My wife Marian and I just returned from what we like to call a “spoil me” vacation. It’s one of those trips where we check in to a resort, (our favorite is the JW Marriott Camelback in Paradise Valley, Arizona) and have nothing on the agenda except rest, relaxation, fine cuisine, and massages at the spa. We also do light workouts everyday and go for walks in the surrounding neighborhood gazing at homes that we dream of living in, but are way out of our price range! It is a week where we not only replenish ourselves, but we also have extended time to fill our marital tank.
Personally, I find these times to be so beneficial because we have uninterrupted time to talk more on an intimate level, check-in with each other, track our dreams, and simply have fun being silly and playful! Making regular deposits in your marriage whether large (spoil me vacation) or small (cup of coffee at Starbucks) is essential in building a relationship that endures the challenges of a busy life. Moreover, these investments also build security in the marriage placing it at less risk for infidelity.
In last month’s edition of the newsletter (which you can read online at our website) I wrote part one of “Before & After the Affair”, focusing on “before the affair”. Specifically in this article I highlighted conditions that place relationships at risk for infidelity. I won’t review these factors, you can read the article at your leisure. What I would like to cover in part two is what happens after an affair. In particular, I want to examine the effect of the affair on both partners, highlighting similarities and contrasting differences in experience. Finally, I will walk you through some of the likely scenarios that follow an affair. Specifically, I will address what takes place when a couple decides they want to try to reconcile the relationship and what potential outcomes they may encounter.
After The Affair Is Discovered
The initial impact on a marriage after an affair has been discovered is sheer devastation for both partners, more so for the injured spouse than the involved spouse. Let’s take a look at the effects these partners experience some which are similar, yet others that are dissimilar. Keep in mind that in the early stage of the disclosure the full impact of the devastation is not felt. It is much akin to experiencing a natural disaster. Survival instincts will likely kick in and the individuals might minimize the damage initially to manage the intensity of the situation.
Effect on Both Partners
Profound loss of security in the marital bond
The sense of having a secure base in the marriage is suddenly missing. Trust has been breached by betrayal. The foundation of the marriage is suddenly unstable. Both partners are reeling from the effects of the severed bond.
Alarming fears about the status of the marriage
Suddenly everything in the home is stained by the effects of the affair. Rooms, pictures, and people look different. Will this all change? Can we survive?
Tendency to act quickly to minimize the damage
In order to cope with the devastation one or both partners will act in a manner that lessens the intensity of the situation. Extreme attempts to reestablish the security are made. Couples may engage in sex, go on dates, etc…
Emotional pain that feels intolerable at times
Gradually as the reality sets in the emotions intensify. The injured spouse goes through waves of anger, sadness, and fear. The involved spouse also feels intense feelings of guilt, shame, and in some cases anger too. This anger is self-directed, but may also be at the spouse for reasons that were unaddressed previously in the marriage.
Massive breakdown in communication
As emotions intensify the communication in the marriage degenerates to outbursts of anger, further accusations and threats about the future of the marriage. A couple that could normally resolve their differences now have a hard time being in the same room together.
Difficulty in managing daily routines
After an affair is discovered the normal rhythm of life is over. Daily routines are difficult to manage because the base of security in the marriage is shaken. Couples often report that they feel like zombies, completely numb as they attempt to navigate relatively normal tasks of work, household responsibilities, raising kids, and socializing with family and friends.
Effect On The Injured Spouse
Traumatic aftershocks of the event
What is uniquely troublesome for the injured spouse is the re-traumatization that occurs over the course of the next year when something triggers the event. When this occurs the injured spouse feels catapulted back to the initial discovery of the affair. These aftershocks are common and challenging for couples to manage. It can muddle their perception of progress toward recovery.
Plaguing thoughts about the nature of the affair
Injured spouses are plagued with thoughts and questions about the nature of the affair. They have a litany of why questions. In particular, they want to know what was wrong in the marriage. Injured spouses also may wonder about the details of the affair, the level of intimacy, frequency and type of sex, where the affair happened, locations, frequency, etc… At the point when they think they have all their questions answered a new list appears in their mind and the process begins all over again.
Intense feelings of anxiety and mistrust toward the spouse
When a breach of trust occurs an injured spouse can no longer look at her partner the same way. They feel threatened in the marriage and worry if their spouse is still in the affair or they may be concerned it will happen again. Their anxiety may lead them to monitor their spouse’s behavior, interrogate them before the leave home and again when they return. The injured spouse hates being in this position and may become more angry at their partner.
Tormenting thoughts about the affair partner
One of the most troublesome effects on the injured spouse is the mental comparisons they go through ritually. They want to know what the affair partner had that attracted their spouse. Inwardly they struggle with fears of how they measure up against the affair partner. These thoughts and questions torment them daily, throughout the day until they are able to work through their feelings of betrayal and experience repair of the emotional wound inflicted by their spouse.
Enormous pressure in deciding how to move forward and the impact on children (if present in the marriage)
Not only do injured spouses have to contend with the effects of the affair in their personal life, now they have to make decisions going forward that not only impact them but their children as well. This additional burden places enormous pressure on the injured spouse. In some cases they may want to leave the marriage but are worried about the impact on the children. Consequently, they are left with the pain of betrayal on top of the sense of being stuck in a marriage with someone you don’t want to be with any longer.
