What warrants a permanent breakup? What set of rules has to be breached and how badly, for two people, formerly attached to each other, to decide to part for good?
The answer is different for every couple, but the only other emotional expedition as grueling as breaking up or divorcing is trying not to after the affair.
A sense of despair and broken trust are inevitable after learning that your partner has been unfaithful. Forgiving is both art and ministry, and not every betrayal is granted such a gift. Sometimes the injury of betrayal is lethal to the relationship. Loving but leaving becomes the only choice. Remember also that people who are self-centered, dishonest, entitled, irresponsible, impulsive, and aggressive cannot remain faithful even with therapy.
However, many decide that their relationship is worth saving, based on having shared good times in the past. Different couples have various levels of commitment and reasons to save their union for themselves and for the children. It is critical for the unfaithful partner to help the other restore a sense of safety and to rebuild trust.
The hurt partner may suffer from sadness, disappointment and anger. They may also have fears, suspicions, and a pervasive sense of jealousy. Their mind will remain on full alert, despite the efforts to calm down and focus on forgiveness. Betrayal is like being shot in the head. It knocks logical thinking right out of you.
How to help hurt partners regain trust and heal? Unfaithful partners need to accept and stand by these conditions:
- Discuss factors that contributed to infidelity. Seek individual and couples counseling to make sure that all important issues are covered. Use empathy and active listening skills to help your partner express hurt feelings, fears and other unresolved issues safely and constructively. In couples therapy, both partners also should examine their beliefs, hopes, and expectations about love, sex, and forgiveness.
- Admit to any sexual addiction that contributed to the problem. Some people use sex to relax, gain a sense of control, or feel wanted and loved. Perhaps prior or parallel to the affair there was involvement in pornography, excessive flirting, poor boundaries with others, and seductive online engagements. These behaviors became a substitute for contact with spouses and may have lasted for years. Admit to these problems, without minimizing and explaining them away, while also seeking help from a mental health professional.
- Admit to and get help for any substance abuse problems. Allow your partner to question your sobriety, volunteering for breathalyzers and urine tests to ease their fears.
- Get tested for sexually transmitted diseases.
- Stop all contact with previous lovers. It may help to formally end any affair in the presence of one’s partner.
- Establish and accept new relationship boundaries. For example, no contact with opposite-sex friends without your partner present. If an affair involved a coworker, limit interactions only to when other coworkers are present or exclude any communication altogether.
- Agree to have bank statements, phone logs, bills, emails, social network accounts monitored by your partner for an indefinite period of time. Make it easy and accessible, to avoid placing your partner in the awkward position of asking for the access and appearing patronizing.
Hurt partners also have an integral role in this difficult process of trust recovery and forgiveness. They need to steer away from chronic interrogations, pouting, hidden agendas, screaming or silent treatment. It will only make them feel more inadequate, rejected, confused and unsupported. Communicate openly and assertively, with a focus on current needs.
Avoid involving friends or relatives in your disputes and arguments, but see a therapist. You both deserve keen attention to your issues and needs, as well as privacy and neutrality. Your wounded ego may fool you into believing that you did or did not do something that could have prevented an affair. Remember, it takes two to preserve union integrity, but it takes only one to damage it. You are not in any way responsible for your partner’s transgressions. Work on restoring your self-esteem and correct faulty self-accusatory beliefs.
Identify mindful actions that your partner can do for you, ask for these helpful behaviors, and express appreciation for demonstrations of caring. Even though you may still feel resentful, ask your partner what caring behaviors they would like to receive and try to integrate them into your daily life. When ready, start spending more time together, going on dates, with agreement to focus only on “here-and-now” topics and positive discussions of the future.
Moving on requires forgiving and some forgetting, akin to amputating a gangrenous limb to save a patient’s life. However, in line with Einstein’s saying “Learn from yesterday, live for today, hope for tomorrow,” there is hope. Passage of time, coupled with mindful attempts to heal yourself and support your partner in the process, will help to endure the bumpy road to forgiveness and arrive at a new, peaceful chapter of your life.