Healing from adultery is difficult and couples usually go through a number of specific challenges. In fact, it is best to approach the recovery from adultery in a “one step at a time” approach. It is encouraging to know that although affairs are more common than most would think, the majority do not divorce.
The first step is getting the commitment from both parties that they want to work on the relationship. Although there is a small percentage of affairs that are “exit affairs,” which were done as a way out of the relationship, most affairs are not intended to end the relationship. Instead, the partner who engaged in the affair is still committed, at least to some extent, to work on the relationship. Part of this commitment is ending the affair.
The second step is ensuring the safety of both partners. It is important to make sure there is no physical or emotional abuse that is currently ongoing. It is also important to make sure there are no sexually transmitted diseases that may be present. Checking the emotional well-being of each party is also important, to ensure they are sufficiently healthy to manage this process. If not, it may be important to seek individual counselling first.
Knowing the Details
It is not uncommon for the partner who did not have the affair to want to know all the details of the affair. This need to know is natural and needs to be validated. In some cases, however, this need to know can become an obsession that prevents the couple from moving forward.
One way to help the couple manage this is to have a session or two devoted to answering these questions. Before this session the questioner would prepare a complete list of questions that they want answered and the other party would commit to full disclosure. It is also agreed that after these questions are answered, the issue would be closed, with no more questions being asked. This can be a difficult process that requires preparation and extra support after the disclosure for both parties.
Moving past anger can be a difficult issue for the betrayed partner. There is a tremendous amount of loss after an affair, the loss of trust, the loss of their image of the relationship and more. Letting go of the anger and approaching the idea of forgiveness can be extremely challenging.
Understanding the anger and processing what forgiveness would mean can be helpful in these situations. It has also been helpful for many couples to go through a carefully planned ritual for letting go of the anger. For example, one betrayed partner decided to smash the CDs that had been a gift from her husband’s mistress. The pieces of the CDs were left on the garage floor and, as part of the ritual, he cleaned up one piece every day. He presented the piece to her and she decided whether to let him throw it out. This was particularly meaningful because he was a very clean person and would usually be prodding her to be more tidy. She found that once all of the pieces were gone, her anger was significantly less.
Each member of a couple usually shows their commitment to the relationship in small ways that occur regularly. It can be helpful for couples to think about what they do for each other on a daily or weekly basis that shows their affection and commitment to each other. Sometimes it is also helpful to have a larger display of commitment. Some couples choose to renew their vows, although others feel this is a hollow promise since it didn’t seem to work the first time.
Each couple can usually find ways to renew the commitment that is unique to them. For example, in one couple the man had taken his mistress up to the family cabin. This was the part of the betrayal that had been most difficult. As an act of commitment, he spent a number of weekends re-painting and repairing the cabin. In the end, both members of the couple worked at this together and it became a symbol of a new beginning for their relationship.
Trust is built primarily through small trust experiences. Usually this requires being vulnerable in some way and then finding that your partner was worthy of trust. For a couple that has gone through a betrayal it is important to identify small ways that they can be vulnerable to each other. This level of vulnerability may need to start out small, and then grow as trust is earned.
One way couples can practice vulnerability is by having a joint financial account and slowly increasing the amount they contribute. Another example is allowing each other to travel alone. One way to help partners gain trust is by having “trusting practices.” These are ways that the partner can consistently follow-through with expectations. For example, a woman may agree to call home at certain times while travelling alone. This is not to check-up on the person, but is instead a way to show they are following through. These small actions can slowly build trust over time.
Rebuilding the Relationship
Once these other pieces have been put in place, at least to some degree, it is possible to begin working on the relationship. This may involve working on communication, intimacy, money, etc. This work is important for the couple to feel good about their relationship and to help prevent future relationship break-down.
It can be challenging to rebuild after a serious betrayal, but it is possible to once again have a meaningful and fulfilling relationship. Of course, everyone’s journey after an affair is different, but this outlines some of the major hurdles couples face in their recovery. These kinds of events change relationships and it is hard to grieve the loss of what once was, but it is important to remember that relationships can be strengthened and matured by hardships. In many ways your relationship may end up being better than it ever was before.
By Dr. Syras Derksen
Psychologist, Winnipeg MB
Winek, J. L., & Craven, P. A. (2003). Healing rituals for couples recovering from adultery. Contemporary Family Therapy, 25, 249-266,