The discovery of an affair is commonly followed by a combination of shock, disbelief, anger, and grief. Even if the partner who has cheated pleads for forgiveness, it may take months to years for the betrayed partner to begin to forgive. Repeated apologies by the partner who has cheated may only reach the first layer of the hurt partner’s pain.
Recovery from infidelity for a couple, however, is possible. The recovery process requires extreme vulnerability and commitment from each individual, while professional help, structure, understanding and information on what to expect and how to navigate it, support this. Often during the catastrophe of infidelity, it is up to the psychotherapist to offer a holding space and stability so the couple can begin to gather the shattered pieces of their life, whether they choose to remain together or separate.
The Crisis Phase
After the discovery of the affair, both partners experience chaos and crisis. Typically, the betrayed partner is wondering if what they believed about their relationship was ever real. The cheating partner may be torn with guilt, shame, and fear of losing their relationship. Both partners might experience shock, anger, grief, confusion, anxiety, or a mix of many emotions.
It is imperative to remember two things during this time: 1) no matter how tough it may be right now, this phase will eventually pass 2) no matter how tempting it may be, it is prudent to not make any long-term decisions regarding the relationship during this phase.
At this time, it may be incredibly difficult to imagine healing and creating a shared future for the relationship. It can be especially complex to reconcile that one’s biggest support – their partner – is now their source of immeasurable pain. Feelings of rage, confusion, grief, and loneliness are common and constantly alternating during this phase.
The partner just discovering the affair is starting to only now catch up to the reality of the infidelity and reviewing their past with the lens of this new information. The cheating partner is starting to reconcile with their dual life integrating into one, as well as their partner knowing about the duality.
Grieving is not only normal and expected, but an essential part of the recovery journey. Both partners must grieve the loss of the old vision and hopes for the relationship, whether they stay together or part ways. Grieving makes way for creating a vision for a new future, together or apart.
The Meaning-Making Phase
Deconstructing what happened and why it happened occurs in this second phase. One knows they have moved into this phase when they start thinking about the cause and effects of the affair. This phase can begin only after the intense anger and chaos have settled. A deeper understanding can lead to insight, empathy and connection as well as a future hope, and each partner taking responsibility for the changes they want and need to make in order to heal.
If the couple chose to stay together and work on their relationship they each start to see and take accountability for what happened in their relationship prior to the affair and what role they each played. They begin to view the affair as one event in the history of their relationship versus the defining event.
The Vision Phase
Finally, during this phase, the couple decides if they want to recommit to a new relationship together or to move on. If the couple reaches this phase of healing and recovery together, their new relationship has the potential to be more intimate and richer than ever because of all the work they have done on addressing their past.
If you or someone you know is dealing with the pain of infidelity:
- Recognize and expect that despite best efforts openness may occur gradually.
- Shift into the position that the relationship issues didn’t cause the affair, but they need to be addressed regardless.
- Put a structure in place for discussing concerns related to the affair.
- Expect that trust-building is reciprocal, takes time, and may happen in waves.
- Reach out to a trusted friend for support.
- Seek couples therapy from a professional who specializes in infidelity recovery, and place your trust in the process.