Infidelity will shake even the strongest marriage to its core. Both partners experience overwhelming feelings of anger, frustration, distrust and betrayal after one has an affair. Some choose to end their relationship and move on, but many make a commitment to healing the wounds and rebuilding trust. This is by no means an easy path, but it's not an impossible one. YourTango asked two relationship experts, Marla Martenson and Cindy Holbrook, how couples should navigate these rough waters.
Before you begin the healing process, you should be certain it's what's best for you and your emotional health. As Holbrook says, "Before you proceed, be sure that reconciliation is truly what you want. Do not stay in the marriage out of fear of being alone. Many women remain in unfaithful relationships because they fear the stigma of divorce."
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There's also tendency for the philanderer to place blame on their spouse. Despite the fact that it does take two to tango, this is an unfair move. Martenson explains: "If you have had an affair, take total responsibility for your actions. No matter how driven you felt to have the affair, nobody made you do it. The more you blame your partner, the longer it will take him to believe that you are trustworthy, and to be able to forgive you."
After you have both come to a place of acceptance, understanding and certainty, both Martenson and Holbrook agree that transparency and clearly defined boundaries are integral to the healing process. Martenson explains: "Once you have recommitted and made the decision to stay in the relationship, being transparent will be the key to maintaining good faith and trust. If you have had an affair, you need to be an open book with where you are going and with whom, call if you are running late, leave your emails and texts open and available for your partner to see. Your words, actions and deeds must come from absolute integrity."
Holbrook agrees, adding that you should "set ground rules that the two of your agree on as both necessary and fair to help you regain trust. They may include things like him not hiding his computer screen when you walk into the room, or not excusing himself every time he gets a text. You may also want to explore 'curfews,' that ask him to be home at a certain time every night." But rules don't have to be all restraint and rigidity: Holbrook adds that "fun" rules should also be a part of your routine, including weekly date nights to help you rekindle romance as you rebuild trust.
Rule-setting seems easy enough (although rule following may be a different story!), but there's a lot of work both partners should do on an individual level. Holbrook believes it's extremely important for the betrayed party to really take time to grieve and mourn the breach of trust and fidelity: "Allow yourself to grieve over the betrayal. Feel and embrace your emotions in a safe and nurturing environment. This may mean sharing them with a coach or trusted friend. It also gives you license to cry your eyes out or beat the crap out of a pillow if that is what you feel like doing. You cannot let go of the pain until you allow yourself to feel." Why is this necessary? Holbrook explains further: "If you try to push your emotions aside, they will come out with a vengeance sometime in the future."
If you're the guilty party, you have work to do as well. As Martenson says: "You must do what you promise, with no exceptions. Keep the lines of communication open. Prove to your partner that you have learned from this awful mistake. Always be found where you say you will be. And above all, it is essential that all contact with the third party be severed. You cannot remain friends with your ex-lover."
But because a relationship is a two-way street, you should engage in confidence-boosting activities as a team. Martenson suggests taking a trip down memory lane to recall what life was like before the incident: "It is important for you as a couple to remember the good times you have had in your marriage, and why you chose to be together in the first place. Reminisce about the early days in the relationship and the fun times. Look at family photo albums together and recall the trips you took. Remember all of the dreams that you shared." She also suggests a vow renewal ceremony or second honeymoon to really reconnect.
It is entirely possible for a marriage to recover fully from an affair, but partners should not expect the change to happen overnight. As Martenson says, "Expect that it could take at least a year for your partner to be able to trust you again. You should be prepared to have ongoing, often painful conversations about your betrayal. You may also need support from a therapist."
Holbrook echoes this sentiment, adding that for the injured party, martyrdom is not an option: "Remember, that it was and is your choice to forgive your partner. Forgiveness doesn't necessarily mean forgetting, but it does mean that you choose not to punish him for his mistake through your actions or words." She also stresses that once a couple decides to move forward, sneaking or snooping behavior is extremely detrimental to confidence building for both partners.
An affair damages what Martenson refers to as the two most fundamental elements of a marriage: trust and commitment. But if both parties are truly willing to dig in and do the work required, coming out as an even stronger couple is completely possible. If you or your partner has had an affair, try taking the steps outlined here to work toward a more honest, loving place. It won't be easy, but a healthy, loving relationship is worth the battle.
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