Is it possible to recover from an affair? It is if you choose to; here's how.
The other day my husband and I were talking about cheating. His first serious girlfriend cheated on him repeatedly, so he takes a hard line approach. In his mind, if I cheated, our relationship would be over. It doesn’t matter if it was a one night stand, someone I never wanted to see again, or if it was someone I wanted a relationship with.
Many people feel the way he does: if you cheat, you’re done. But what if you don’t feel that way? What if you really love each other and want to stay together? Even if you don’t feel that way, you still need to get over an affair in your own mind, or it will color the rest of your relationships.
For most people, the critical issue of an affair is trust, or the lack of trust. In my view, affairs are usually not about sex, even though that’s how we define affairs in our culture. Affairs happen when one partner feels like they’re not getting their needs met by their partner, so they go outside the relationship. They may want to see if they still have their mojo, they may feel like this new person fills an emotional void, or they may just need more sex than their partner is willing to give.
Whether you want to repair the relationship or the affair made you decide to divorce, you still have to deal with this core issue of trust. If you divorced, you’ll eventually want to be in a relationship again and will need to trust your new partner. You might think, “I’ll be able to trust him/her because they’re not the one who cheated on me.” While it’s true that your new partner hasn’t cheated, that doesn’t mean you’ll be able to trust them.
If you decide to stay in the relationship, you have to make the decision to trust your partner again. When I moved back in with my husband after our separation, I still wasn’t sure we’d be able to work things out. I waffled for another two years, alternatively happy with our progress, then second guessing whether I had been crazy to try to stay with him. Finally, two of my closest friends told me to make a decision and stick with it. I thought, “Could it really be that easy?” I made my decision and discovered that it was, in fact, that easy. Having made the decision to trust him, every time an issue arose I looked at it from the point of view of “I’m staying in this relationship, what do I need to do to make it work?”
Deciding to trust your partner doesn’t mean you’ll never have doubts. But when doubts arise, you bring them to the surface. First, ask yourself whether your doubts have any merit. Is your partner really giving signals that they’re untrustworthy, or is your mind just rehashing old fears? Second, bring your doubts to the table and talk to your partner about them. If they’re as committed as you are to making the relationship work, they’ll appreciate your honesty. When you bring your doubts to the table, you’re facing your fears and bringing them into the light of your conscious awareness. Typically when you do that, the fears turn out to be harmless and impotent. Left buried or ignored, they can turn into bogey monsters.
If an affair ends your relationship, you’ll still have to deal with trust in your next relationship. This is because our romantic relationships offer us repeated opportunities to heal from the wounds of childhood, and virtually all of us have some issues with trust and abandonment in some form. My suggestion is to begin a new relationship with honesty and transparency. Once you’ve moved past the first few dates, find a time to talk about each of your past relationships. Share what worked well and what didn’t work. It will give you each insight into how to make this new relationship work. Let them know that your trust was betrayed, and that you may need some help to fully trust again. Go slowly so you can give your new partner a chance to gain your trust.
Try not to project your last partner’s behavior onto your new one. Just because your ex told you he was staying late at the office when he was banging his girlfriend doesn’t mean that your new partner is doing the same thing. Give him the benefit of the doubt, but ‘fess up if that’s what you’re worried about.
Make a decision to trust. It might be scary, and there will be times when you feel vulnerable. Allow yourself to feel vulnerable and practice keeping your heart open. Usually when we feel vulnerable, we close down our heart to prevent further injury. But growth happens just past the comfort zone. Practice opening your heart when you feel vulnerable. Tell your partner, “I feel afraid but I want to talk about this.” You’ll be amazed at how much better you’ll feel when you speak your truth.