Infidelity is one of the most devastating things that can happen to any relationship and the effects can be severe and longstanding. One in every 2.7 couples is touched by infidelity, and the numbers are on the rise. What are some things you can do if your relationship is struggling from the impact of infidelity?
- Start working on healing and seek out marriage or relationship counseling as soon as possible, especially if both people are committed to working on re-building the relationship. We don’t recommend this just because we are therapists! So many times we see couples come in for counseling years after the betrayal has occurred. At that point, they are still having difficulty healing from the affair, but also have years of other unresolved issues and additional damage to the relationship. The initial period of time following the disclosure of an affair is critical to the successful outcome of the relationship. While there are many other contributing factors as well, the initial period of time is where many couples make huge mistakes that can hurt their relationship in the long run, instead of helping it. It is difficult enough to work through the issues that infidelity brings, but to create additional damage to the relationship from unhealthy patterns of communicating makes it even harder. It’s best to begin working on establishing healthy patterns of communicating during such an emotionally charged time. If your spouse or partner will not come to counseling, think about pursuing it individually. Both people have a lot of healing to do. There are many excellent books on infidelity, as well, which are extremely helpful in the healing process.
- Name your feelings and realize that your feelings are valid. There is no right or wrong when it comes to feelings following the disclosure of infidelity. You may feel anything from shock and numbness to rage and despair. The most important thing is to allow yourself to experience whatever feelings arise, without reacting to them in a destructive manner to yourself or others. Don’t think that you will feel better if you can find and get revenge on the person your spouse was with or your spouse- that doesn’t make anything better- it only makes it worse! Your primary goal is to take care of yourself and get through each day. Even though your mind might seem like it does nothing but think about the experience you are going through, do the best you can to take care of yourself. You may feel overwhelmed and confused in your thoughts, have difficulty sleeping, and may not feel like eating. Try to maintain these daily activities of living the best you can, and be gentle with yourself during a time that feels so scary and out of control.
- Utilize your support system. Many people are extremely embarrassed when they find out their partner has been unfaithful, which causes them to keep the infidelity a secret. While we don’t endorse broadcasting it to everyone you know out of raw emotion and spite for your partner’s wrongdoing, it is important to pick one or two close, safe friends who can listen to you and be there for you during such a difficult time. Pick people who are non-judgmental and who do not give you unsolicited advice. It’s important to surround yourself with people who do not pressure you into making a decision about whether to stay or leave the relationship, but rather those who are committed to helping you through a tough time and want you to decide what is best for you. If you are hesitant to talk to friends of the marriage/relationship, find a support group to share your pain with others going through the same thing. The Beyond Affairs Network (BAN) offers affair recovery support groups for those who have experienced infidelity. More information can be found at www.dearpeggy.com .
- Do not make a knee-jerk reaction about the outcome of the relationship. No one goes into a committed relationship anticipating their life being shattered by infidelity, so the time immediately following the disclosure is not the time to make a decision about whether to stay or to leave. At this point, your head isn’t clear enough to make such a life-changing decision. Allow your feelings and thoughts to clear a little before doing so. You can, however, begin immediately setting boundaries to protect yourself, especially if your spouse or partner is refusing to end the affair. Your relationship can’t start healing if the infidelity is still occurring and a presence in your relationship. While we can’t tell you in an article what this means for your situation, it is important to set clear limits as to not invite or allow unhealthy behavior or people into your life.
- Use the experience of the affair as an opportunity to grow- whether individually, or as a couple. As hurt as the betrayed person feels following the discovery of infidelity, there comes a point in time where the painful process can be turned into a learning process. It wasn’t your fault that your spouse or partner made the decision to stray, but it is your responsibility to use this as an opportunity for self-examination and to figure out if you had a role in the relationship breaking down. Spend time figuring out your role in making the relationship grow and heal. Relationships are two-way streets, where both individuals have a role in making it successful. Instead of using energy and effort pointing fingers of blame, accept an appropriate share of responsibility for your relationship issues. You may not be able to do this immediately following the disclosure, but try and make that a goal. Changing this one thing can dramatically alter the outcome of healing, turning it from hopeless and stuck into helpful and successful.
