What happens now that the affair is exposed?
The discovery of an affair can be highly traumatic. The betrayed partner may struggle with obsessive memories and wild uncontrollable feelings.
If the couple comes to counselling, there is usually a consensus to ‘work things through’. This involves wrestling with questions like:
- What really happened?
- What else have you lied about?
- Why did you do it?
- Do you really love me?
- Can I ever recover my trust in you?
- Do I really want to continue with you?
- How do I know you won’t do it again?
- What where the genuine cracks in our relationship that we didn’t address?
One night stands may be the simplest to work through and forgive. When a long term pattern of betrayal is discovered, the exposed person is often relieved they are no longer living a double life. Letting go of an affair partner may seem impossible, as the emotional bonding may run deep.
Is this an affair or ‘just friends’?
There are three elements that determine whether a relationship is an affair. Affairs have secrecy, emotional intimacy and sexual chemistry, writes Dr Shirley Glass.
One is secrecy. Suppose two people meet every morning at seven o’clock for coffee before work, and they never tell their partners. Even though it might be in a public place, their partner is not going to be happy about it. It is going to feel like a betrayal, a terrible deception.
Emotional intimacy is the second element. When someone starts confiding things to another person that they are reluctant to confide to their partner, and the emotional intimacy is greater in the friendship than in the marriage, that’s very threatening…
The third element is sexual chemistry. That can occur even if two people don’t touch. If one says, “I’m really attracted to you,” or “I had a dream about you last night, but, of course, I’m married, so we won’t do anything about that,” that tremendously increases the sexual tension by creating forbidden fruit in the relationship.
How do I rebuild trust after cheating on my partner?
Dr Shirley Glass advises:
Through honesty. First I have to build safety. It comes about by stopping all contact with the affair partner and sharing your whereabouts, by being willing to answer the questions from your partner, by handing over the mobile phone… It also requires sharing information about any encounters with the affair partner before being asked… If the unfaithful spouse can ask their partner, “how are you feeling? I see you’re looking down today, is that because you’re remembering?,” trust can be rebuilt.
What can go wrong in recovery?
If the unfaithful partner keeps too many secrets too long before they are revealed, the whole process can be set back many months or totally sabotaged. The ideal is to come clean with the betrayed partner’s questions. Truth heals.
On the other side, the betrayed partner may get caught up in such pain and rage that they resort to violence or other reactions. These may put the final nail in the relationship. Even if the unfaithful partner does everything right, the betrayed partner may need considerable support to deal with the trauma of discovery and making sense of it all.
How counselling can help?
My experience is that once a couple turn up to seriously deal with an exposed affair, the chance of recovery is quite high. Counselling may start out as weekly and move to every month or quarter towards the end of the recovery.
Every couple has a different journey. There are some general steps that counselling can help with:
- Containing the collateral damage and over-reactions after discovery of a betrayal or affair
- Honestly answering questions from the betrayed, as a start to rebuilding trust
- Understanding and grieving over the damage and hurt done to the partner
- Understanding the story and meaning of the affair
- Building a track record of willing accountability and honesty
- Accepting and working though the aftershocks that will inevitable come
- Building over time, new patterns of closeness, enjoyment and intimacy
The first stage, gaining closure of an affair, is generally messy. Secrets usually come out in a series of painful stages. The unfaithful partner’s work is to empathise with and acknowledge the pain and damage they have caused. The next step is to reach a point of non-defensiveness and transparency. The next step is to understand the meaning of the affair.
The second stage is for the couple to explore any cracks in the relationship that laid the ground for the affair, while not treating this as an ‘excuse’ for the affair.
The first and second stages above generally take between 12 and 24 months to work through properly. Duration of recovery will depend on the nature and damage caused by the unfaithfulness, and the previous trauma history of the partners.
The journey is often an emotional roller coaster for both, especially initially. At times, each may have past traumas to process in their individual work.
Essentially, a whole new foundation for the relationship needs to be poured and given time to set. Many who persevere lay a new foundation They find their new relationship is more solid, marked by deep mutual understanding. They find a more mature sharing and intimacy then they could ever have imagined.