Have you just discovered that your partner is having an affair and wonder what to do next?
I am sorry, I imagine you are in tremendous pain right now. Few things hurt worse than realizing that someone you love has had an emotional affair or physical affair. I bet you feel like your world is crashing around you and that life as you knew it is over. Hang in there. There's a lot that can be done to make things better and you can recover from this. In fact, you can have an even stronger relationship after an affair than you did before. There is hope.
Every day I talk to someone who is right where you are: they've discovered an affair or their spouse has discovered an affair and their relationship has taken a drastic turn for the worse. This issue is so common in my practice that I decided to make the following video. I hope you'll take a couple minutes to watch it and that it might give you some peace. I am happy to speak with you personally about your specific situation. Just reach out when you're ready. I'm here for you.
YouTube Video: Orange County Marriage Counseling - Q&A with Dr K - My husband just had an affair, now what?
Let me share with you the 10 things I think you need to know to get you started on repairing your relationship. If you have any questions or need further help, please don't hesitate to contact me personally at firstname.lastname@example.org. I look forward to helping you.
Affair Recovery: 10 Things You Need to Know
An affair does not mean your partner does not love you or that your relationship is over.
Affairs usually happen because one of the partners has some unmet emotional need. A need arises, the partner will typically mention it to their spouse repeatedly, the need continues to go unmet, and the partner decides it is best to look outside the relationship for someone to meet the need instead of asking the spouse. What is interesting is that the "affair partner" usually only meets one or two emotional needs, while the spouse continues to meet the rest of them. So it's as if the unfaithful spouse only gets 10% of what they need from the affair, far less than the 90% that is met by their spouse. Yet, deprivation of that 10% is so important that it drives a person to find someone to help him/her meet those needs. We need to understand what the 10% is and make sure it is addressed in the marriage.
Trust must be gradually and slowly rebuilt.
Once an affair is disclosed or discovered, the faithful spouse typically finds it very difficult to trust their partner at all. The affair has likely rocked the faithful spouse to the core; many find themselves wondering if they can trust anything they thought they knew about their partner. So it would be unreasonable for an unfaithful spouse to expect to be fully trusted; faithful spouses need time to grieve and time to learn that they can trust you again. Trust is earned and after an affair, the best way for trust to be rebuilt is to keep no secrets and make your life an open book. I have found that couples who recover from affairs the fastest are (1) open to allowing their spouse to have total access to their lives and communication devices, and (2) open to discussing and explaining communication anomalies. As such, I believe that unfaithful spouses should allow their partners to monitor their phone calls, their emails, their mail…at least for a while. All of us have a desire for privacy, but if you've had an affair, you need to let go of your privacy needs for a while in order to allow your spouse to come to know that you have truly ended your affair.
One of you will go through a grieving process; the other will go through a withdrawal process.
When faithful spouses learn their partner has had an affair, they usually feel sickened and shocked. After the shock has worn off, anger and profound hurt set in. The process of grieving has been broken down into five steps: Denial, Anger, Bargaining, Depression, Acceptance. If you have just learned that your spouse has had an affair, it's likely that you will go through all six of these stages. You will need additional emotional support during this time, so it is important to find a close friend, of the same sex, to whom you can talk to about your feelings. If you have just ended an affair, it is likely that you will go through a parallel process where you experience "withdrawal" symptoms. Much like one who has just stopped drinking or stopped doing any pleasurable activity, you may experience anxiety, cravings and discomfort. This is normal and to be expected. Many people find it advantageous to talk to their MD about taking some medication to help them cope with these withdrawal symptoms. You will need additional emotional support during this time, so it is important to find a close friend, of the same sex, to whom you can talk to about your feelings. For both of you: It will take time for you to heal from an affair - 6 months is often the minimum.
You can't get better while anyone else is involved in your relationship.
In order to start getting recovering from an affair, you need to do two things: (1) lay all of your cards on the table, and (2) stop all communication with the "affair partner." Once an affair is discovered, both of you will feel hurt, upset, and somewhat numb. The worst thing that could happen at this point would be for any other bombs to be dropped on the relationship. It is for this reason that I suggest absolutely no contact with the affair partner. There may be some cases where this is impossible, but to the greatest extent possible, eliminate any and all contact with the affair partner. You also need to be open and honest about what happened in the affair and what led up to the affair. These items should be discussed with great care and sensitivity. Many people ask me, "Kathy, can't we just skip over those details? Won't those details just hurt her more?" The answer is no. I have found that people's own imaginations of what might have happened during an affair to be far more hurtful than hearing what really happened.
Expect the road to be bumpy.
The road to recovery is not easy or fast or particularly comfortable. Real recovery is slow and sometimes stumbles. There can even be spots where things seem to get worse. The overall trend should be positive. Before I mentioned that there are several stages each one of you will go through on your path to healing. In my experience, it takes 1-2 months per stage, so this puts you on track for recovering from an affair within 6-12 months.
