Is there (marital) life after an affair?
If the chances of restoring integrity to a marriage after a violation are as slim as some therapists claim they are, there is little incentive to make a concerted effort to take on the repair work in the first place. Even making the effort to save the marriage could conceivably result in additional pain and disappointment, in what may be an already desperately painful situation.Yet, despite the odds, whatever they may actually be, as even the most pessimistic among us would have to admit, some marriages do survive affairs. In fact, of those that do, a significant number of individuals report that the quality of the relationship, (in particular, levels of intimacy and trust) shared by both partners is in fact greater than it was prior to the affair.
In the face of this fact, certain questions inevitably arise, such as “How did they do it? “.
In doing the research for our recently-published book, Secrets of Great Marriages: Real Truth from Real Couples about Lasting Love, we were surprised to discover that a large number of the couples we interviewed revealed without our specifically soliciting the information, that one or both of them had previously experienced at least one sexual experience outside of the marriage. Overall, they characterized the transgression as being personally painful yet ultimately redemptive to the relationship itself. Of those who acknowledged having affairs, most but not all claimed that the effect on the marriage was beneficial. It is important to note that they were very quick to add that they wouldn’t recommend this experience to couples in search of a quick fix to an ailing relationship. Affairs are an extremely high risk means to bring greater passion or intimacy into your life or your relationship, with the stakes being nothing less than the possible (not ‘inevitable’) loss of the marriage.
But what about those that do survive affairs? Just how do they manage to defy the odds? In asking that question to the couples who acknowledged having had affairs, here are some of the things that they told us helped them to recover and even in some cases, deepen the love that they shared prior to the affair.
-Identify the roots of the breakdown. A willingness on both partners’ parts to identify the underlying factors that may have contributed to the existence of conditions that gave rise to the affair makes a successful repair attempt much more likely. This doesn’t mean that both partners acknowledge equal responsibility for any sexual misconduct that may have occurred, but simply that there is a willingness to recognize the factors that predisposed the behavior, an awareness of how those factors came into being and an understanding of how such circumstances can be avoided in the future.
– Be prepared to hang in there longer than you think you should have to. Once trust is broken it can be repaired, but this process often takes longer and requires more patience than one or both partners are prepared for. You will probably have to hear the same feelings expressed a number of times in order to achieve some degree of completion. Telling your partner to “Just get over it” is probably the worst thing that you can say, no matter how many times you’ve heard him say, “I can’t believe you did what you did. I don’t know if I’ll ever be able to trust you.”
Months after his affair, Barry’s wife (one of the couples in our book), continued to express her pain and doubt. “At those times, he told us, “I would meet Joyce with the strength of my conviction saying, ‘I trust that I have changed and I hope that some day you will trust that too.’ I just held her in my arms without trying to change her or take away her fears”. That was over thirty years ago. Today their marriage is stronger than ever.
Move out of the “Victim/Perpetrator” consciousness. It’s usually much easier to adopt this perspective than it is to disengage from it. Identifying oneself as the victim of a partner’s affair has the unfortunate effect of not only deepening resentment, but, perhaps more importantly, is disempowering to the identified ‘victim’. Consequently he or she continues to feel a diminished capacity to effectively impact upon the conditions that may have contributed to the affair. In addition such a perspective limits one’s ability to influence any of the factors that may continue to be negatively affecting the quality of trust and respect in the marriage. Taking responsibility for one’s actions does not condone the hurtful actions of another, but rather acknowledges each partner’s part in the situation as well as their power to influence things in the future..
Forgiveness is a process, not an event. Like grief, forgiveness has several stages that must be experienced in order for it to heal the tear in the fabric of the relationship. Feelings of mistrust, outrage, ambivalence, and desires for distance are typically aspects of this process. Even after forgiveness has been felt and expressed, feelings of resentment and anger can become activated and may arise unexpectedly as more subtle layers of pain are revealed. These feelings are sometimes, but certainly not always, related to other previously experienced emotional wounds.
“I’m sorry” is a good start, but it’s not enough. Apologizing for a transgression not only expresses remorse and empathy towards one’s partner, but acknowledges that one has acted improperly and is accepting responsibility for his actions. An insincere or obligatory apology is worse than none at all and generally leaves its receiver feeling used or disrespected. In order for an apology to be effective, several conditions must be met: It must be sincere, there must be an acknowledgment of the specific ways in which one’s actions were harmful, there must be a willingness to receive the other person’s feelings non-defensively, there must be an acknowledgment of the lessons learned from the experience, a recognition of the needs that one was trying to meet in the process, as well as a recognition of what actions will be taken in the future when the desire to fill similar needs again arises.
Pain is often the price of life’s most powerful and lasting lessons. While betrayal is unquestionably one of the most difficult and painful experiences a couple may go through, it is possible, in many cases to not only recover from it, but to come through the process with a more trusting, committed, and fulfilling partnership. Affairs can illuminate deficiencies in the marriage that may have needed attention for a long time or they may be decisions that have been impulsively acted out without regard to future consequences. Whatever the case, the sooner the situation is acknowledged and addressed, the better the prognosis for recovery. And practically without exception, it is far better to acknowledge a transgression honestly than it is to be forced to admit it when one has been “caught” red-handed. Although there are arguments in favor of concealing affairs, this is a very high-risk practice, the consequences of which usually result in deeply damaged trust. Many couples report that the on-going concealment of the affair and the lies that accompanied it were even more damaging to the level of trust in the relationship than the affair itself.
The truth, as the saying goes, will set you free. The process of your liberation however, can itself be quite painful. Humble pie isn’t especially tasty, but it can prove to be very nourishing. Ultimately the consequences of an affair have more to do with how each partner responds to it than the affair itself. As many couples have discovered, even in the midst of the most painful circumstances, when there is a shared intention to heal, repair and take responsibility, what may have previously seemed impossible can become a reality.
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