Having someone be unfaithful to you can be one of the most painful and humiliating experiences a person can have, but is it possible to transcend this hurt, heal your relationship and sometimes even go on to have a better relationship than you did before?
Prior to becoming a relationship counsellor, I would have thought it extremely difficult to overcome a betrayal of this kind; however, after years of couples counselling, I now know this is not true.
There are many reasons why someone might be unfaithful. They could fall in love/lust with someone else, they could have a low level of commitment to the relationship, they may be using an affair to exit the relationship, they may just like having sex with a variety of people, or they may have an affair as a result of dissatisfaction in the relationship.
Over the years, I have gleaned many pieces of wisdom from the people I have worked with and, as always, my counselling clients are very generous in giving their permission for me to share their wisdom. So below are some tips from the counselling room regarding relationship recovery after infidelity.
Allow time for forgiveness, and to listen to the hurt person’s pain.
One mistake that seems to occur regularly is that the person who has been unfaithful (the offending person) wants the other person (the hurt person) to forgive them and move on quickly. The desire for this seems to be more about the offending person’s level of discomfort rather than the needs of the hurt person. One reason they push for this quick forgiveness is because they seem to fear that they will never be forgiven and that their indiscretion will be used against them indefinitely.
Relationships recover more quickly when people listen often and genuinely to each other’s concerns, fears, and pain. The hurt person may need to cry and vent as part of their healing process. This is not an opportunity for the offending person to justify their position or explain why they were unfaithful, and it doesn’t seem to help when people blame their partner or their dissatisfaction in the relationship for their infidelity. For example, perhaps they haven’t had sex in their relationship for a long time, and they see this as a justification for seeking sex elsewhere. There will be time to talk about this later. What needs to happen now is that the hurt person needs to have their pain acknowledged. Even when people have felt justified in their decision to have an affair, I have never heard anyone say that they wanted to hurt their partner, and it is the hurt they have caused that needs to be acknowledged in a heartfelt way. Without this acknowledgment, things seem to become stuck in an endless cycle of blame and hurt.
Why ask why?
People often want to know why the infidelity happened. Fair enough but be careful about eliciting all the details. If you are the hurt person take time to understand your reasons for asking why? Sometimes people desire a certain response, and when it isn’t forthcoming, additional pain and betrayal can be caused.
Also, no reason is good enough. There is no possible response that will be satisfactory. One thing that does seem to help in this situation, though, is the offending person sharing with the hurt person that they know what went wrong. For example, when flirting was turning into something more, your partner needs to know that you recognise the signs that led you into this situation and that you will be more aware in the future if a similar situation starts to happen.
If there is ongoing contact between the unfaithful people, it usually doesn’t seem to allow for the healing process. For example, if your partner was unfaithful with your next-door neighbour or a work colleague, it would be difficult to move forward if this contact continued. In these cases, big changes might need to be made, such as selling your house and moving or changing jobs.
Having a child with another person as a result of an affair is obviously a painful and difficult situation to accept. I have, however, worked with two couples with whom this has been an issue, and although these families will have ongoing problems, they are trying very hard to make it work. Everyone involved acknowledges that the child involved should be protected as much as possible from their parents’ actions. I have to say that I found the people involved in these relationships to be remarkable. The qualities of love, care, compassion, and forgiveness were immense.
Everyone I spoke to felt that there has to be a time when the fear and punishment stop. At some point, the hurt person will have to consider trusting the offending person again.
Trust is something you give; it doesn’t seem possible to earn it in a situation like infidelity. Attempting to make up for it often leads to disappointment—the offending person cannot make up for it. They can, however, learn from their mistakes.
Trust is something that is given, and it is either honoured or dishonoured. Placing a whole lot of rules on the relationship or becoming an avid collector of evidence to support the hurt persons fears will not provide you with the relationship you want. You really have no control over the other person’s actions. You must decide what you can and can’t live with.
To protect a fragile relationship impacted by infidelity, some people may need to develop a plan about how they are going to deal with friends and relatives as they attempt to rebuild their relationship.
Everyone will have an opinion. A simple approach to dealing with this is to formulate a standard response that you both use when confronted by disapproving friends and family—something like, “We don’t expect people to understand this. However, it is not your relationship. We have decided that we love and care about each other enough to try and resolve this issue, and we would appreciate your support”. It’s important to notice if you are being influenced by external factors and, if so, to discuss this with your partner. Sometimes even children may place pressure on parents to either continue or leave a relationship.
Taking some space from the relationship
Taking some space can sometimes help people to get clearer about how they are feeling in regard to resolving the issues and resurrecting the relationship. Sometimes the offending person does not want the hurt person to take time out to reflect because they are fearful of the outcome. Does anyone really want to be with someone who doesn’t want to be with them? Both parties many need to seek individual counselling to help them cope with their own issues.
On several occasions, I have seen the benefits of couples living separately. This arrangement usually consists of a list of agreed-upon rules about contact and negotiations about finances, children, and so on. It is clearly understood that this is not a separation from the relationship—the relationship continues, just not the living-together part. This kind of arrangement also has a time frame for reviewing and finalising, and it may also have other built-in supports, such as counselling or groupwork.
Talking about the quality of the relationship prior to the infidelity
This is the time when people start to focus on the issues that may have contributed to the infidelity. Getting clear about what wasn’t working in the relationship is important. Your relationship will never be the same again and maybe that’s a good thing, maybe not? The loss of an ideal can be very painful. However it may help to remember that people are disappointing and that as a result relationships are disappointing, it’s because we are human. Decide together which aspects of the relationship you value and which ones no longer suit you. This provides you with an opportunity to re-invent your relationship..
Recommitting to the relationship
Some clients have suggested that it’s helpful to have a recommitment ceremony or some sort of symbolic gesture of your renewed commitment to each other. Some things that people have done to symbolise this new commitment are buying each other a gift or new rings or going on a holiday or out to dinner. I even work with a couple who celebrate their recommitment every year as their new anniversary date.
You need to find a symbolic gesture that is relevant and feels right for you. In Sex and the City, it was “Meet me on the Brooklyn Bridge”. Your symbolic gesture will have meaning for the two of you. In none of the cases I am familiar with has it been a public celebration—more a private acknowledgement.
In the end, it comes down to what you want and what you can live with. However, it’s important to know that you have options and that if you need extra assistance, a counsellor can support you to heal in a way that feels right for you. Perhaps you could even end up with a better relationship than the one you had before.