Your old relationship doesn't live there any more.
Many people will ask me, "Can't we just forgive and forget?" Others ask me, "How do we get back to the way things were?" Unfortunately, the answer to both questions is that it's not possible. It's not possible to just forgive and forget, emotions don't work like that and they don't turn on a dime. Real healing takes the slow build-up of trust and the experience, over a long period of time, that you are again a safe, secure, and comfortable person for your spouse to lean on. As for getting back to the way things were, we need to remember that your affair happened because of they way things were, so we don't really want to get back to that place. Rather, we need to closely look at what was missing from the relationship before that caused you (or your partner) to go outside the relationship for comfort and support from someone else.
Drill down on your emotions.
I've met many couples that come through counseling after an affair having a stronger marriage than they did before. The reason for this is that they took the time to really drill down on their emotions and look for the reasons and unmet needs that prompted them to turn away from their spouse and find someone else. If you're recovering from an affair, it's key that you take some time to think about the following key questions and find a gentle way to share this information with your spouse:
How were you feeling in the marriage before the affair?
What do you think your relationship was missing?
What did you get out of having an affair?
What made it difficult to turn towards your spouse and talk about what you were missing?
What do you really want and need from your partner in order to feel comfortable, safe, and loved?
Manage your anxiety and talk about the relationship once a week.
It has been said that one of the best things for partners in distress to do is to learn how to manage their own anxiety. Simply put: discussing your relationship day in and day out is a sure-fire way to bring more stress into the relationship. Most men have a very hard time recovering from relationship discussions, so having a daily chat about your union will keep men in an uncomfortable place. The goal is for each of you to feel safe, comfortable, and secure, so we need to create an environment that fosters these feelings. I recommend couples do two things: (1) manage their own individual anxiety by writing in a journal, taking a yoga class, and/or doing something that reduces stress, like going for a walk, and (2) have a "state of the union" talk once per week. In this talk, which should be during a low-stress time, such as a weekend afternoon, I'd like the two of you to sit down in a comfortable place and talk about how you've been feeling about the relationship. Each person should be allotted 20-30 minutes to talk about what they've been feeling, with the other one listening, making eye contact, taking notes, and focusing on giving the other spouse support and reassurance. Remember that your goal is to soothe your spouse, not put on your best defense. Don't worry about defending yourself, just listen and try to connect with the emotions that your partner is sharing.
Talk daily about each other's day; talk weekly about your relationship.
As I mentioned above, relationship talks are usually quite stressful for both partners. As such, I like to start couples with the idea that everyday is for everyday talk; relationship talk is something you should only do once a week. This is a goal, not a rule…so if you need to talk more, go ahead. But in my experience, most couples have better, more productive talks when they think about how they're feeling each week and then choose which items to share in their State of the Union talk. Every day, you need to carve out time to talk to your partner about their day, their thoughts, their feelings, their fears. Again, anything and everything can be talked about, except the relationship.
Listen for emotional language; Follow the emotions
The most important thing to talk about, and listen for, is emotional language. Emotional language sounds like "I felt so scared…," where scared and fearful is the emotion. It can also sound like, "When I heard about that, I was so angry…," where the emotional word was angry, letting you know your partner is hurt and angry. Try to really listen for these emotional clues. When you hear an emotional word, make a note of it and follow the emotion. Reassure your partner and ask for more detail by saying, "I heard you say you were so angry, I am so sorry you felt that way, can you help me understand why?" As you follow the emotions, your goal is to acknowledge the emotion, express some sympathy, ask for clarification, and then give true and genuine reassurance to your partner.
Create shared meaning, goals, things to look forward to.
Once your relationship has stabilized a bit, it is important to reintroduce shared meaning. Shared meaning is a fancy way of saying things in common, shared experience, things to look forward to, or common goals. By establishing shared meaning and common goals, you reconnect to your spouse, you act as part of a team, and you reassure the other one by showing that they are important enough for you to make future life plans with. So as you are healing, start talking about where you'd like to be in 1, 5, 10 years; talk about what you'd like to do personally and professionally in the near future, make pans for a family trip, create a family project. Closeness breeds closeness, so get as close as you can to your spouse by intertwining your lives as much as possible.
Actively look for the good; find something to appreciate about the other one.
To speed up the healing of your relationship, actively look for the good. By this, I mean look for the good things in your life, the good ways you feel, the good behaviors of your spouse. Comment on these things and express some joy and gratitude. Too often when we are feeling badly, we only focus on the negative aspects of our relationships and our lives. Force yourself out of this pattern and into the practice of catching the other one in the act of doing something good. Also, wrap up each day by expressing some appreciation for the other one. I frequently ask my couples to start doing the Appreciation Exercise daily. The Appreciation Exercise is simply the act of telling your spouse, "Thank you for _____________________, I really appreciated that because __________________________." Each member of the couple should do this daily.
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