We’ve been doing this work long enough to say with complete confidence that affairs are devastating and catastrophic to relationships. The discovery of an affair is like a bomb going off, often when a partner never even knew they were at war. Despite all of this, we’ve seen couples have tremendous success in healing after an affair. We’ve made a list of the most effective ways we have seen couples heal their relationship (hint: it takes effort from both partners and it can be done). This isn’t a post to help you decide whether you should go or stay. If you are considering taking the route of relational repair, this is simply a post to tell you how.
1. Dedicate space and time to learning about relationships and affair recovery.
LEARN WHAT WORKS. If this relationship is important to you and healing it and reconnecting is what you want, learn what works. Learn the words, the actions, the healthiest ways to show up for your hurting partner. Learn the healthiest ways to process the betrayal. Do not rely on your intuition. Often, the reasons one ends up in an affair (i.e. difficulty expressing needs or feelings, losing sight of connection, etc.) are the very issues that make it hard to repair from an affair. It requires a set of skills that are often overdue on being learned—empathy, validation, taking accountability, vulnerability. Gift yourself and your relationship the investment of time to learn them. You can start with books like After the Affair by Janis Spring, Not “Just Friends” by Shirley Glass, PhD, and Out of the Doghouse, by Robert Weiss.
You can also check out our blog post on the subject here.
2. Commit to self-exploration and personal growth.
There are so many factors that can contribute to an affair. If you are the one who had the affair, take this opportunity to do a deep dive into yourself. Reflect, journal, do therapy, read, confide in safe people. Learn what you can about yourself. Do you have a hard time expressing your needs to your partner and therefore default to looking elsewhere? Do you have some unresolved trauma that has affected your life in negative ways and an affair is a part of that impact? Do you chase excitement as a way to distract from feeling numb or detached? Do you fear intimacy and vulnerability and affairs are a substitute for the lack of deep intimacy with others? Do you over-focus on work and the lack of time you have invested in friendships has left you lonely? So many options. Take the time to learn about yourself so you can make the changes in you to live your healthiest life.
If you are the betrayed spouse, spend as little time as you can wondering what you did to cause the affair. The answer is: nothing. But, do spend time evaluating how you have engaged in this relationship historically and if those ways serve you now. Are there ways you have avoided sharing your feelings or asking for your needs, and in doing so, you have prevented deeper intimacy? Are there ways you have accepted negative behaviors to preserve the peace? Do you communicate in unhealthy ways to your partner? What is important to you in a relationship? What can you tolerate/not tolerate? All of this knowledge will help guide you into learning what you need to heal this relationship, and figuring out what kind of relationship you want with your partner moving forward.
3. Take responsibility for problems in the relationship.
The best relational outcome for self-exploration is both partners taking responsibility for their contribution to relational issues and taking action to create changes. This step is necessary and essential to affair recovery. And this step can’t happen without taking the time to do #2.
4. Dedicate space and time for healing.
The most common pitfall in affair recovery is not talking about it because doing so is often painful. Or, secondarily, talking about it all the time. Be intentional in creating dedicated, consistent, and meaningful time together to have healing conversations. If things are too intense at first, start these conversations with a couples therapist until you can have them successfully on your own. A loose recommendation is to devote one full year to healing. Use a mix of couples and individual therapy, and maybe even throw in a couples workshop or couples intensive is possible.
5. Hash it out.
Affair recovery is an emotional roller coaster. At first, it can seem like talking about it only makes it worse. Tears, pain, anger, questions, not believing answers, confusion, nothing you say or do is right. But you have to do it. And you have to do it a lot, until it finally starts to feel better.