Couples come into my office all the time stating that infidelity is the primary issue that brought them in for couples therapy. Many people use the old line “if my spouse ever cheated I would be gone in a heartbeat.” The reality is that lots of people say that, but when they find themselves in that very situation, it’s not always that easy just to leave. Working on repairing and rebuilding your relationship after betrayal is hard, but not impossible. I have even worked with several couples who have admitted their relationships are stronger after doing all the hard work after a spouse has cheated.
The number one piece of advice I give people who are in this situation and are attempting to rebuild their relationship after marital betrayal is to talk about it. If you have been in my office in the last three years dealing with this issue, it is likely you have heard this scenario of two couples who I worked with in the past. I talk of these two particular couples so often because they are examples of doing repair correctly and incorrectly. Obviously, their names have been changed to respect confidentiality.
Couple A (I will call them Steve and Sally) came in to begin therapy after Steve had admitted being unfaithful several times. Steve’s sales job had him traveling often and he shared with Sally in a disclosure session in my office that he had had six one-night stands.
Couple B (John and Jenny) began therapy after Jenny, on her way into the bank, found her husband in the car kissing another woman. It later was dribbled out that John had been in a ten-month affair (emotional, physical and sexual) with this woman, Wendy, who just happened to be a teller at their neighborhood bank.
Both couples thought they were “those kinds of people who would never stay in a relationship where they were cheated on” but they decided that they were going to try therapy (both of them for the first time ever) to see if they could mend their shattered marriages.
First things first. To me this is an obvious statement, but because I have done this for several years, it needs to be stated: All of this work cannot even begin until the affair is COMPLETELY ended. Not “I’ll try to work on my marriage and if it doesn’t work, we can try again” or “give me three months to see if I can fix it with my spouse”. Done, finished, ended with no hope dangling. As with couples therapy, none of it works if one partner is still on the fence.
The treatment plan I worked with both couples looked similar, beginning with disclosure to make sure all the information was out. (I STRONGLY recommend this is only done with a trained therapist who specializes in this area and after adequate preparation on both sides. I have seen far too much damage done in a “dribbling” disclosure or where there is minimizing or blame shifting.)
After disclosure, the spouse who was cheated on wrote a letter of impact. That is, a letter to explain the impact and experience that the infidelity had on them and also boundaries going forward. This letter is also to be read in couples therapy so that both spouses can be supported, as this is a very vulnerable, emotional time for both.
Both couples had faced betrayal, and both wives were equally devastated. However, how the couples dealt with it was very different, and one couple made it and the other filed for divorce seven months later. One reason for this is communication.
Both couples received very clear instructions on how to talk about when they were triggered. Couple A were very avoidant. They both admitted the only time they wanted to talk about the betrayal was in therapy, because it hurt too much, and Steve felt shame and Sally would in turn feel bad for Steve! When a song would come on the radio or a television show would reference an affair, Steve would quickly turn the station and act like nothing happened. They both were in deep turmoil and chose denial and isolation rather than figuring out ways to connect in the awkwardness.
Couple B followed therapeutic recommendations to bring up when either of them is triggered. For example, every time Jenny drove past her neighborhood bank she was instantly triggered, so she would bring it up to John and give John an opportunity for empathy and understanding rather than blame shifting or wallowing in shame. John and Jenny also had children who were often in the car as they passed the bank, and John was instructed to grab Jenny’s hand as an emphatic sign of “We are in this together.” Jenny would allow him to grab her hand if she was in an emotionally ready place (which, as you can imagine, took some time). John and Jenny worked actively daily to reconnect and John showed up with empathy and true remorse. Through their very difficult process, John and Jenny discovered they had never really been emotionally intimate with each other in their marriage, and through their therapy they learned what true vulnerability and intimacy is. When they were discharged from therapy, they both reported they were closer than they have ever been, and Jenny realized this may have never happened if it weren’t for the affair (although she strongly cautioned John to never test her again!).
Ways To Build Trust After Betrayal
Time and action are the two biggest factors that help heal. Time can help heal wounds as long as action of different behavior is present. Action needs to happen in discussing the hurts and working through active trigger times. If your partner took his affair partner to a particular restaurant, expect to be triggered every time you pass it for a very long time. Talk about how you passed the restaurant today and that you are struggling and ask for what you need…time alone, a hug, to scream, whatever you need. If you are the one who betrayed your partner, now is the time to step up your empathy.
Leave your phone out, and give your partner the passcode if you have one. This is really huge. It is not for the betrayed partner to check it, but a signal that there is nothing to hide. When people are active in an affair they usually have their phone constantly on their person and are very protective of anyone else looking at it.
Let your spouse know where you are, especially if you are going to be late. Don’t look at this as punishment, realize this is a trust building behavior and accept the consequences for your behavior.
Check in often with your spouse if you are the one who betrayed your partner. Validate, understand and empathize with every opportunity you get. It is natural to want your spouse to “get over it” and believe me they want that same thing, but healing takes time. Saying things like “I am so sorry I hurt you and I will actively do what I can to make a living amends.” Never say “I wish you would stop thinking of this all the time, you are torturing yourself.” Guess what? If it were that easy they would have stopped thinking of it a long time ago.
Don’t go it alone. Trying to work through infidelity on your own is an extremely difficult process. Reaching out to a trained therapist who has experience with infidelity to help support both of you through this time can be the difference in making or breaking your marriage.
- Infidelity is shattering to a marriage but doesn’t have to mean it’s the end.
- Finding ways to talk about it through disclosure and letter writing, to work on true healing and work through triggers is the best chance you have at repairing and rebuilding after betrayal.
- Empathy, patience and understanding are imperative to this process.