Perhaps you’ve never gone through an affair in your marriage. Or perhaps you have. Have you ever felt the gut wrenching kick to your heart, or spent sleepless nights wondering where he is or what he’s doing? Or maybe you’re completely numb and not feeling anything anymore…
There is nothing quite like the pain of betrayal.
But life doesn’t end there.
Even if it feels like it should.
So how do you move on?
Slowly and carefully and painfully and deeply. I would really recommend that if something this major happens to your marriage that you seek professional help from a therapist. But, I also know that life happens and sometimes therapy is not an option, so here are some ideas that I pray will give you some help and hope.
I hope this will help even if you’ve never experienced the bombshell of discovering an affair because at some level we have all experienced some kind of betrayal in our relationship – even just at the level of our spouse letting us down on some issue that is not at all adulterous. So translate the word ‘betrayal’ for ‘affair’ if that suits your situation better. Also, translate ‘him’ for ‘her’ (or ‘wife’ for ‘husband’) if that reflects your world too because I know that it’s not only men that betray – I’m female, so I’ll be writing from my gender’s point of view.
If you’ve been betrayed by an affair, it is your choice what you want to do with your marriage. Your husband has broken his marriage vows. For now, I’m going to assume that you both want to recover your marriage and create a stronger, better future relationship.
And have hope, because often the “post-affair” marriage is sweeter and stronger and closer than the marriage ever was before!
If this is you – you’ve been hurt so severely, but want to recover your marriage – there are three stages that you’ll need to go through.[i]
Stage 1: The Emotional Impact of the Affair
The emotional impact of an affair is absolutely devastating. Give yourself permission to feel the feelings that come up. Don’t try to stuff them or cover them up. You have every right to feel what you’re feeling. Try to identify what you’re feeling and even where you’re feeling it so you can communicate what you feel to your spouse. Again, get professional help if you can, to help you work through the impact of your situation.
Another factor at this stage – more practical than emotional, is if you both want to work through what has happened in your marriage, then the affair relationship must stop!
Husband – this may mean grieving the loss of that relationship (but don’t expect much empathy here…) and then taking steps to ensure it does NOT start again. Let your extramarital partner know that you are committed to working on your marriage and to do that you must END the relationship and have no further contact.
But back to feelings.
As a couple, one of the first things you’ll be dealing with is the overwhelming feelings generated by the affair. They’re going to be intense. There’s going to be anger and betrayal and shock and hopelessness. It’s going to feel like a black hole that you can’t get out of.
Try to express these feelings to your husband. Let him know how his actions made you feel. He caused it, he deserves to know about it. Now, this is not the time to have a screaming rant at your husband. It’s a lot easier for him to embrace a wounded woman who has been hurt beyond imagination than a woman attacking him. You need to express these feelings in a way he can accept them, and then he needs to acknowledge and validate them.
Husband – this is NOT the time to be defensive or to minimize. Hear how your wife really feels and support her in those feelings.
These discussions need to be limited to finite periods of time that you purposefully set aside – a continual hashing and rehashing is not useful. Take specific times to sit down and discuss these feelings; first the wife, then the husband. This will help you both to clarify and understand each other more.
What Do I Need to Know About the Affair?
Please ladies, don’t go into “fact-finding” mode. It’s easier to talk about facts than feelings – I get that. But the endless search for facts just keeps you away from the harder and more helpful work of talking about your feelings.
What is helpful to know is the following:
- Who the extramarital partner was;
- How long the affair lasted;
- How often they met, and
- Where they met.
Beyond that, it becomes voyeuristic detail and may just create memories and images that are almost impossible to erase from your mind. Knowing more is NOT going to help.
When you do get the urge to ask about facts, pause and ask yourself what you need at that point. Often there is a renewed need to know that your husband is committed to the marriage and that he still finds you loveable and attractive. Tell him that. Tell him what you need instead of comparing yourself and trying to see if you measure up to his ex-partner.
