How to Survive an Affair

No one knows for sure how many married people have affairs. Statistics vary widely, from 10% to over 50%, and based on self-reporting, which is notoriously unreliable. Clearly, though, cheating happens all the time. Based on anecdotal evidence, and the sheer volume of couples in my office who are struggling with adultery, I’d guess that the percentages are near the highest point—or about half of people in relationships.

If cheating (which can range from getting your emotional needs met by someone else, to having a passionate physical affair, to flirting intensely with someone online) happens this often, then we can assume that relationships become strained and broken even more often. And when damaged relationships are a given, knowing how they got there becomes less important than deciding how they can heal.

My focus as a therapist, therefore, has changed from: “What caused this to happen?” to “Where can the couple go from here?” This puts the emphasis more on the couple’s future than its past, and in and of itself, this is a more hopeful place to be. We do look into the past—examining each partner’s childhood and what emotional triggers they brought into the relationship—but then we move on to accepting that every relationship has these same kinds of rifts, and assuming there is something to build on.

Affairs are crushing to both partners

When you are betrayed, you might feel that everything you thought to be true and dependable has been destroyed, causing you to question not just this relationship but all relationships. Emotions ping-pong from rage to despair to serenity and back. It can be hard to imagine ever trusting your partner again. When you are the adulterer, you urgently want your partner to know why you needed to look outside the relationship to feel wanted and seen. Your feelings can start with relief at no longer having to keep a secret, and then move to hopelessness, a fear that your partner will punish you forever. Both of you will struggle to trust each other.

Faith isn’t rebuilt overnight. It’s a long road, sometimes temporarily blocked, sometimes requiring a detour in a direction you might not have imagined. To begin to move on after infidelity, start with three key steps.

1. Stop blaming

Let’s tackle the hardest piece first. In any conflict, it’s natural to feel defensive and point fingers. And in some cases, affairs are the result of just one (often narcissistic) partner. More often, however, they are a symptom of a partnership that has fallen apart on both sides.

Instead of looking outward and placing full responsibility on your partner, look inside. By accepting your part in the relationship’s history, you get a chance to delve into your own struggles. Maybe you’ll see a pattern of behavior that’s lasted over several relationships; maybe you’ll notice that some of your reactions are similar how one of your parents acted. Really examining your own contribution to the problems gives you a chance to repair not only with your significant other, but internally, for your own health. This will work for the good of your current relationship, or for any future one.

Catastrophe brings a unique opportunity. When things are at their worst, there’s nothing left to lose, which means it’s a chance to be fully honest. Everything you’ve wanted to say but held inside now can be shouted and analyzed and combed through. It can be a painful process, but it also means that real change and healing can happen—sometimes for the first time.

2. Build trust

After examining both the relationship and your own piece in it, you can move on to restoring the closeness that you felt when you fell in love. Although this is a long process and perhaps best embarked upon with the professional help of a marriage counselor, it can be summed up here as encompassing two parts, which I call now Commitments and Later Commitments.

Now commitments are the ones that happen immediately after the affair, often dictated by the hurt partner, including (but not limited to) increased transparency in how time and money are spent, increased time together, consistent communication, acts of loving kindness, more or less sexual activity, access to phones and email, etc. This is an opportunity for the person who feels betrayed to lay out what he or she needs to feel safe again. These behaviors are open to negotiation, but they lay bare what the hurt partner worries most about: feeling in the dark and at risk.

The straying partner will also have a list of New Commitments, which address the situation that has led up to the affair. This person will want assurance that whatever coldness or emptiness that he or she felt before the affair will be attended to. And they will also need to feel hope, from themselves and their partner, that forgiveness is a possibility.

Later Commitments are those in which you reassure one another that you will resist falling into familiar patterns, and learn new tools to cope with the old feelings of resentment, boredom, or vulnerability. When a light is shined on couples’ destructive patterns and they see them starkly, it’s scary. Fear can arise that these dynamics, which took time to form and have gone on unresolved for years, will be impossible to heal or avoid. Each member needs need to know that, even years down the road, the other will be vigilant against falling back into old defenses.

In marriage counseling, couples affirm to each other over and over again that they will stay present with each other, and that their intentions are loving. This re-avowal is powerful, and re-creates trust.

3. Lower expectations

The idea of a perfect spouse, whether it’s Prince Charming or a Manic Pixie Dream Girl (the term coined by Nathan Rabin after seeing Kirsten Dunst in the movie Elizabethtown), does us more harm than good. We are not capable of being everything to each other, and we’re not supposed to understand each other all—or even most—of the time. Partners are companions, not mystical angels. We are there to support and walk alongside, think kindly of and try hard with one another.

If, instead of searching for a soul mate, we longed for a stable, open friend who shares a few interests and finds us attractive, we’d have a straight line to contentment. Alain de Botton, in his New York Times essay Why You Will Marry the Wrong Person, states that a healthy dose of melancholy and dispiritedness is necessary in marriage. He sums up partnerships this way: “The person who is best suited to us is not the person who shares our every taste (he or she doesn’t exist), but the person who can negotiate differences in taste intelligently… Compatibility is an achievement of love; it must not be its precondition.”

None of these steps is easy; none is a guarantee of success for the relationship. But there is hope, and there are possibilities for having a healthy and satisfying relationship after an affair. By looking at your own piece of the problem, building connections and turning toward your partner, and finally by having a realistic view of the future, even a wrenching betrayal can be healed.

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