No one is immune to an affair. They can happen in any marriage and – according to some research – do in up to 45 percent of them. Luckily, most marriages survive beyond the affair. Nevertheless, even after wounds are healed, trust violations leave behind a crack in the relationship’s foundation with the potential to reopen.
Interestingly, however, these marriages still often thrive. Crisis forces an opportunity to clean up the relationship and the pain can guard against future complacency. Sometimes it’s not until faced with the near-destruction of the relationship that people are willing to do the painstaking work of self-evaluation and behavioral change.
We all know that prevention is always easier than cure. Prevention involves awareness of risk and proactive thinking about what situations and mindset could put each of you in harm’s way. Other protective action involves collaborating to minimize exposure to risk, increase awareness of the beginnings of temptation, and plan ways to resist.
Grudges, unhappiness/walling off, neglect, and secrecy are common dangers to marriage. Relationships are easily taken for granted but require active attention, positive input, and care to stay alive. Unhappiness in either partner needs to be taken seriously and addressed with an active problem-solving approach. Talking openly does involve risk, but it is secrecy which destroys. If unhappiness is not resolved, it becomes walled off and insidiously contaminates the marriage, leaving it vulnerable to attempted escape through affairs or other acting out.
When trust is violated by having an affair, it shatters the underlying sense of safety in the relationship which, when in place, offers an intangible stabilizing shield. The secrecy involved in conducting an affair operates as an accomplice to carrying it out. Secrecy and betrayal are the hallmark of affairs and the central source of damage to the relationship.
Rebuilding the shattered foundation of the marriage is a prerequisite to working on longstanding marital issues. The key elements are: accountability, reparation, and restoring trust.
Accountability means acknowledging responsibility for one’s own actions and bearing the cost. Responsibility includes refraining from temptation to blame others. When a man has an affair, for example, the wife’s role in the failure of the marriage, if this is the case, cannot be addressed unless the man “owns” his behavior and understands its consequences. Women are equally vulnerable to having affairs, so this example does not mean to suggest that the man is always the cheating spouse.
Reparation involves understanding the need for making concrete concessions toward restoring trust and good faith. Reparation may include openness to scrutiny without defensiveness. This isn’t the time to assert “right to privacy” issues. Making amends includes honoring specific, reasonable requests that offer objective assurances, for example, allowing his wife to look at his cell phone.
Restoring trust is undeniably difficult once credibility has been damaged. Trust is re-established gradually through unwavering reliability in doing precisely what is promised. Even minor infractions can reopen mistrust and impede healing.
Healing involves not only mending damage but understanding what unmet needs were filled by the affair. This includes facing unresolved marital issues and expectations of marriage in general. The wife must now take responsibility for her role in the mutually created marital dynamics. Change in both partners is usually necessary not only to heal from the affair, but to break out of patterns blocking intimacy. Ultimately, gaining a more accurate and mature picture of love and sex, and how that evolves over time, helps relationships endure as they go through their natural cycles.
A challenge for the couple as the relationship proceeds in the aftermath of an affair is avoiding the trap of the hurt partner assuming a martyred stance and holding a perpetual grudge. In this case, the husband, driven by guilt and fear of loss, readily takes on the role of underdog. Trying to make up for his past mistakes, he instead ends up defeated and demoralized. This pattern creates a power imbalance and leaves the marriage in a stalemate, again at risk.
In order for the marriage to work, hurt cannot remain pervasive, or be expressed through “digs” or withholding affection. If mistrust remains, the wife must make explicit what’s needed to move forward. Ultimately she must decide whether she can and wants to risk trusting again. If she cannot, the marriage is not viable and simply serves as a destructive vehicle to express resentment and punishment.
In a healed relationship, both partners understand their roles in the dynamics which provided the backdrop for the affair, and are committed to preventing recurrence. They no longer feel trapped, or in the marriage by default. Instead, they make a renewed commitment, actively choosing the relationship. Partners in marriages which thrive after an affair hold a gut-level awareness of the reality of losing one another, channeling it into a healthy vigilance and active appreciation of each another.