I have had a number of couple clients who came to me after an affair. I want to share some thoughts and experience I have had on this subject.
Affairs are often seen as the fatal blow to a marriage. They can come at any stage of a relationship. It can come during the anticlimax of initial passion, stem from the boredom of daily routine after many years, result from the fatigue of raising children together. Somewhere along the way, familiarity have transformed into disconnection. In the quest for the intimacy essential to everyone’s sense of belonging, you lose sight of each other and set out in search for new emotional stimulations.
Whether it is an emotional or physical affair or both, it doesn’t have to be the end of a relationship. Many say this is a deal-breaker. It certainly can be a death sentence if neither side is willing to do the hard work of reconciliation(or if the relationship posed physical danger to either party before or after the affair). However, when something this painful occurs, it can equally lead to a transformation for the relationship as well as the individuals involved. Often the affair is only the symptom of what was wrong within the relationship. It serves as the ultimate alarm for the healing to begin. It is not for everyone. The trauma can be overwhelming. Seeking an alternative path can seem easier than staying with the pain. The relief from the separation, however, can only be temporary if the old patterns are perpetuated into new relationships. It will take the ultimate courage to face the consequence of this emotional wound with your partners. Boosted by the history of the love existed within the relationship before the affair, both the perpetrators of the affair and the victims of it can find a deeper sense of love by waging brave inner battles.
For the courageous few, here are some milestones each relationship marred by affair must achieve in order to come out stronger together:
- Witness the Pain: The person who has broken the trust must first own the responsibility and acknowledge the pain caused regardless if they feel they were “driven” to the affair due to mistreatment(One caveat: if this mistreatment is physical abuse, then the person must seek safety first and foremost with or without an affair). Only the person betrayed has felt seen for his or her wound can the relationship start to build trust again.
- Heal the Wound: After the pain and damage of the affair has been acknowledged, both must have periods of healing. Both partners, if sincere, would have suffered. Whether it is pain from guilt or the pain from loss of trust. The process is different for everyone, just as the time needed will vary for each. Healing in this case mean keeping some distance. Loyalty will demand some silence. Not reacting to the ups and down of moods will be difficult but necessary. Persistence will be key.
- Observe the Past: Once enough temporal and emotional distance have been established, the affair must be examined. The help of a competent couple therapist would be invaluable in this process. Opening the wound is traumatic and can, if not properly done, create new trauma that further damage the relationship. A safe environment and a balanced view from a mental health professional would be crucial for an open dialogue. While the person who committed affair has to bear the responsibility for the betrayal, both parties must remain open to sharing the responsibilities in repairing the relationship going forth. This is a pivotal point in the recovery and is possibly the longest phase. It is not just suturing the wound of the affair but also uncovering all that caused pain for each within the relationship, before and after the affair.
- Love yourself: If step 3 is progressing along smoothly, which usually means 3 steps forward and 2 steps back, you are slowly getting over a crisis. You are still unsure if the relationship will survive, but the pain is not as palpable on a daily basis. The safety alert in your body will begin to take some time off from the fight/flight mode. As both parties begin to adapt to a new reality and seeing each other in a new light, transforming the relationship with ourselves will be a crucial component for the healing process. The individual is the fundamental unit of a relationship. If there is a void in the love one has for the self, it will inevitably compromise the quality of the relationship. You cannot change the way you relate to each other unless there is a new way of relating to yourself. Create time and space to love yourself in whatever form rings true for you.
- Evolve together: Once you like yourselves better and can reduce the baggages the old selves have brought to the relationship, you are truly ready to re-connect with each other. This will not be simply recovering what you had lost from the affair. This will be reinventing your relationship: rediscovering things about each other and creating new connections. This is truly the beginning of a new romance that will deepen the love for each other. The renewed connection will be based on the things that had always been there but are only now visible because the new way you relate to each other. At the same time, it will also be founded upon the changes in each of the partner along the recovery journey. This is what makes all the hard work in steps 1 to 4 more than worth it.
These milestones are just the beginning. Relationship must be maintained regardless if you had been through an affair or just maintaining intimacy in a long term relationship. As you go forth into this new life, you must make time for each other, especially if you have kids. You must treat your partner as the priority in your lives, even if the bulk of your time will be devoted to work and raising posterity. Ultimately, recovering from affair is a hero’s journey. After all said and done, there is no guarantee. You must be willing to invest yourselves whole-heartedly in steps 1 to 5 without certainty of outcome. At the end of this hero’s journey might not always be reconciliation. If you are willing to put in the effort, one thing the journey can guarantee is that you can still find love within yourself for all things and people around you. That love will allow you to remain WHOLE within or without the relationship.