Infidelity in committed relationships is a huge deal. Most of the time, it is an extremely painful experience. It rocks its very foundation, destroys trust, puts everything in question, and elicits deep pain and betrayal. It turns the relationship upside down.
Frequently the person who got cheated on wonders, “Was everything a lie?” It does not only impact the romantic partners. It interrupts and brings great pain to the lives of the whole family system.
As a couples therapist, I frequently feel angry at how inconsequential and casual infidelity is portrayed in mainstream media. In real life, this is not a small thing, but a relational catastrophe.
The healing path often takes years and is a painful and gut-wrenching process. It takes great commitment and courage from both parties. During that healing journey, multiple times I have heard the unfaithful partner say in therapy, “If I would have known the devastation this would cause, I would have never had the affair”.
Intimate relationships can be rebuilt after infidelity. I have seen firsthand that with commitment, patience, and honesty an even stronger connection can be forged. However, certain conditions need to be in place.
The only way to get over infidelity is to face it. To ask some hard questions, to practice brutal honesty.
You don’t get over an extramarital affair, by pushing it away, not talking about it, and pretending it never happened.
Before coming to couples therapy, many of my clients tried that path, only to find out that mistrust and resentment fester, and make emotional and sexual intimacy impossible.
Most of the time before the infidelity happened, the relationship was already in a weakened state. It is important to explore how both partners contributed to pain in their relationship before the affair happened. Once they understand that, they can build a new, stronger relationship.
That is not to say that this insight condones the actions of the cheating partner. They are still fully responsible for their actions. No matter what they were unhappy with in their relationship, they chose to turn outside, instead of addressing their dissatisfaction within their relationship.
To get over an affair, the cheating partner needs to be willing to answer all uncomfortable questions the injured partner has about the affair.
The tricky part when rebuilding a relationship after infidelity is that the cheating partner needs to also become the healer. They need to be willing to tolerate their shame and pain and face the emotional devastation they have brought to the injured partner through their bad decision.
To answer the – often very in-depth – questions their partner has about the details of the affair.
Research has shown that relationships have a higher chance of recovery if the affair partner is willing to answer these tough questions. If questions do not get answered, it perpetuates a lack of transparency, lack of honesty, and undermines the building of trust.
For most people that have been cheated on, the fact that they have been lied to is one of the hardest parts to deal with. An intimate connection can only be built with absolute honesty.
You only can start rebuilding your relationship once the offending partner has stopped all contact with the affair partner.
In my experience as a couples therapist, it is only possible to attempt to rebuild a relationship once that decision has been made. Before that step has been taken, couples therapy is a waste of time.
That includes no longer seeing the affair partner in person as well as stopping all communication. If the affair partner reaches out to the offending partner, they need to share that asap with the injured partner. There cannot be any secrets, or the healing process has been compromised.
Affairs often are intoxicating. The secrecy and novelty frequently lead to feelings of euphoria. Feel-good and pleasure hormones are coursing through the veins. They trigger sexual and emotional highs. This might be especially true if sexual and emotional intimacy has been dissatisfactory in their romantic relationship.
As long as this important emotional and sexual energy gets drained from the committed primary relationship, it is not possible to explore if it can be rebuilt. It’s like trying to light a fire without spark and kindling.
To get over an affair, the injured partner needs to know without any doubt that the unfaithful partner takes full responsibility and is deeply sorry for their actions.
This is a key prerequisite for being able to start the rebuilding process. The old relationship has died, a new relationship can only be built on a solid foundation of accountability and remorse.
In my experience, if the person who got cheated on has not experienced firsthand that their partner is devastated by how much pain they have caused them, and expressed explicitly that they are deeply sorry, the path toward recovery is blocked.
This can be especially hard for the unfaithful partner to express, as it will mean they must face their shame and their partner’s devastation head-on. They have to admit to themselves the full extent of the destruction their actions have caused.
I have not met a couple yet who has been able to rebuild a relationship successfully without the help of a couples therapist.
They might exist, but I don’t know them. Often the very weakness that made their relationship vulnerable to an affair firsthand now blocks the way to recovery.
Say, you had weak communication and a lack of connection before the infidelity happened. You did not know how to express your needs or set boundaries. You did not know how to express your emotions productively beforehand. Then, after the infidelity, you lack the very tools needed to rebuild your relationship.
A marriage counsellor can teach those skills to you. Without that skill set, no lasting recovery is possible. The therapist can guide you step-by-step, and help you figure out if you can build a healthy relationship that is satisfactory to both of you, or if it is better to part ways and start afresh.
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