Can't move on after an affair? Maybe it's because your partner didn't say "I'm sorry" the right way.
For two years, Kora had been having an on and off affair with her high-school sweetheart, a separated man who lived over a thousand miles away. It ended when Sean, her husband, had discovered some letters in her desk drawer. Because Kora and her lover lived so far apart it was easy for Sean to validate Kora’s claims that the affair ended. Moreover, her lover had reunited with his wife and family.
All’s well that ends well? Hardly. Anyone who has ever been the victim of marital infidelity knows that even if an affair ends, there is still a lot of repair work to be done. Kora and Sean knew that they wanted to try to keep the 18-year marriage going, particularly because they felt their children would be ravaged by a divorce. But Sean still held on to his rage. Before the affair, he saw himself as someone who was generally easy to get along with. Not a perfect husband, but not a bad one either. Now his brain kept circling back to the details of the affair.
Sean told me what kept him from moving on: “She keeps insisting the affair is over, and I believe her. But she wants to just put it past us. I never felt she really understood how hurt I was by this. Is she even sorry for what she did? If she is, I'm not seeing it.”
Kora doesn’t understand what’s holding Sean back, “I came clean about everything, and am now fully committed to the marriage. What more does he want?”
Kora’s admission that she had an affair is definitely a first step toward repairing their marriage. Ending the extramarital relationship and breaking off contact with her affair mate is a necessary next step. But after the affair has ended, Kora has more work to do. That includes offering Sean a meaningful apology.
Someone who has had an affair will commonly describe remorse afterwards, but many people don’t understand that the act of apology is a complicated communication process. I discuss this in my book, The Secrets of Surviving Infidelity. If, like Kora, you’ve hurt someone and wish to make amends, you’ve got to know the right step to take.
Here are three steps will help soothe your relationship stress:
- Recognize and state what ought to have happened. You need to state specifically what you’ve done to harm your partner. Engaging in sexual relationships or emotional affairs cross the bounds of expected behavior of a loyal spouse. However, don’t limit the apology to “I shouldn’t have slept with someone else.” Consider all the ways in which you failed to meet your commitments, including deception, absences from home, and impact on the family and community. If you don't make it clear how exactly you hurt your partner, then your apology will fall on deaf ears.
- Appreciate the impact that your actions have made on your partner. It’s not enough to say you messed up; you also have to make it clear that you can see how you have pained your partner by your actions. Sometimes the hurt goes beyond emotional duress: affairs cause financial strain, inconveniences of time, and disruptions of living situations. Saying, “I have hurt you by what I did,” helps make you accountable.
- Make Ammends. If you've done someone wrong, it's reasonable for that person to want you to make it right in some way. That includes saying, “I’m sorry,” and “I’ve hurt you.” Beyond that, though, you must do something to make up for your errors. That’s what restitution is about. It boils down to saying, “I know I can never undo what I did, but here’s what I plan to do going forward.” First, you must offer to make changes: make a commitment to stay faithful in the future; agree to transparency in the relationship; work on improving the marriage. Next, you may want to offer some form of gesture that is hand picked for your spouse, such as agreeing to visit your in-laws next weekend or bringing home a bouquet of roses. These offers are not trying to bribe your partner away from his or her convictions. Rather, they are offered as a means of saying, “I will put my heart and soul, and even my wallet, into our relationship because I realize you are that important to me.” No one promise, or one offering, can possibly compensate for all the pain you have caused your mate.
Once Kora understood what Sean needed, she realized that the reason he was holding on to his anger was because she never gave him the kind of apology that he deserved. It wasn’t easy for Kora to complete the three steps of apology; it took reflection and creativity to really be able to apply a name and a remedy to the choices she made. When her words of apology were complete, though, Sean’s felt like a pressure valve inside him was released. Is there still work to be done? Sure. But at least Sean and Kora feel like one big stumbling block—an apology—is out of the way.