Does an affair mean the end of my relationship? Betrayal runs deep. Can I ever recover from this infidelity?
Here are five steps that I’ve seen couples use, not only to recover, but to discover a whole new relationship beyond the crisis of an affair.
1. Agree that it was an affair
You can’t even begin to move forward if someone is denying that what they did was cheating.
How do you define cheating or “an affair”?
In our digital age, the definition of cheating is expanding.
When experts are asked what percentage of people cheat,they say somewhere between 26% and 75% depending on how you define cheating.
Is it cheating to engage in sexting? hooking up? a one night stand? secretly going on dating websites? watching pornography? or…?
Whatever your belief is, the definition of infidelity is expanding today.
Esther Perel says that infidelity consists of three elements.
(1) A secretive relationship – which is the core structure of an affair.
(2) An emotional connection – to one degree or another.
(3) A sexual alchemy – based on fantasy.
Here’s my definition:
Infidelity is any emotional intimacy or sexual activity outside your relationship that causes your partner to feel that trust has been violated.
If you want to repair your relationship, you must start by validating your partner’s feelings, even if you don’t fully agree with their definition.
So, step one, agree that it was infidelity. Or at least validate your partner’s feeling of betrayal.
2. Let your partner know what the affair did to you.
I’m talking about letting your partner know the depth of your pain.
You gotta unpack what this impropriety did to you. You can’t just keep it all inside. You have to let it out.
And it must be expressed in a safe conversation, where you feel heard and validated. If the conversation is not safe it will not work.
And the person who needs to hear it is the one who hurt you.
Jim and Cheryl’s relationship was devastated after Cheryl had a “one night stand” with a man she met in a bar.
I suggested that Jim let Cheryl know what this did to him in a structured couples dialogue.
He said to Cheryl, “I feel like everything I value as a man has been ripped out from under me. I thought we were lovers and partners parenting our children. I thought we were best friends.
“And now I don’t even know who you are or what ‘we’ are.
“I felt like I was your ‘only one’ forever, and that I was irreplaceable, and that I could confide in you, and tell you all my secrets, and have you tell me yours. Now I realize like none of that is true.”
Cheryl was able to mirror these painful statements back to Jim without feeling judged. And this enabled her to validate his feelings, and empathize with him in the deep pain of betrayal.
The key was “without being judged”. This made the conversation safe so that Cheryl could empathize and feel the pain Jim was experiencing.
That’s when the healing process began.
3. Listen to what the affair meant to your partner.
Just as your partner needs to see what the cheating did to you, you’ll need to know what it meant to him.
Was it love? Is he better in bed than I am? Does it mean I’m not enough? What did this person give you that I could not?
Things like that.
So after Jim had shared with Cheryl what her unfaithfulness did to him, we switched roles and Cheryl told Jim what the affair meant to her.
“For most of our marriage I have not really felt like a wife, but more like a child. I know you mean well, but from the very beginning, you’ve taken charge in a way that feels more like my father than like a husband.”
Cheryl went on explaining how she always had to do what was expected of her and be a “good girl”.
This was how she grew up and this is what she brought into her marriage.
She felt like she was never able to break out of the constraints and find who she really was.
It became clear that her affair was about the freedom she never had.
She said, “For that moment, I felt alive again like I haven’t felt in years.”
As painful as that was for Jim to hear, he was able to empathize with Cheryl.
He began to see that she wasn’t turning away from him. She was turning away from the person she had become.
She wasn’t looking for another person. She was looking for another self.
For years she stuffed the anxiety, loneliness, and isolation she felt within her. But one night after a few drinks, it all came out, driving her to do something she never imagined she would do.
As Jim listened over a period of weeks, and continued to mirror Cheryl’s feelings, there was a slow shift in his heart.
Instead of seeing her as someone trying to hurt him, he saw her as someone who was hurting.
Jim said something like this (I can’t remember exactly, so I might be embellishing a bit, but it went something like this).
“I don’t justify what you did. And I don’t minimize the pain it has caused me. But now that I see you, it makes sense how this would happen.”
Before this step, Jim declared that he could never forgive Cheryl for what she had done.
But at this point, forgiveness came. Forgiveness came as Jim experienced tremendous empathy and compassion for Cheryl.
4. Acknowledge that you both have been having an “affair”.
We tend to want to label the “victim” the good spouse and the “cheater” the bad spouse.
But the reality is
Both spouses are guilty of taking “exits” from the relationship.
An exit happens whenever we look to something outside the relationship to meet a need that should be met inside the relationship.
One partner may be having an affair with a person. And of course this is socially unacceptable and emotionally threatening.
But the other partner, who is not having an affair with a person, is having an affair with something. Could be the children. Could be the career. Could be the internet. Could be a hobby.
Affairs happen when couples collude to manage their intimacy outside the relationship because it’s not safe inside the relationship.
They stop using the relationship as intimacy’s primary expression because it’s too dangerous. Because the relationship is not safe enough, they go outside the relationship.
The one who had an affair with a person has done damage in the social context, but the one who takes a relatively “innocent” exit has also done damage by leaving the relationship.
For years, whenever Jim would feel the unconscious anxiety of his disconnection from Cheryl, he would turn to nights out with his guy friends.
And although he never crossed a line, he admitted that he’d often fantasized about it. He also admitted that in times of frustration, when Cheryl pulled away from him, he had turned to pornography.
My dear reader, this is so typical!
Whenever a couple is not living in a safe, stable and secure connection, both partners will become guilty of an “affair”.
Whether this affair is with a person or not, it drains the relationship of energy that should be put into the relationship.
So, not only did Cheryl commit to “close the exits”, Jim did as well.
Having understood what the affair did to Jim and what it meant to Cheryl, they made a commitment to take the energy they previously expelled through various activities outside the relationship and turn it toward the relationship.
How? By “closing the exits”.
There’s a final step that will help you move from healing into an entirely new relationship.
5. Turn “crisis” into “opportunity”
For some couples an affair is the last “nail in the coffin” of a marriage that was already dead.
But for others,
The affair is a crisis that opens up new possibilities.
For Cheryl, it was an opportunity for her to say, “I love you Jim, and want to be with you. But I do not want the relationship I’ve had with you.”
For Jim, it was an opportunity to hear that, and be open to changes that he would have never been open to before.
They shared their dreams with each other as they worked on their “relationship vision” together.
And as they envisioned the relationship they always wanted, they were now more than willing to give up all the “exits” that would prevent them from living this dream together.
For Jim and Cheryl the affair was an opportunity to ditch the status quo that really wasn’t working well for either of them, and to enter into a whole new relationship.
As a result, over time, they discovered a relationship that was far more intimate and exciting than they ever had before.
This is what you call turning crisis into opportunity.
Later, Jim and Cheryl shared an insight I want to pass on to you.
“When you’re finally getting the love you want from each other, you’ll be amazed at how trust is rebuilt and infidelity is inconceivable in our path forward.”
How about you today? Has your marriage been shattered by an affair? Take these steps and begin to turn the crisis into an unprecedented opportunity.
And I can help.
Do you know a marriage that has been shattered by an affair? Forward this blog to them.
And post your comments below. I’d love to hear from you!
Until next week!
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