How a Relationship Can Recover in Three Steps After an Infidelity
Being cheated on feels devastating, like the whole rug’s been pulled out from under you, and your relationship. Is it possible to fix things?
One of the most painful things I see in my practice, again and again, is a couple struggling to recover from infidelity. In many ways, infidelity is compared to and/or considered to be a trauma. So, how does a relationship recover from such a huge break in trust, security and safety? Can a relationship go back to ‘the way it was before’? The ideas, methods and approaches shared in this article will be a compilation of my own therapeutic experiences, as well as the work of the Gottman Center and also Angela Skurtu, M.Ed, LMFT and AASECT approved sex therapist, who has written the book “Helping Couples Overcome Infidelity”. I am sure there are a myriad of therapists with different perspectives on how to handle infidelity within a relationship, but for the scope of this article I am choosing these methods that both align with my personal views on this and with each other in a seamless way.
To begin, how do we define infidelity? Sometimes even this question can become a point of contention between partners. Infidelity is defined as an either physical or emotional break in the expected parameters of a relationship. Affairs can be emotional only, they can be physical only, or they can be both. Researchers further break down affairs into a set number of categories to account for the variety of reasons why some partners engage in affairs (see this article from the Infidelity Recovery Institute for a list and definitions). Different people have varying boundaries on what they consider an affair or not. As an example: an often debated one is cybersex or Camgirls, which illustrates the point that every relationship (and each individual) can have totally different boundaries and different ideas of what feels appropriate for them.
As a therapist in the room, I often maintain that the betrayed partner gets to define whether this feels like an infidelity to them or not, rather than trying to convince someone that they are ‘wrong’ for feeling betrayed or hurt by their partner’s behaviors. A common example of this varying boundary is often around pornography usage—while one relationship might see viewing porn as a totally great thing to do, or even something they do together, in another relationship this could feel horrible and be construed as extremely painful to one of the partners. Once someone feels that there is a problem and that they’ve been cheated on, it’s a problem and has to be discussed.
To clarify, this is not to say that if someone has an ‘irrational’ perspective, the other partner must kowtow to it. It is to say that we MUST deal with these feelings before we can move forward into whether or not there are other perspectives and ways to relate to the situation. This disclaimer leads nicely into the process of infidelity recovery.
Infidelity Recovery: Steps to Healing
Step 1: Straying Partner Hearing the Betrayed Partner
According to all methods, the precursor to engaging in infidelity recovery is that the affair has to have stopped. If the partner is still actively engaging in cheating behaviors, therapy is not going to work. Let’s assume that this prerequisite has been met. The first step is about the straying partner taking accountability, ownership and responsibility for their behaviors and the hurt this has caused their partner. This is often difficult because the betrayed partner is so angry and this can easily make the straying partner feel defensiveness or shameful, which doesn’t help someone be accountable or honest about things. Your therapist should be providing a lot of support, grounding and mediation to not have one person be getting ‘beaten up’ in session. Without the straying partner’s doing this critical step, true healing is unlikely to occur. Another part of this step in the process is allowing the betrayed partner to ask all their questions, and answering them honestly. The partner is very likely to have a TON of questions about the how/where/when/what/why of it all, and though these are really unpleasant and uncomfortable questions for the person who cheated to answer, it is necessary. It’s also important to note that these conversations are likely to happen repeatedly as the hurt partner works through their phases of grief. There is no exact timeline to any of this work, and some partners take longer to work through this than others.
Step 2: Identifying How and Why the Straying Partner Felt the Need to Stray
Let’s remember that affairs and infidelity rarely happen in a vacuum. However hurt the one partner is by the infidelity, there are factors that led to this happening in the relationship that need to be addressed. Often, it is hard for the unfaithful partner to take accountability for their behavior or to be emotionally present for the hurt partner because they are in a lot of pain themselves. In an attempt to avoid taking responsibility and/or dealing with the shame they may feel around their behavior, partners will focus on the pain and frustration that led to their behavior and want to bring that into the room. Though this is an extremely necessary step, Step 1 has to happen first. Then, the therapist needs to turn to the pain and needs that the adultery was trying to fulfill for the other person. Without both partners finding ways to express this and make changes in their relationship to account for the infidelity, it is more likely that a relapse will occur.
Step 3: Creating a New Connection Based on Revealed Information
The therapist should work with the partners to help them connect on this new level about the things that were missing from the relationship before, and give them the tools and support to learn to communicate these previously unmet and/or undiscussed needs. This is usually the point in therapy when the unfaithful partner feels most seen and safe. This also brings us back to the question we began with “can things go back to the way they were?” In short, no, they can’t (and probably shouldn’t). I often encourage my clients to see this as a sort of ‘farewell’ to the old relationship and the building of a new, better relationship than what they had before. The old relationship wasn’t working for you! The process of working through this is ultimately an opportunity to create a better relationship, a relationship that both people feel seen, wanted and accounted for.
My hope is to give everyone who comes into my therapy office the chance to be safe, validated and to begin their healing journey. An affair is a trauma; painful, decimating and life-altering. But life-altering doesn’t always have to be a bad thing, and we can work together to forge the new, altered life that you want.
Working on this together in the safety of the Holistic Couple and Therapy office means that I will be there to guide you through the process of having these discussions in a safe and productive environment. It’s important to be able to call a timeout, be redirected and feel seen and understood by a third party who can validate and reassure each person that they are safe in this space and that this work is to bring you back together. I strive to interrupt negative cycles when clients are spiraling into them, name them, and provide new language and approaches.
Need guidance through infidelity? Reach out to a therapist that resonates with you from our “Contact Us” page on our website.