When infidelity within your marriage is exposed, it hits like cascading waves of emotional shock. Disbelief and betrayal become overwhelming. Everything you believed about yourself, your partner and your relationship is gone in one second. You watch helplessly as your world collapses around you. Everything you knew, depended on and felt secure in is suddenly and devastatingly gone. Of all the questions you face in this overwhelmed state, the most difficult may be about future. “What next? Is our marriage over? How do we rebuild? Are we willing to go through marriage counselling? Can trust ever become a part of our relationship again?
Not all affairs need to end with divorce; some can be saved with marriage counselling
While some couples do not survive the trauma of an affair, it’s important to know that divorce is not inevitable, and many couples do recover. But it’s a tricky and often painful road. You will both experience intense emotions of betrayal, guilt shame and confusion, and your emotions are inevitably on a collision course with those of your partner.
If you are the betrayed partner you probably feel the need to know details. “Who? Where? For how long? How many times? Was there love involved? Why?” The list of questions is really endless. Being allowed to ask these questions and hear answers, is an essential part of the trust rebuilding process.
From your perspective, your partner has walled off a private world to which you have had no knowledge off or access to. Because the unfaithfulness took place in this secret world, you feel compelled to get details. Somehow, the insatiable hunger for information, driven by hurt and fear, seems like the only path to rediscovering some form of security. And to be sure, gaining knowledge of this newly discovered world is an essential piece of rebuilding a devastated relationship.
If you were the one involved in the affair, the experience, while just as devastating, is quite different. Particularly if there is a desire to end the affair and save the marriage, you are likely to never want to think or talk about the matter again. Doing so brings on such a sense of overwhelm, it seems too much to survive. During one marriage counselling session, a client told me that talking about the affair made him feel like he was being held under water, unable to breathe. And there-in lies the collision course; what the betrayed partner needs for mere survival, the guilty party is compelled to avoid at all cost.
In the midst of this impending collision, rebuilding a relationship will mean finding a way to honour one another’s respective needs even while they seem irreconcilable. There are a few strategies that make successful navigation of this minefield possible.
- First, try to take intense emotion out of your conversation. To be certain, there will be lots of emotion, and it will be important to express it. But if it’s done in an escalated manner there will be damaging fallout, and healing becomes unlikely. If you notice things heating up, take a break and come back to it later.
- Set specific times & limits to talk about the affair and then live within them. This gives the involved partner assurance that it’s not going to be “all the time” and that they won’t feel “blindsided”. At the same time, the betrayed partner has the assurance that there will be opportunities to talk about their feelings and ask questions.
- Get help. Recovering from an affair is a profoundly complex process. All of your strengths seem tapped out while your weaknesses are exposed and highlighted. Having an experienced and skilled marriage counsellor to help develop skills and rebuild trust can make the difference between successfully rebuilding a marriage, and divorce.
If your relationship has suffered an affair, you are facing some hard work. If you have decided to heal the damage, and to work at rebuilding your marriage, it will be about re-establishing trust and redefining your relationship. Seek out qualified marriage counselling. If you have decided to face ending your marriage, it will be about grieving your past and redefining your self. Either way there’s hope for recovery.