellbeing as you navigate through the different stages of healing. Taking care of yourself can be as simple as turning off your phone before bed, taking time to exercise, or visualizing a calming place. Create a plan for when things feel overwhelming, like excusing yourself from an emotionally-charged discussion to take a few deep breaths.
About the Author
Lucy Moore is an Associate Marriage and Family Therapist (aMFT) at Well Clinic in San Francisco. In her words, “I am here to help you build on your strengths, cultivate resilience, and provide tools for communication and conflict resolution.”