For couples an extramarital affair is one of the most difficult relationship experiences to recover from. Emotionally injured partners often have symptoms consistent with depression and acute-stress. The injured partner will often experience shock, anger, humiliation, rejection, or sadness. Given that your partner will be understandably upset, how you approach your partner now and what you say can have a huge impact.
First of all, regardless of the situation, you must take full responsibility and be genuinely forthright. Blaming anyone else will only further mistrust and resentment. You must express in a respectful way honest remorse and demonstrate you care about the injury caused.
So how do you do this when you are feeling guilty and ashamed and they are shocked and upset? First, consider timing. Talk about it if they are ready to. Finding a good time and place to talk privately, away from children (if any) is critical. You may need to also take some time to really think through why you did what you did. Decide with your partner when you will talk fully about what occurred.
It is important your partner know how this happened and what happened. Offer to answer any questions your partner may have. Be sensitive to your partner’s reactions; be sure not to tell them more than they are ready to hear. Even if your partner demands to know every detail, the nitty-gritty details may not be necessary and in fact could injure your partner more. Once your partner hears the story behind the infidelity, they may have continuous intrusive thoughts about it initially. However, you do need to answer questions and be honest so that you can begin to rebuild trust.
A critical key to your success during this conversation will be your ability to not be defensive. To do this, you need to focus on your partner’s feelings and have empathy for what they are going through. Communication skills to use at this time are reflective listening, validation, and empathy. Allow your partner to talk about their feelings and reflect back what you are hearing them say. Next you need to validate and empathize with them.
Recovery and forgiveness only come through careful discussion and reconnection. Ask your partner what they need. Make sure you are checking in with them. Through out this process it’s very critical to never say: “Why can’t you just get past this? Or that again? Or I thought we were over this?” These types of comments are invalidating and will hurt your partner more. If you want to repair your relationship, you must expect that you may need to constantly reassure your partner that you are still willing to answer any and all questions as well as remain respectful and sensitive to their emotions. You must continue to take responsibility, accept blame, and utilize the communication skills mentioned above.
When I work with couples following an affair, I may recommend individual counseling in addition to couples counseling.
What to expect with couples counseling for an affair
I utilize a three-phase treatment approach to recovery from an affair that encourages both behavior change and new insight.
First deal with the impact of the affair: explore emotions, set new boundaries, ensure that you are both coping well.
Then we will understand how the affair came about and began to put together a plan for recovering trust and intimacy. Restoring emotional security is critical for forgiveness and moving on.
The third phase is focused on “moving on.” We’ll figure out if moving on means together or apart. It is a normal experience for the injured partner to struggle with hurt, anger, and fear of future betrayal. Together, we look at how personal beliefs about forgiveness relate to the ability to move on.
For couples who decide to stay together, interventions emphasize additional changes partners will need to undertake to strengthen your relationship. For couples who decide to move on apart, we look at how to do that in the least hurtful way – particularly to the children.
For couples, an affair is often one of the most difficult relationship experiences to try and recover. Couples counseling can help you figure out how to move on, recover and possibly flourish following this crisis.