Healing after an affair is a long hard road.
For couples who want to heal their relationships after an affair there is good reason to be hopeful. Although the results of studies vary, most research reveals that two-thirds of heterosexual couples will remain together after an affair.
Of course, some of these couples may stay together in misery while others will truly improve their relationships. How can you and your partner grow as a couple after an affair?
In a nutshell, the process of recovering from the crisis of an affair is similar to the process of recovering from any difficult emotional experience. You have to talk about it. A lot. On an honest, deep, and respectful level. This is how humans heal: we communicate.
The partner who engaged in the affair must take responsibility for his actions. Part of that process includes discovering the underlying reasons why he had the affair. He also needs to sincerely apologize and to do so repeatedly. He must keep listening, without getting overly defensive, about his partner’s feelings of betrayal. He needs to learn to validate those hurt feelings.
For true healing ultimately he will need to step into his partner’s shoes for a few moments and get a visceral, sense of what betrayal feels like. This is called empathy.
This doesn’t happen with just one conversation. It has to occur over and over again. Each time a slightly different aspect of feelings will be revealed.
After a period of time the partner who had the affair will want the conversation to end. He’ll get tired of hearing how he hurt his partner. He’ll get impatient with the process and want to move on. He may feel like he is being punished. However, if he wants to repair the relationship, he will need to tolerate the slow process of healing. He will need to practice the art of patience and understanding.
The partner who feels betrayed needs to practice expressing and naming his feelings again and again. His job is to identify his range of feelings and then communicate them clearly and respectfully. Attacking his partner and seeking revenge won’t move the process forward. He needs to become fully aware of his feelings and to ask and expect that his feelings be heard and respected.
Here’s the bottom line: we all want to be heard. It may be the most important experience we are seeking in a relationship. So relationship recovery is a listening process.
None of this is easy territory. It is best done within what therapists call a strong “container”. This could be a couples counselor’s office or it could be on your living room couch with the phone turned off, plenty of eye contact, and a shared commitment to key rules of communication.
Perhaps the single most important communication rule is to speak from the “I” position. Rather than complaining about what he does, you focus on how you feel when he does that thing. This approach avoids escalating the argument because how can someone debate what you feel? You are the only expert on your feelings. Sharing of feelings in this manner leads to empathy, and that leads to healing.
Often the crisis of an affair becomes an opportunity to look at and improve some of the ongoing issues within the relationship. It’s commonly the wake-up call that gets both partners motivated to do the scary work of speaking truthfully.
Affairs, untreated addictions, and poor self-care habits are all methods of attempted escape. They help us avoid the worthwhile and challenging work of looking at what is really true about ourselves, our childhood experiences, and our relationships. They represent “acting out” of feelings rather than directly facing them with mindfulness and compassionate courage.
When we “escape” our partners and ourselves with any of these behaviors, we can expect to hurt people we love. Exploring our underlying, more vulnerable feelings is the essential recipe for healing our relationships with others, as well as our relationship with ourselves.
Adam D. Blum, MFT is a San Francisco psychotherapist specializing in relationship and self-esteem issues for gay men. He writes a blog on these topics at http://gaytherapist-sanfrancisco.com/blog. Adam can be reached at 415-255-4266 or on his website at www.gaytherapist-sanfrancisco.com.