By: Carli Wall, MFT Intern
You have just found out your partner has cheated, or perhaps you have just revealed to your partner you were the one who stepped outside the relationship. Although the fault of infidelity or affairs does not land solely on one person in the relationship due to multiple relational patterns and factors causing the infidelity, discovering, and moving through it can be an experience full of fear and uncharted emotional territory. The aftermath and healing of infidelity outlines the five processing stages and, ultimately, healing from infidelity in a romantic relationship.
The aftermath and healing of infidelity in this phase consist of couples usually reaching out and finding a couple of therapists to help them amid the crisis of discovering the presence of the infidelity. “The sense of security, stability, and control once felt by a couple has been destroyed with the betrayal, and feelings of shock, confusion, anger, and denial are common. Emotional reactions might include symptoms similar to a posttraumatic stress disorder, and suicidal ideations and homicidal threats might occur during this tumultuous time.”
The therapist will first help the couple calm themselves down and find some sense of stability in the chaos. This can be done by helping couples create a “road map” of what they might expect from this therapy process and each other. This can help couples prepare for the unpredictable emotional responses that will arise during the processing of infidelity.
Therapy has three main focuses during this stage: emotional reactions, commitment, accountability, and trust. The therapist will hold a non-judgmental, safe space for the couple to express the strong emotional responses they are having to the experience; this may consist of emotions including shock, anger, and despair. These emotions tend to be strong immediately after discovering the infidelity or affair but lessen in intensity over time. Each partner may enter therapy unaware of their level of commitment to the relationship. “Pain and anger might make it difficult for the betrayed partner to commit to the relationship.”
It is highly recommended in this phase that no decision is made about ending the relationship since both partners may still be extremely emotionally reactive at this time. “In the case of ongoing infidelity, the unfaithful partner must agree to break off all contact with the outside person for couples therapy to continue. If a deeper attachment has formed, grieving needs to take place so that the partner can again fully commit himself or herself to the primary relationship. This is best addressed in individual sessions.” Once the reactions have settled, partners have calmed down and begun to see clearly. The couple can decide if they ultimately want to stay together and work on the relationship or walk away from it.
Accountability and trust are the biggest themes in the first phase of processing through infidelity. Infidelity is a betrayal of honesty and trust in the relationship. Building trust is a long process, but trust can be rebuilt with time, patience, and open and honest communication. Ultimately, the experience can lead to an even stronger, more connected relationship than before the infidelity. This is because infidelity throws a wrench in the relational patterns and forces the partners to look at both themselves and the relationship to confront what was not working and what needs to change to move forward together (if that is what the couple chooses to do).
After the initial emotional processing of the infidelity, couples will begin to look at and understand all the factors that contributed to the infidelity. These factors worth exploring in this phase consist of individual, relational, family of origin, and patterns. In this phase, it is also important to look at and evaluate any mental health disorders that may have contributed to the infidelity. Biological factors also may put couples at risk of infidelity, including illness, age-related conditions, and where the individuals fall in their developmental stages (mid-life crisis can greatly increase the risk of infidelity). It’s important to evaluate each partner’s family of origin values regarding romantic and intimate relationships since infidelity might also be related to attitudes and behaviors learned in the partner’s family or origin during childhood.
With the help of a therapist, the couple now begins to look at their relational patterns and observe and understand through curiosity what was not working in their past relationship and was in regard to expectations, communication dynamics, problem-solving efforts, emotional closeness, and physical intimacy.
Forgiveness is essential for a couple to heal after infidelity. A couple needs to examine some important factors regarding forgiveness during this phase. These factors are empathy, humility, remorse, apology, softening, accepting responsibility, and extending forgiveness. Empathy is needed to allow each partner to understand their partner’s experience and the part they played in the infidelity. The partner who was unfaithful needs to put their feelings aside to understand how hurt their partner is, and the partner who was cheated on needs to understand how their partner felt when they decided to have an affair. Without empathy and understanding, each partner can get wrapped up in their own experience, which leads to no room to empathize with the other partner’s experience. This is essential for healing after infidelity.
Remorse and apologizing are also very important in this phase. To be able to move on and put the infidelity behind the relationship, the offending partner needs to communicate a sincere and brutally honest apology to their partner. Once this is completed (if both partners feel ready), the partner who was cheated on can soften, making the offending partner a bit closer to them emotionally. Ultimately once an apology has been accepted and the couple feels as though they can move on in a way that is not full of constant hurt and betrayal, then the partner who was cheated on can extend forgiveness to their partner (only if it’s genuine and they are ready and truly feel the desire to forgive). This phase may take longer than the previous phases since there are a lot of emotions to acknowledge, sort through, and process.
Treating Factors That Contribute to Infidelity
The aftermath and healing of infidelity in phase four, couples unveil the factors that contributed to and led to the infidelity. These factors can include (but are not limited to) the challenge of developing intimacy in the relationship, problems with commitment, a lack of passion, and ineffectiveness in communicating and resolving conflict and anger. Couples during this phase must reevaluate their commitment to the relationship (as they did at the beginning of phase one). “Commitment refers to the intellectual and emotional determination to be in an exclusive relationship with another person. Ideally, both parties are equally committed. However, partners’ commitment might be unequal in cases of infidelity.” Another important aspect of this phase is assessing the couple’s passion for one another. “Passion is the motivational aspect that draws two people together and includes feelings of romance, physical attraction, sexual desire, and desire to be together.” The last aspect of this phase is assessing intimacy in the couple’s relationship. “Intimacy in a committed relationship includes feelings of closeness or connection, mutual concern for the well-being of the other person, feelings of trust and safety, honesty and openness, and the reciprocal giving and receiving.”
Enhancing Intimacy Through Communication
This is when couples choose and implement a new communication pattern into their daily lives together. This includes not assuming the past will repeat itself, clear communication, and being able to share desires in the relationship. In therapy, you will learn skills that will help enhance communication in the phase. The patterns established in this phase will help the couple navigate through future conflict in a more effective and less hurtful or triggering manner. Gottman’s 5:1 ratio of positive interactions during conflict is vital to this phase. “The difference between happy and unhappy couples is the balance between positive and negative interactions during conflict…There is a very specific ratio that makes love last…“That “magic ratio” is 5 to 1…This means that for every negative interaction during conflict, a stable and happy marriage has five (or more) positive interactions.”
Esther Perel, LMFT
“Marriage is imperfect. We start with a desire for oneness, and then we discover our differences. Our fears are aroused by the prospect of all the things we’re never going to have.”
“Most people are going to have two or three marriages or committed relationships in their adult life. Some of us will have them with the same person.”
Reference: Fife, S. T., Weeks, G. R., & Gambescia, N. (2008). Treating infidelity: An integrative approach. The Family Journal, 16(4), 316-323.
• The State of Affairs: Rethinking Infidelity By Esther Perel
• Healing from Infidelity: The Divorce Busting Guide to Rebuilding Your Marriage After an Affair by Michele Weiner-Davis
• Not Just Friends: Rebuilding Trust and Recovering Your Sanity After Infidelity by Shirley P. Glass and Jean Coppock Staeheli