#051: What Stops Couples from Healing After Infidelity
Why is it some couples can heal after infidelity while others can’t?
In one of my Facebook groups called ‘It’s OK to Stay,’ a member shared her dilemma:
…I was cheated on five years ago and stayed with my husband…It’s been five years and I feel the pain worse than ever. I can’t seem to get over it and I’m seriously considering leaving my husband. It would mean leaving a marriage of nineteen years and three children.
I feel helpless and unable to resolve this with my husband as it has been so long and he doesn’t understand why all of a sudden it’s become an issue. What is going on? Isn’t time supposed to heal the wound?…”
Can You Relate?
If so, neither you nor she is alone. This situation represents so many of the people I see in my practice who are struggling with the aftermath of infidelity.
On a weekly basis, hurting couples reach out to me.
Sometimes they share that it’s been six months since the infidelity occurred. And sometimes, it’s been twenty years since the revelation.
Yet, regardless of time and the decision to stay, one thing remains the same: the emotional pain in the marriage has actually become worse.
In fact, the hurt and confusion between partners have become so unbearable that one or both spouses ultimately sees no other option but to end their relationship for good.
Why Time Alone Won’t Heal Your Marriage
So, what’s happening? Why can’t you seem to heal after infidelity?
Well, as I see it, there are three main components that make a difference in the influence your ability to heal and move forward:
1. You realize that time only heals if you use it well.
In other words, what you do with time matters. It does not help you or your marriage to wait for healing to happen. Actually, it might make things worse.
Think about it, are there times when you seem to be healing, only to blindsided by your emotions? Boom! A very strong wave of feelings, grief and a sense of betrayal, hit you again. Suddenly, you find yourself back at emotional square one.
This is called resurfacing. And when resurfacing happens, the thought, “I don’t know if I can continue being in this marriage,” often follows the resurgence of painful emotions for many partners.
Recover in Three Phases
I tend to agree with most therapists who specialize in helping couples after infidelity. Healing from infidelity is generally best accomplished in a three-phase period: rebalancing, reattachment, and restarting.
That being said, it’s crucial that couples understand that recovery after infidelity is dependent on doing the work. There is no escaping it. Many couples who haven’t been able to heal skipped or skimmed through phases one and two and attempted to “restart” (phase 3) way too soon.
Phase One: Rebalance
Basically, to start, the term “balance” refers to rebalancing the crisis created after you find out about the infidelity. This is the first stage. During this crisis phase, your feelings are likely all over the place. You may experience a wealth of conflicting feelings:
“I love you” and “I hate you”;
“I want to save this relationship, but I also (am considering divorce) want a divorce”;
“I’m hopeful, but I have moments of no hope”;
“I know you, but I feel like i don’t know you anymore”,
All of those strong, contradictory feelings are real and roiling inside you. All we are trying to do in phase one is balance the crisis in certain, key ways.
❏ What is one of the first ways to rebalance your relationship? End of the affair.
Many unfaithful partners say, “Oh, yeah, I ended it. It’s not happening anymore,” but when asked, “what did you do to end the affair?” it hasn’t been done in a responsible meaningful way for both people in the marriage.
Simply erasing the affair partner from your social media and blocking them on your phone usually doesn’t do the trick, at least not as far as your partner is concerned. To learn more about how ending an affair in the right way, consider listening to Episode 12 of my podcast where I talk about how to do that well
❏ Rebalancing is also learning to trust again. At least enough to stay.
I’m not talking about full trust here. In truth, 100% trust doesn’t and shouldn’t exist. But trust on a continuum of 0 to 100 was knocked all the way back to 0 after the revelation of the affair. The goal during the rebalancing phase is to get to a workable 5 or 10 level of trust.
It’s important to note, regaining trust doesn’t stop during phase one, it continues to happen throughout all three phases. It’s not a one-time thing and it’s not an overnight thing.
❏ Rebalancing requires a clear expression of remorse by the unfaithful partner.
It sounds simple. “I’m sorry,” may seem like enough. But it usually doesn’t work that way. If you want to learn more about how to express remorse, please listen to go to Episode 44 of my podcast. I think you will discover that there is more to expressing remorse than you may realize.
Obviously, these rebalancing steps can be very painful, it makes sense, that many couples want to zoom through those. However, they are extremely important and weigh heavily on your ability to restore your relationship.
Phase Two: Reattach
The basic idea here is to be able to connect or communicate with your partner in ways that allow certain conversations to happen. Good communication makes it more possible for you both to understand, make sense of, and know why the infidelity happened. This part is very important, you can not skip communication!
Couples come to me saying, “We can’t recover! We can’t recover!” This is followed by the betrayed partner saying, “I don’t understand why they did it.”
At that point, I usually say, “You probably skipped the reattach phase.”
To learn more about how you can understand the “whys” of infidelity, consider the podcast episode 39. There, I discuss how you can ask the right questions and understand why your partner was unfaithful.
Phase Three: Restart
Phase three is the much desired “restart button.” You finally close one chapter to opening a new one. Together.
You create new rules, you regain intimacy, and you prevent relapse.
As I noted earlier, infidelity spurs couples in the crisis phase, to think of only solving the problem quickly. So they rush forward thinking, “Let’s close that ugly chapter. Let’s put the past in the past. Let’s forgive and forget and move on and open a new chapter.”
Unfortunately, though, if you don’t go through all the healing steps and phases you are unlikely to successfully reconcile. The number one difference between those that recover and those that don’t is diligence and seeing the phases through thoroughly and completely. Don’t skip your steps!
2. The unfaithful partner understands their part in the healing process
The second component of why couples can’t recover is in large part due to the betraying partner‘s unwillingness to bear a large amount of responsibility for the relationship’s healing.
