Cheating can unleash devastating consequences on a couple and is oft-cited as the ultimate deal breaker, beating out both emotional unavailability and physical abuse. Yet over half of married couples decide to weather the damage together rather than split up. Unfortunately, the healing process doesn't happen overnight, and even the most committed couples can get waylaid by hurt feelings, paralyzing guilt, and resentment. YourTango spoke with Dr. Janis A. Spring, clinical psychologist and author of After the Affair: Healing the Pain and Rebuilding Trust When a Partner Has Been Unfaithful and How Can I Forgive You? The Courage to Forgive, the Freedom Not To on the ten crucial steps a couple must take before emerging stronger than ever.
1. Honesty First
In the wake of discovering infidelity, Spring asks the wronged party to detail their grievances to their partner by articulating an unsparing and emotionally raw declaration. "It is vital that the hurt person feels heard," Spring emphasizes. "It's easy to feel crazy with grief, and they need to understand that they have a language to talk about their pain."
2. Bearing Witness
Just as importantly, the adulterous partner must be prepared to face the heartache that their infidelity has wrought. Many unfaithful individuals feel paralyzed with guilt; they see the affair as irreparable damage, and mistakenly urge their partners to put the pain behind them rather than take time to grieve. Spring insists that the offender "bear witness" to the pain they've caused rather than defend or deflect the impact, and pinpoints this willingness to take responsibility as vital to the rebuilding of trust.
3. A Written Apology
After the adulterer has listened openly and understandingly to their partner's declaration, Spring suggests that the cheater paraphrase the account in their own words. Spring then suggests that they write out a detailed, specific letter to prove they understand the sorrow they've caused. And a miserly "I'm sorry" won't cut it. "'I'm sorry' goes about a quarter-inch deep," Spring says. "Verbal reassurances, promising you won't do it again, that means nothing after cheating. They have to prove they've heard and understood their partner on the deepest level, and that means citing very specific examples of how they've hurt them and then taking actions to prove they will not do so in the future."
4. Avoid Cheap Forgiveness
Sometimes the desire to salvage the relationship (and on the flip side, the fear of losing a partner) overwhelms the necessity to vent anger, and wronged partners forgive before they've had a chance to seethe. Spring calls this "cheap forgiveness," and finds this behavior in spades among people who are more afraid of being alone than staying with an unfaithful partner. Not only do cheap forgivers swindle themselves out of a healthy grieving process, they set themselves up for future infidelities by not forcing their partners to understand their pain.
5. Sharing Responsibility
Even in relationships where only one person has strayed, oftentimes both members bear the blame for an affair. Spring acknowledges that the unfaithful person must own up to 100% of their guilt ( because "no one forces you to cheat.") but the wronged party must also acknowledge their own role in fostering an unhappy union, however minuscule. The hurt person must see how they had a hand in facilitating the loneliness or isolation that compelled their companion to have an affair and take steps to ensure greater emotional intimacy in the future.
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