After the Affair: Can We Recover?

In recent years, we’ve witnessed our fair share of natural disasters. Perhaps you experienced one firsthand. Watching the news I try to imagine what it is like for people who see their homes leveled by a tornado, earthquake, or some other calamity. It’s painful to watch the tears streaming down their face as they sift through the debris, picking up the few things that were unharmed by the catastrophic event. An exposed affair can have the same kind of effect. The physical house may remain intact–but not the foundation of the home. The marriage received a massive hit. Everything in the house looks the same but feels different. The family pictures, master bedroom, everything that symbolizes a happy marriage and family feels like a facade. As couples assess the damage they wonder, “Can we recover?” If recovery is possible it will require some awareness and effort by the involved spouse and injured spouse in the following areas:
  • Effect of the affair on both partners
  • Effect of the affair on the injured spouse
  • Effect of the affair on the involved spouse
  • Repairing the betrayal wound
  • Rebuilding the trust
  • Restoring the intimacy

Effect on Both Spouses

First, let’s take a look at the effect an affair has on the married couple. Afterwards, I will share the unique effect it has on each spouse.
Profound loss of security in the marital bond
The secure base is suddenly missing. Trust has been breached by betrayal. The foundation of the marriage is unstable. Both partners are reeling from the effects of the disclosure.
Alarming concern about the status of the marriage
Suddenly everything in the home is stained by an awareness of the affair. Rooms, pictures, and people look different. Do the kids know? What do we say to our family and friends? Will all this change? Can we recover?
Tendency to act quickly to minimize the damage
To cope with the situation, one or both partners may act in a manner that lessens the severity of the situation. Extreme attempts to reestablish security are made. Couples may have sex, go on dates, etc…
Intolerable emotional pain
As the reality of an affair sets in, emotions intensify. The injured spouse experiences waves of anger, sadness, and fear. The involved spouse may have intense feelings of guilt, shame, and in some cases anger too. This anger is often self-directed, but may also be at the spouse for reasons that were unaddressed previously in the marriage.
Massive breakdown in communication
As emotions intensify, communication can deteriorate into outbursts of anger, further accusations and threats about the future. A couple who could normally resolve their differences now have a hard time being in the room together.
Difficulty in managing daily routines
After an affair is discovered the normal rhythm of life is changed. Daily routines are difficult to manage. Couples often report that they feel like zombies, totally numb as they navigate daily tasks.

Effect on the Injured Spouse

Traumatic aftershocks of the event
Uniquely troublesome to the injured spouse is the re-traumatization that occurs for a long period of time–at least one year. Aftershock triggers emotionally catapult the injured spouse back to day one when the betrayal was discovered. These aftershocks are common and challenging for couples to manage. It can muddle their perception of progress toward recovery.
Plaguing thoughts about the nature of the affair
Injured spouses are plagued with thoughts and questions about the nature of the affair. They have a litany of “why? and what?” questions. They want to know what was wrong in the marriage. Details about the nature of the affair, type, quality, frequency of sex may plague their minds. At the point they think they’ve had all questions answered, a new list appears.
Intense feelings of anxiety and mistrust toward the spouse
When trust is breached the injured spouse may no longer look at her partner the same way. They may worry if the spouse is lying, still in the affair, or if it will happen again down the road. This anxiety may lead them to monitor their spouse’s behavior and interrogate them. They hate being in this position and may become more angry at their partner.
Tormenting thoughts about the affair partner
Probably one of the most troublesome effects on the injured spouse is the mental comparisons they go through ritually. The want to know what the affair partner has that attracted their spouse. Inwardly they struggle with insecurities. “How do I measure up to that person?” These thoughts torment them throughout the day, especially in the early stage of discovery.
Enormous pressure in deciding how to move forward
If contending with the affair isn’t enough, injured spouses have decisions to make that will not only effect them, but also their children (if present in the marriage). This additional burden places enormous pressure on the injured spouse. In many cases they want to leave but they are worried about the impact on the kids. Consequently, they face not only the pain of betrayal, but feeling stuck with a spouse they don’t want to be with any longer.

Effect on the Involved Spouse

Myriad of feelings about the disclosure of the affair
Involved spouses are faced with complex feelings of guilt, shame, and anger toward self. There may also be a sense of relief that they no longer have to live in secrecy. In some cases, the involved spouse is angry at the injured spouse because this person did not listen to their earlier cries for help in the marriage.
Confusion about how to manage the situation
Involved spouses are in unchartered waters when it comes to managing the situation. Some want to fix things right away. Others may continue to have feelings toward the affair partner and are confused about where they want to be. Either way, the involved spouse is unsure of how to handle the situation without making it worse.
Deep concern about the effect of the affair on the spouse and others
Most involved spouses feel deep concern about the effect of their behavior on others. They worry about the effect on their spouse. They also worry about their children, extended family members and friends. Finally, some spouses are also concerned about the wellbeing of the affair partner. These compounded worries may cause the involved spouse to become overwhelmed, anxious, and depressed.
Fears about the future
The damage of a discovered affair can be widespread. The marriage is at high risk for divorce. Furthermore, it can severely damage relationship with children, extended family, and mutual friends. Work can also be adversely impacted if the affair happened in this environment.

3-Step Plan for Recovery

Statistics indicate that 70% of all marriages survive infidelity. Almost 50% of these couples construct a marriage that is healthier than it was before the affair. If a full recovery is possible it will come with hard work. First of all, you have to be aware of the effect it is having on everyone. This is why I started the blog with awareness of effect in each area. Next, you have to commit to a process of recovery that involves three areas.
Repairing the wound
Full recovery is impossible without treating the wound. A bandaid will not suffice. Repairing requires a pattern of wound dressing. Not once, but several times over the course of treatment. You will have to listen to the emotional pain expressed by your spouse and validate her/his feelings. Next, you will have to express true remorse over your behavior and offer reassurance of fidelity in the marriage going forward. This treatment approach over time can heal the wound. If you cannot do this, your spouse will not heal.
Rebuilding the trust
Rebuilding trust is a reciprocal process. The involved spouse has to demonstrate trustworthiness. The injured spouse has to dispense some trust. This process takes a long time. Get used to it. If you follow my blogs you know my formula for trust: Trust = behavior over time. If you were the spouse involved in the affair, your words and actions have to be congruent. Do what you say. It will take more time than you wish. If you are the injured spouse, dispense the trust in a measure equivalent to the effort of your partner. Not too much or too little. Remember, it takes time.

Restoring the intimacy

As wounds heal and trust rebuilds, couples are in a stronger position to restore intimacy. This delicate process happens at the pace of the injured spouse. Re-traumatization often happens as couples move toward intimacy. This is normal but must be handled delicately. You may wonder as a couple how you can get through this process alone. Most cannot. If you want full recovery, you will need the help of an experienced marriage counselor to walk you through this process. Having done this multiple times, I witness many couples not only recover, but construct a marriage more satisfying than it was before the affair.

Now it’s your turn

If you are suffering following the discovery of an affair my heart goes out to you. It is painful for both partners. You do not have to face this alone. Reach out for help. It may be out of your comfort zone, but it can be the first step towards healing and possible recovery.