This is such an emotional stage of so much turmoil, but unfortunately cannot (or should not) be bypassed. If you find yourself struggling with anxiety or depression for an extended part of this stage, please go see your family doctor. You deserve it!
And one more thing, hubby: trust is rebuilt slowly. You blew it apart; you cannot reconstruct it as quickly as you would like to. Be patient.
Stage 2: Thinking Through the Affair
Once all your feelings have been largely processed and worked through, the affair will become less of an emotionally charged topic. Now begins the part where you work on the relationship. In all fairness, you will likely start this during the previous stage, but we’ll pull them apart for clarity.
Your task now is to make sense of what happened and try to identify the factors that lead to the affair. Perhaps some of these factors are only in your husband’s life and can be remedied. The hard part to swallow though is that often there was marital dysfunction present. As much as we hate to admit it, it takes two to create that dysfunction.
However, we need to note that nothing ever justifies an affair. No matter what is thrown at him, it is inexcusable for a man to go outside his marriage.
That being said, while it may anger you like crazy to consider that you had a role in this mess, denying it actually keeps you away from what you want – a sense of security and safety and renewed love. It’s a hard pill to swallow but there is, or was, some dynamic in your marriage that allowed the affair to happen. The affair is a symptom of that behaviour.
If you refuse to admit that you need to change anything, how will you ensure that your post-affair marriage will not be open to another affair? Obviously, something needs to change.
So, figure out what went wrong,
Share the responsibility for allowing the problems in your relationship to happen, and
Make the changes to ensure an affair doesn’t happen again.
Which leads us to the final stage:
Stage 3: Reconciliation, Recovery and Restructuring
Every marriage endures struggles; yours have just become particularly evident through the affair. Now that these struggles are visible to both of you, you both know what you’re working on and you can begin to rebuild. This may take from a few months to a couple of years.
This is often a phase of self-discovery where you begin to understand how your previous roles in the marriage are really rooted in your families of origin. Perhaps long-standing depression and/or anxiety will be recognized here as well and their role understood.
A key part of this stage though is the work of reconciling, which includes forgiveness. There are a number of aspects to this though.
First, you and your husband have to decide if you want to reconcile. You need to be overt and explicit about this. It has to be a real choice by both of you and, of course, safety has to be apart of this. Ask those difficult questions. Is it safe for you to have sex with your husband? Are there any STD’s now involved? Your husband needs to be able to commit to safeguards to ensure you that there is no personal risk for you in reconciling. Talking about these things is both practical and very necessary.
If you decide you do want to reconcile, then there needs to be a softening towards each other. Hopefully, this would flow from recognizing that you both created a marriage in which an affair was a possibility; you both realize your shared, flawed humanity. No lording it over your spouse, but a softness where defenses have been dropped and you’ve both made concessions toward each other.
At this point comes the hard part – forgiveness. And then holding on to it. When you’re ready, this is vital for your relationship to thrive again.
Finally, it’s time for rebuilding. There has been a downward cascade in the past that resulted in a huge crash. Now it is time to rebuild, to invest, to grow, to nourish the marriage by actively building love.
Trust and accountability are vital here.
Remember, things that may not have triggered any alarm for you before may do so now because an affair took place. Remind your husband of this. Failures in trustworthiness are inevitable, but it doesn’t mean this stage has failed. Use these falls as a growth opportunity to practice forgiveness.
Use this stage in your relationship as a time to build and enhance intimacy. Again, often the post-affair marriage is sweeter and more intimate than the marriage ever was before – so take hope!
Realize that this is a months-long, or even years-long, process, summed up in a short article, so be kind to yourself. Know that there is hope, and your marriage CAN overcome this if you are both 100% committed to recovering your relationship. But also remember, that an affair is an incredibly traumatic event which wounds to the core. Take the time you need. Sort through your feelings. Get help if you can.
[i] Gerald Weeks and Stephen Treat, Couples in Treatment, 2 edition (Philadelphia, PA: Routledge, 2001).