- Pay attention to and FIX negative patterns of communication. The most successful couples we see in counseling who are healing from infidelity can communicate with each other without being reactive, defensive, or shaming. It can be very difficult to learn how to communicate your pain to your partner in a safe way, but it can make a world of difference as to whether you progress or whether you get stuck. Your marriage will not be able to heal from this if you don’t learn healthy communication patterns. Learn to communicate your feelings without becoming attacking, destructively criticizing the other person’s character, being shaming, or using hurtful, blaming words that you can’t take back. Healthy conflict is essential to healing. Janis Abrahms Spring wrote in her book After the Affair, “No conflict, no closeness. Confront your grievances or you’ll be left with nothing but the illusion of tranquility.”
- Do not over-focus on the details of the affair. It is extremely important for the hurt partner to have adequate information and full disclosure about the affair in order to re-build trust and begin healing from infidelity. Each time new details about the affair keep surfacing, or if lies continue to be uncovered, the hurt person goes back to square one with healing and trust, and the progress that has been made to that point is undone. Be careful about becoming too detail oriented, however. Before you ask questions to the partner who strayed, ask yourself: Will the answer to this question truly help me/us to heal? Then be completely honest with yourself! Sometimes, the intimate details can be the most difficult to work through and get out of your mind, when you are already struggling with obsessive thoughts. You have to be able to “hold” the information you ask for. If you aren’t sure how knowing will affect you, maybe you shouldn’t know. It is absolutely necessary to know who it happened with, what indiscretions were committed, when, how long, and where the affair happened, and that it has ended. Knowing too many extreme details can be just as damaging and hurtful as not knowing the details you need. It is a fine line between the two, and talking with a counselor who works with infidelity can be helpful to sort this issue out. Most people are searching to answer the question of why the person chose to stray in the first place, thinking that if they ask more and more questions, it will begin to make sense and will make their pain go away. This couldn’t be further from the truth! Trying to make total sense out of infidelity doesn’t make the pain go away, nor does knowing why it happened make the infidelity okay. Only time spent committed to healing can help with the pain you are experiencing. Instead of over-focusing on the details of what happened, which will keep you stuck, focus that energy on what you need to move forward in healing your pain.
- Try to limit the amount of time the conversation between you and your partner is focused on the infidelity. It is important for the hurt spouse to feel heard, and their emotions validated. It’s also important for the unfaithful partner to adequately grasp and communicate how deeply the hurt partner feels violated. Listen to their feelings and do not become defensive. Let your partner know you understand and regret what you have done, even though that doesn’t make the situation, nor their pain, go away. At the same time, the hurt partner needs to understand that the participating partner also has limitations to how much they can process and hear at any given time. That doesn’t mean that they aren’t committed to healing. Try not to blindside your partner with your questions and pain. If it isn’t an appropriate time to discuss things, negotiate a time to come back to the discussion, and then follow through. Some couples find it helpful to set aside time that is devoted strictly to communicating about the affair, whether a 15 minute period of time each day, or on a weekly basis, depending on what works best for your relationship and for both partners. Also, make sure that you find balance as a couple in talking about other things, too- not just the infidelity.
If your marriage or relationship is healing from an affair, feel free to give us a call at (317)569-0046, or visit our website at www.imaginehopecounseling.com to set up an appointment or for more information. Imagine Hope Counseling Group provides marriage, relationship, family, and individual counseling for Indianapolis and the surrounding areas of Carmel, Noblesville, Zionsville, Fishers, and Westfield.
Sources: After the Affair by Janis Abrahms Spring, PhD
Surviving an Affair by Willard Harley
My Husband’s Affair Became the Best Thing That Ever Happened to Me by Anne Bercht
Torn Asunder: Recovering From Extramarital Affairs by Dave Carder and Duncan Jaenicke