Effect On The Involved Spouse
Myriad of feelings about the disclosure of the affair
Involved spouses also contend with a myriad of intense feelings following the disclosure of an affair. For many there is a profound sense of failure punctuated by feelings of guilt, shame and anger toward self. There may also be a sense of relief that they no longer have to live in secrecy. For some feelings of anger exist toward the injured spouse for matters they rationalize led to the affair. In any case, the involved spouse is conflicted and confused.
Confusion about how to manage the situation
Involved spouses are in unchartered waters when it comes to how to manage the situation. They may want to begin the repair process right away and engage their partner with assurances of dedication to the marriage. Others may continue to have feelings for the affair partner and are confused about where they want to be. Either way, the involved spouse is unsure of how to handle the situation without making it worse.
Deep concern about the effect of the affair on spouse and others
involved spouses feel deep concern about the effect of their behavior on others. This begins with their injured spouse who they see emotionally devastated by the affair and struggling to cope. They also worry about the effect on their children, extended family members and friends. Involved spouses know they have not only hurt their spouse but many other valued relationships. Finally, some involved spouses worry about the effect of the discovery on the affair partner. These compounded worries may cause the involved person to become overwhelmed, anxious, and depressed.
Fears about the future
The ripple effect of a discovered affair can be widespread. No doubt it is a game-changer! Not only is the marriage at a high risk for divorce, but this can also damage the entire family and impair relationships going forward. All mutual social relationships are impacted by the affair leaving family and friends to choose who to support. Work can also be adversely impacted. If the affair happened at the involved person’s place of employment it may jeopardize their job going forward, particularly if the person is trying to repair the marriage.
After The Affair Is Discovered
According to statistics, about 70% of couples affected by infidelity choose to stay together and work toward rebuilding their marriage. Almost half of these couples actually construct a marriage that is healthier and more intimate than it was prior to the affair. This demonstrates that couples can recover from an affair. I have found this to be true in many of the cases I have been involved in with couples who come to see me after an affair has been discovered or disclosed.
When I assess a couple for counseling to recover from an affair I examine their feet. Well, not literally. Figuratively speaking I want to know if they have both feet, one foot, or no feet left in the marriage. This will determine the course of therapy. If one or both of the spouses have no feet left in the relationship then we may work toward a dignified dissolution of the marriage. I can’t repair a marriage where one or both partners is finished. At this stage I recommend we find some respectful way to end the marriage so that they don’t end up in a blood war in divorce court.
If I detect that a partner has one foot in the marriage and the other out I may ask them to help me understand what might need to happen before they can consider bringing the other foot back in the marriage. There response will help inform me on how to proceed in the treatment plan for marital recovery. It will also serve notice to their partner what they may need to work on in order to give the ambivalent spouse a reason to bring both feet into the marriage.
For those couples who have both feet in marital recovery I have a strong sense we can succeed and bring an outcome that exceeded the quality of marriage prior to the affair. The key here is an openness on both parties to look not just at the affair, but also how the relationship functioned prior to the incident. This does not suggest in any way that the involved partner has an excuse for their behavior. There are no excuses for a person to betray a spouse in this manner. However, it does explain some of the conditions in the marriage that put it at risk for an affair.
Here is a summary of my treatment approach with couples following an affair. Each of these steps is an involved process that takes time. I find that spouses in recovery exhibit a dissimilar pace. The involved spouse is eager to get repair on the way and may experience the benefits of recovery more quickly. This is in part due to the fact they no longer have to live in secrecy. Furthermore, they may have more clarity on their marriage and want to attach to their spouse. Additionally, they may have less residual effects of the affair to contend with now that they see their partner is willing to engage in repair.
The injured spouse’s pace is much slower due to the severity of the wound, the breach of trust, and the re-traumatization they experience on the road to recovery. Consequently, involved spouses need to be aware of the disparity in pace of recovery and adjust to the speed of the injured spouse.
Repairing the marital wound
This involves the establishment of a pattern of addressing the emotional pain of the injured spouse, validating feelings, expressing remorse, and offering reassurance of fidelity in the marriage going forward. This is an ongoing process that over time serves to heal the wound and restore the marital bond.
Rebuilding the trust
Rebuilding trust is a reciprocal process begun by the involved spouse conveyed in words and congruent in actions of commitment to honor and love the injured spouse. In response to the involved spouse’s commitment to acting in a trustworthy manner, the injured spouse begins to slowly and methodically convey trust toward the partner. This process happens over a period of time and is strengthen by the congruent actions of the involved spouse. I give the following formula to couples rebuilding trust: Trust = Behavior over Time.
Restoring the intimacy
As the wound heals and trust rebuilds couples are in a position to restore intimacy in the marriage. This is a delicate process that happens at the pace of the injured spouse. Consideration is given in how to handle re-traumatization triggers that may occur in lovemaking scenarios.
I have offered a brief summary of the process of recovery after an affair. Truthfully, I can write an entire book on the process. However, before I conclude this article I want you to know that I have personally witnessed couples come through very difficult circumstances surrounding an affair and end up with relationships that exceeded their comprehension. Recovery after an affair in some, not all cases is possible.