Couples who make it include a betraying partner who accepts a high level of responsibility understands it, and really believes, that the healing should be done together. Furthermore, with those realizations in place that partner will take action.
Perhaps they will suggest going to therapy together, reading books about healing together or doing an online course together. Whatever the solution, the awareness of his or her responsibility is present and the idea of recovering together is paramount.
As a therapist, I’ll take this idea one step further:
Unfaithful partners who take more responsibility for the healing than their partners usually do better in the healing process.
That is to say, relationships in which the unfaithful partners take a high level of responsibility fare much better than couples where the betraying partners view their partner’s pain as something they are helpless to address.
Often betrayed, hurting partners call me, encouraged by the betraying partner to figure it out alone. They call saying, “I’ve been cheated on and I’m experiencing all these crazy symptoms of PTSD. My partner is telling me that I have to do something about it. They’re really concerned about me. Can you help me?”
And when I say, “I can help you. Would you come in with your partner?” They’ll answer, “No, my partner said that I need to be in therapy and do something about it.” As if there’s a pill or some relaxation exercise to get you over infidelity!
It sounds ridiculous that an unfaithful partner would think such a thing. But the truth is, the betraying partner sees their partner going through hell. Maybe the hurt partner is exhibiting PTSD symptoms like nightmares, intrusive thoughts, or hypervigilance. The suffering is real. But the unfaithful partner feels they can’t do anything meaningful to help. The crisis feels too big.
So, the unfaithful partner thinks, “I can’t watch this anymore. It’s really terrible. Let me send them to somebody who can help them.” In essence, their action is coming from a desire to comfort their spouse, not shirk the help for him or herself.
Thus, it’s also no wonder that the betraying partner often tells their partner to,” leave the past in the past. It was a mistake.” They aren’t being callous, they simply want to restart and make things better… immediately.
So the hurt partner will often go along with a premature restart, saying to themselves. “How long can I take this pain? I need to do something to make it go away.” And both partners agree that the hurt partner seek counseling alone.
If you and your partner are suffering this way, it’s important to realize that there is only so much time that either of you can remain in the crisis stage. You both really want the pain to go away. Just don’t do more harm than good trying to find relief.
Attempting to heal without each other is a costly mistake
Please know that efforts to heal without your partner will most likely not solve your relationship problems. Especially not long term. While skipping through the healing phases or recovering on your own comes from a very logical place, eventually, one of you is likely to leave the other. Why? The lack of balance and attachment in your relationship is overwhelming.
3. Infidelity is not the only lens through which you view your partner
Finally, the third component impacting recovery after infidelity is whether a couple is able to ability to view the infidelity as just one aspect of their connection amid various layers in the relationship.
Now, this broader perspective doesn’t happen immediately. When couples see each other in full context, usually, the revelation has passed, the crisis mode is waning, and partners are more able to see the entirety of their relationship. The rest of their partner’s qualities rise to the surface. The complexity and value of their relationship come into focus.
Couples who make it are those who are able to see that there is more to their relationship than the affair.
Now, to be clear, I really am talking about a one time kind of infidelity. Serial cheating revealed and repeated is very difficult for any partner to view as anything but characteristic of the relationship. It’s a total breach of trust.
However, if your situation is a one-time thing or one revelation of more than one affairs and remorse exists, as a therapist, I look at how the betrayed partner views the relationship:
- Are they able to see their partner’s other characteristics?
- Are they able to see the wealth in their relationship?
- Can they see more than mistrust and cheating between them?
Unfortunately, couples that only relate to their partners through the eyes of infidelity months or even years later, saying things like “I cannot trust one thing that comes out of their mouth,” or “I don’t know who they are anymore,” generally don’t recover.
Of course, I can try to help with other forms of therapy, but if this continues to happen without therapeutic guidance, infidelity becomes a permanent wedge between partners. Healing doesn’t happen.
It’s very hard for either to live with an expectation of betrayal, lies, and cover-ups between them. The betraying partner is always “the cheater.” The betrayed partner remains stuck, always scanning the world to see when and where their partner will fail them again.
Okay, so how do you make sure to go through all three phases of healing?
1. Awareness is vital
After reading this blog, you are well on your way. Being aware of the healing roadmap provides direction and helps prevents either of you from losing each other to overwhelm along the way. Furthermore, if you do go to therapy, you are more educated about the phases, (every therapist will call them something different, make sure you are informed regarding their approach).
2. An appropriately trained therapist is crucial
Be advised, there are many therapists who don’t specialize in infidelity, but take on infidelity cases anyway. Be sure to work with someone who can tell you how they will help you determine where you are in the healing process and how you will navigate the phases. They should help you make choices that are right for you. At the end of therapy, you should feel more hopeful about embracing a more satisfying and sustainable relationship with your partner.
3. Self-education is key
Educating yourself through self-help books that talk specifically about healing after infidelity can be helpful. I highly recommend After the Affair, by Janis Abrahms Spring. There are many more books on the market that walk you through those healing stages as well.
Also, you may want to consider an online course. Of course, while researching the market for such courses, I did realize that there aren’t many offered by professional therapists. That is part of the reason I took it upon myself to create such a course for people looking to work through that healing roadmap with ample support. It should be ready and available towards the end of 2018.
Take the next step
These are the things that you can do now to make sure that you’re a couple who can recover from infidelity. Do something with the time you have to make sure it heals the way you hope. Reach out to a therapist or simply start by joining my Facebook group, “It’s Okay to Stay.” You may post anonymously if you wish. You’ll receive answers promptly and obtain some much-needed support.