“For many people, an affair is deeply traumatizing [and] some marriages can’t recover from it,” said Jason Seidel, PsyD, founder and director of The Colorado Center for Clinical Excellence in Denver. But if you decide to work on your relationship post-affair, you must accept a hard truth: Another affair can happen. This is the paradox of healing, Seidel said.
Often, partners who’ve been cheated on will demand full access to their spouse’s email, cell phone records, Facebook and other accounts (or they’ll sneak around to get the access), he said. They see this as legitimate and essential to helping reestablish trust in the relationship. A common belief is “How could I ever trust you again unless you give me full access?”
While this thinking is understandable, it simply doesn’t work.
The real issue, at the core, is self-protection. Partners cling to the idea that if they have all the information and control enough of their partner’s life, they’ll somehow be spared another betrayal, Seidel said. (Some partners also will take this distrust into new relationships, where they automatically doubt the person and almost prepare themselves for infidelity, he said.)
But the reality is that “no amount of access satisfies the need,” and it’s a “false sense of security.” While it might seem contradictory, to fully heal and rebuild your relationship, partners need to relinquish control of their spouse’s behavior.
Clutching to controlling ways only distances you more from your partner and stalls progress. It “undermines your partner’s willingness to own up to their behavior” or feel remorseful or accountable. It creates a counterattack that disrupts healing, Seidel said.
Of course, other work is required, too. “Affairs don’t happen in relationships that are strong to begin with,” Seidel said, who works with couples on a number of issues that plague the relationship. This “may take a tremendous amount of effort.”
One of the key elements of recovering and healing from an affair is to “drop into your grief and grieve the relationship you thought you had.” It also involves “grieving the loss of your naïveté.” The other partner must honor this grieving process and not rush it, he said.
In time, the “wounded partner” also needs to look inward and decide whether they’re able to open their heart to their partner again — and whether they’ll be OK if another betrayal occurs. But this doesn’t mean closing your eyes if you sense your partner is being dishonest or “not working on making amends or really understanding what happened,” he said.
Seidel’s other advice to betrayed partners is to accept that your powers are limited, get clear on your own boundaries and build up resources like social support.
The partners who cheated also have a difficult time post-affair. Unless the affair is done in “a callous and cavalier way,” they often struggle with a “sense of devastation, deep shame and fear.” They lose their sense of self, in part because they didn’t believe that they were the type to commit adultery. The best way to heal and “process these particular emotions may be in individual therapy where the unfaithful partner can sort through them with less defensiveness,” Seidel said.
Again, healing after an affair and rebuilding the relationship requires the effort of both partners, along with the difficult acceptance that ultimately another betrayal could happen, “and if so, where will you be in terms of your resources and your sense of strength to move on?”