I recently had an affair revealed in my office. The session prior had been difficult because I told the couple something they did not want to hear: they were stuck and they weren’t getting better. I referred them to a marriage intensive that I trust, to help them identify the deeper, unspoken emotional issues they had yet to face. Our next session surprised me, not because I was surprised about the affair, but because in my 5 years counseling, I’ve never actually witnessed the reveal. I’d yet to see the look in a husband’s eyes, watched him vacillate from his raw, heartbreaking sadness and hurt to loud and forceful anger. Watching him almost faint in his effort to quickly leave the room, and his weeping on the couch in an unused office… it broke my heart and, (a rarity for me) rendered me quite speechless.
And in those moments, I knew there was not much I could do or say to ease that pain—except to make sure everyone stayed safe and that they knew I was available when they were ready. I knew I would hear from them again; that his initial desire to file for divorce would likely change. I was correct, 2 days later he sent me an email saying he wanted to find a way to heal and save their marriage.
“So, now what?”
This is not an easy question to answer because the “Now what?” will be different for each couple. But I will do my best to give a basic outline* of what the “now what?” looks like for most folks who are healing after an affair:
- Sort out the chaos: figure out the logistics.
- Will you separate? If so, there should be a clear plan and “rules.” Work through visiting the kids and childcare if you have children. How much/what kinds of contact will you have with spouse? Preferably no physical intimacy.
- Cut off contact 100% with the “other” person. If you want to draft the “it’s over, I’m going to try and make my marriage work, please don’t contact me again” letter, that’s good. Just let your spouse see and approve before it’s sent.
- Who will you tell and not tell?Both spouses will need a healthy, loving, same-sex confidant during this time of grieve and processing.
- If you are not already in therapy, find a good marriage therapist with experience and training in affair recovery. I also suggest an individual therapist for each person as well.
- Recognize and accept that this will be a long journey.
- You will probably need to begin letting go of obligations that are not absolutely necessary in order to make time for therapy and reading as well as to make mental space for the emotional roller coaster you will be on for a while.
- You will begin having more good days, but there will be “bad/hard” days for a while.
- FYI: It will most likely take longer for the betrayed spouse to heal. This will require patience at times when the infidel is just ready to “move on.”
- Begin the process of understanding the message of the affair: “Why and how did this happen?”
- The “why” and “how” will be two very different answers, but both are important to understand. Your therapists will help you sort this out.
- Rebuilding trust
- This will take time. The infidel will lose privacy as a consequence, phone, email, etc. should all be accessible to partner. The infidel should take the stance of, “I have nothing to hide, so please, look at whatever you want.”
- Restructure/relearn intimacy
- First emotional, physical intimacy will come much later
- This will require changing the habits and patterns that led to the affair and break down of intimacy in the first place.
- The infidel must take full responsibility for his/her actions in engaging in an affair, but both spouses must take responsibility for the marital problems that led up to the affair.
* I used some information and language from a great book about recovering from extramarital affairs, Torn Asunder by Dave Carder. I highly recommend this book as part of your healing journey.
I wish you blessings on your long journey, friend. I can testify that is a road worth traveling; and when done well: with an open, honest heart and intentions, can ultimately result in a better, more intimate marriage than ever before.
~Lauren Dack, LMFT, LPC
Lauren is a Counselor and marriage therapist at Simplified Life Solutions in Atlanta, GA. She can be reached at www.laurendack.com