What You Need to Know About the Stages of Affair Recovery
Affair recovery is one of the most challenging events in a couple’s life. We could have guessed that affairs remain one of the leading causes of divorce or ending the relationship, but did you know that the majority of couples experiencing infidelity choose affair recovery? So if this is you, read on.
So, it makes sense that how the couple moves toward affair recovery is critical. The quality of the healing process can be a factor in whether the couple can be successful in rebuilding trust and connection. The tricky issue is that there are some predictable obstacles that need to be navigated skillfully along the way.
Fortunately, there is a foundation of research and best practices related to what is most helpful to couples who seek to address the hurt and sadness that emerges after infidelity is discovered.
What to Expect During Affair Recovery
We think it’s helpful for couples to know what’s involved in affair recovery and to offer hope. After all, 70% of couples choose to stay in their relationship.
In Emotionally Focused Couple Therapy, the most-researched and most-successful approach to helping couples, there are three components of affair recovery:
- Coping with the strong emotions when infidelity has been revealed
- Understanding the affair and why it happened
- Rebuilding trust
The healing process itself presents multiple challenges. According to Sue Johnson, Ph.D., the primary developer of this therapy approach, couples may try to avoid the painful process by ignoring or avoiding any painful discussions. “This is a big mistake,” she writes. “Unresolved traumas do not heal. . .What partners need is a special type of healing conversation that fosters just just forgiveness but the willingness to trust again.”
Yes, there will be strong emotions by the hurt partner. The offending partner may be defensiveness and frustrated by unaccepted apologies. There is quite often a roller coaster of ups and downs along the way.
However, while difficult, recovery can be possible when both partners are willing to work toward a new understanding of their relationship, both past and present.
Understanding the Emergence of Anxiety
The hurt partner may, perhaps for the first time in the relationship, express periods of intense anxiety about the security of the relationship.
This anxiety by the hurt partner can take many forms, including:
- Heightened concern about the partner’s whereabouts — where they are, with whom, when they’ll be home
- Anxiety about lag time between returned phone calls or texts
- Whether the affair is still going on and whether there is any contact with the affair partner
- Questioning their own self-worth or attractiveness
Unfortunately, this anxiety may appear to the offending partner as accusatory in nature. All that’s visible are anger or attempts at controlling. However, (and this is important!) beneath this anxiety is an intense fear by the hurt partner that he or she is no longer important or loved or that the relationship is no longer valued by the offending partner.
Anger & Withdrawal Can Be Heightened
Emotions are very escalated in the early days and weeks after affair discovery. When couples meet and fall in love, they form a powerful emotional bond. So, the anxiety just described as well as anger and rage are part of the emotional upheaval. The hurt partner may also withdraw. They may not want to speak to their partner, feeling too wounded to even face or discuss the situation.
What couples may fail to see during the early phase of affair recovery, however, is that this period of emotional turbulence reveals how important the relationship or marriage is to both partners. Attempts by the offending partner to apologize or explain are not yet received by the hurt partner, and this also contributes to the emotional roller coaster. This can feel like endless promises and apologies. The partner who stepped out of the marriage is trying desperately to reassure their hurt partner, but the hurt isn’t going away.
“Tell Me Why!!”
This phase may be blended with the first one, but tends to mark some calming of the powerful emotions. The hurt partner is angry, hurt and sad; however, the need to know why the affair occurred typically is extremely strong.
Yet, talking about the affair remains challenging. Some couples start out with calm discussions, but may find the emotions escalate as conversation continues.
We know from research that disclosure of specific sexual content that occurred with the affair partner is harming and may increase the trauma. The hurt partner might still feel it’s very important to know these details – leading to a tough cycle of a need to know more and that knowledge being really traumatizing.
The hurt partner will want to know other details: How did the affair start, how often did they meet and where. And, what were the offending partner’s feelings about the affair partner: Was there an emotional connection? What was the meaning or purpose for you to go outside the relationship?
It’s often helpful that the hurt partner can be reassured the affair is over. Access to the partner’s phone and email can calm anxiety as the hurt partner is able to see that there is no further contact with the affair partner. This transparency can be a part of affair recovery for many couples. It isn’t a permanent solution, but if it can be seen as a way to offer reassurance and soothing instead of being a way to feel watched and controlled, it can be helpful.
Helping to understand the “why” is inherently difficult. SOMETHING made the relationship vulnerable to this. Closeness and the quality of the relationship may have been eroding for a long time. Less attention and importance may have been placed on the relationship and on each other. Differences on key issues may not have been able to be resolved by the couple, creating a distance between them.
In exploring the “why”, it can often feel like the hurt partner is being blamed for the affair by having contributed to the problems in the relationship. The harsh reality is that it takes two to tango, and the hurt partner usually has contributed to the problems. It doesn’t excuse the hurt of betrayal, but if you want to recover from the affair you must look at what brought you there. Naturally, it may take the hurt partner a while to accept the “why” of the affair. Keep in mind that trust, right now, is extremely fragile.
Uniting Against the Affair
During the “why” phase, couples have an opportunity for discovery:
- The offending partner sees how deep the wound was for his or her partner, opening the door for a renewed understanding of how important they are to each other
- Together, the couple can discover areas of their relationship that need to be strengthened. Has more attention been focused on the kids than each other? Have jobs and careers become too important at the expense of the relationship or marriage?
- Have unhealed previous hurtful events in the course of the relationship created a wedge between the couple? For example, if a partner felt their spouse was not there for them during a difficult time, a distance may still remain if this was not addressed
The couple can begin to learn how to strengthen their bond and to once again make their marriage or relationship a priority. This is what we do a lot of in our Denver Couples Counseling practice.
Forgiveness and Renewing Trust
It will never be possible to erase the affair from the couple’s story of their relationship. However, affair recovery helps the couple move the painful event from the intense emotions and hurt to a place of understanding and of renewed commitment to and enrichment of the relationship or marriage.
The hurt partner can become more willing to take risks and trust again and to reach for his or her partner for reassurance. These risks mean the hurt partner is willing to be vulnerable and, importantly, to make his or her needs known to the partner.
The injuring partner’s apologies are beginning to be accepted. What the hurt partner needs to hear is threefold:
- That the injuring partner is fully aware of the pain that was caused
- That there is great and sincere remorse for the infidelity
- That the injuring partner is willing to offer both comfort and patience
Prevention as Part of Affair Recovery
It’s not uncommon that couples who seek counseling in our Denver Marriage Counseling practice for affair recovery to begin to find a new closeness and openness in their relationship. The Emotionally Focused Couple Therapy process helps couples deepen their connection, as well as learn to resolve challenging issues or differences.
It’s important the couple also work to resolve any past issues that were creating a wedge between them. If these differences were causing arguing and disconnection, part of staying close — and affair prevention — is to not issues continue and possibly contribute to resentments.
When couples work to recover from an affair, says Dr. Johnson, “. . .they become increasingly confident that they can shape their relationship and steer it through any crisis. They have a safe haven and a secure base together.”
At End of the Day – Don’t Give Up
This is not an easy process, it takes a real committment to heal and change. But, if you are facing affair recovery and wonder if it’s an absolute death sentence for your relationship, it doesn’t have to be. To learn more about some aspects of affair recovery, you might want to read about dealing with after affair anxiety and what to do after cheating is discovered. If you are curious about what Emotionally Focused Couples Therapy is and would like to learn more, click here.