An affair doesn’t have to necessarily result in the end of the marriage. Many couples do recover from an affair and go on to have a relationship that is significantly stronger and more satisfying than before. Affair recovery is a process, and while it varies from couple to couple there are a few key steps that many couples find helpful to move through in order to successfully deal with what has happened and to make decisions about the future of their relationship.
1. Recognize that you are dealing with a traumatic experience and find ways to manage painful emotions. Overwhelming feelings of shock, anguish, confusion, and anger are common experiences when an affair has been discovered. These emotions can flood you to the point that you can’t think clearly and might behave erratically. Self-care at this time is extremely important. If possible elicit support from a family member or friend. Take time off of work if needed. Remember that the initial feelings you experience will evolve over time, and it’s therefore important not to make rash decisions about what action to take.
2. Develop boundaries and guidelines to prevent further damage. Come up with some initial basic rules governing what each of you will do in the early days after the affair is uncovered. This may include decisions about whether or not you need physical space from each other (which may be temporary), guidelines around disclosure of the affair to other people, and how to appropriately manage communication with children. It is important to discuss what boundaries each of you need from each other and how to handle contact with the person you or your spouse had the affair with. The purpose of this step is to allow for self-care as well as to provide a basic framework to begin the work required for figuring out what to do next.
3. Reach a mutual understanding of what happened during the affair, how it came about, and the impact to both parties. This is one of the most important and difficult steps for couples. In order for affair recovery to be successful the person who had the affair needs to fully disclose the details of the affair as well as allow his or her spouse to communicate the impact it had on them. Disclosure should include who the affair was with, how it was started and carried out, and the level of emotional and sexual involvement. While it’s not recommended that the sexual details of the affair be discussed in vivid detail it is important that a discussion take place about the potential for STDs and pregnancy.
If a couple has interest in trying to save the marriage it is crucial that the person who participated in the affair not only come clean about the details of what happened but also that they accept 100% accountability for the choice that they made to exit their relationship.
4. Explore and understand the personal and relationship vulnerabilities that led to the affair. This is the step that allows a couple to reach a mutual understanding of what contributed to the affair and to explore whether or not they feel that saving the marriage is possible. While it is true that the partner who had the affair should accept full accountability for being unfaithful it is still important that their partner be willing to honestly explore the role that they played in contributing to the state of their marriage. The focus of this discussion is not about blame, but instead about personal or relationship issues that might have made someone more vulnerable to straying from their marriage. Forgiveness is also an important part of this step for many couples. Forgiveness does not mean that the betrayed partner reaches the conclusion that the actions of their spouse were justified. Instead it is a decision to let go of the hurt and anger and a willingness to work on rebuilding trust and the continuation of the relationship.
5. Reach an explicit plan for how to move forward. Couples at this stage make decisions about whether or not they plan on rebuilding the marriage or to separate either temporarily or permanently. Spouses should talk about the specific problems in their marriage that need more improvement, boundaries with the opposite sex moving forward, and expectations around communication and how to raise warning flags early on.
A counselor who is experienced in affair recovery can be a significant asset to couples during this time of crisis. There is hope after an affair, reach out and ask for help if you need guidance and support.