February 24, 2014

Healing After an Affair: Where to From Here? ~ Shushann Movsessian


An affair can deeply shake the foundations of a relationship.

Couples describe it as one of the biggest betrayals in their lives. It can bring up feelings of grief, loss, anger, resentment, blame, bewilderment, and for the betrayer—paralysing guilt. Questions often arise in relationship counseling.

Can we recover from this?
Will I ever be able to trust my partner again?
How do we get over this?

For some people, the resounding answer to all these questions may be “No”. An affair may be a relationship deal breaker. Whether it was a one off indiscretion or something that went on over time, the hurt and betrayal may feel too great to recover from. For some therapists there is a belief that the affair might have been an unconscious way of breaking up the relationship or at least a major relationship shake up.

Research shows, however, that 64% of couples choose to stay together after infidelity. An affair can often be a wake up call to address issues of intimacy, connection and respect in the relationship. Rebuilding the trust, goodwill and intimacy is a slow and painful process, but it can potentially deepen the relationship bond and take it to a new level.

Unfortunately, there is no magic wand that can make things better quickly and there is no turning back. What’s done is done and can’t be undone. The challenge is to work through the hurt and get to the learning or growth potential within the shake up.

I have worked with many couples over the years (married, defacto, gay, lesbian or from ethno-culturally diverse backgrounds) and the biggest challenge is often to work through the hurt of an affair to the growth potential—to recover and heal.

Often the first response from partners feeling they’ve been cheated on is to demand full access to all communications: emails, social networking sites, phone messages, texts. Full transparency is demanded from their spouse or partner—where they went, whom they went with, when they’d be returning and what was discussed. This is done in the name of re-building trust in the relationship and is completely understandable when someone is hurt.

But, it just doesn’t work. It can actually create further hurt and a controlling dynamic in the relationship that could lead to further distancing. It doesn’t work because it’s not getting to the core of what is going on; and besides that, it’s exhausting, creates anxiety and is not sustainable. We don’t want to be that person.

For healing to occur we may have to let go of trying to control our partner’s behavior.

It may seem counter intuitive, but for healing to occur partners will need to do the opposite—let go of trying to control their partner’s behaviour and movements, and take control and responsibility for their own.  Clearly, the partner who has been unfaithful needs to own responsibility for their behaviour and the hurt caused. But to say that responsibility only lies on the shoulders of one person misses the need for the relationship as an organism to grow and heal.

An affair is usually a symptom of something that has gone wrong in the relationship dynamic, not just with one person. The person who has had the affair needs to be honest in making amends. The person who feels wronged also needs to acknowledge their role in any distancing and disconnection that may have existed in the relationship prior to the affair.  The repair work needs to be done by both parties together for healing to occur.

Why does cheating happen?

48% of men rated emotional dissatisfaction as the primary reason they cheated.

Most men who have affairs speak about loneliness, lack of validation and a lack of connection with their partners as the main reasons for cheating. This is very different from a common belief from women that men only cheat for sex.

Unfortunately a big part of the problem is that men are less likely than women to express their feelings when distancing starts to happen. Many see this as being unmanly and this limiting belief needs to be addressed if the relationship is to grow and move forward.

In a US national survey, as many as 19.3% of women reported having had an affair at some point in their marriage, according to Michael Wiederman, Ph.D., of Bell State University [1]. After marriage, the quality of their relationship was the strongest reason for having an affair.  The main factor was feeling devalued by their husband as well as relationship conflict, the husband’s jealousy and an ongoing lack in expressions of love from their partner.

Most of us blossom and feel connected when we are appreciated.

John Gottman, author and couple therapy researcher, has frequently stressed the importance of nurturing a culture of gratitude and appreciation in a relationship in order to build the respect, love and goodwill. This is vital for the sustainability of wellness and love in our relationships. I would take this further and say this applies to all our relationships—with children, friends, co-workers and, of course, with ourselves.

Affairs aren’t just with other people. A third party, that takes away our attention and energy can happen with our work or family members. People spend a great deal of time at their work or studies and this can become their primary relationship over their partners. Or closeness can occur with a child or our own parents at the exclusion of our partner.

One woman felt that her husband spent far more time at his parents place than with her. He was frequently going over to their house straight after work and spending hours with them. She felt excluded in the intimacy he shared with his family.

Here are some tips to help us deal with infidelity:

1. Take time to heal. This may take six to 12 months and will require support. Not addressing it doesn’t make it go away. It may become the sore point that gets pulled out whenever there’s a conflict. Getting professional help on healing and rebuilding self-esteem and addressing feelings of hurt, anger, resentment and even rage will be important.

2. The person who had the affair needs to address their guilt. It can be hard to think clearly through this time. Going through an infidelity can leave us with a skewed view of ourselves.

3. Be willing to trust again. Renew the commitments of the relationship. What boundaries need to be placed, how will we build the goodwill and respect together? These things happen gradually, one step at a time.

4. Own the problems that were created by having the infidelity. We cannot change what we don’t acknowledge. Showing sincere regret and remorse is important for healing.

5. Make sure that the lines of communication stay open between partners. It might sound strange, but infidelity can strengthen your relationship. It’s a wake up call to work through any difficulties, notice where we’ve drifted apart and start to rebuild strength. Address any gaps in intimacy, validation and expressions of love.

6. Learn how to come to terms and control emotions about the affair so that its chains do not bind us.

There are also specific difficulties that affect people in same sex relationships.

For some, a relationship ending because of an affair can create further isolation. In lesbian relationships, for example, there may already be a feeling of isolation in the broader community around their choice of partner. It can feel even lonelier when we feel betrayed by our partner, who may have also been our close friend in our friendship network. In some same sex relationships people have felt excluded in their families and lost friends to be with their partner. It is extremely important to reach out and feel we are supported if a relationship ends because of the affair.

Over time, it might still feel like we’ve got a little thorn in our side when it comes to trusting.

There will probably be good days and bad days. As in all forms of grief there will be a feeling of loss of what was, and hopefully a gradual acceptance of what is—the new relationship that both partners are trying to create after surviving the affair.

Hold onto the focus of building intimacy, creating a relationship that maintains connection, openness and honesty.


[1] The Journal of Sex Research; Extramarital Sex: Prevalence and Correlates in a National Survey; Michael W. Wiederman, Ph.D.; Vol. 34, No.2, 1997

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