In the aftermath of infidelity, what does a hurt partner need most?
What comes to mind?
Most people, unfaithful partners, or even therapists routinely answer the same way: hurt partners need true remorse from the betrayer, to forgive, and to know why among other things.
Of course, these are all true and important. Yet, the more fundamental and vital concern any betrayed partner needs to be addressed is for their pain to be heard.
There is No Healing without Hearing
A middle-class family is living and growing together. There are 40-ish parents with 3 children, 2 of whom are teens. Wife and mother, Mary, worked up until the first child was born. Now, that the youngest is school age, she contemplates a return to her career.
Meanwhile, her husband, Jim, financially supports the family. He works hard and travels often. Consequently, the family enjoys financial stability and an enviable lifestyle complete with private schools and resort-style vacations.
When Mary finds out her husband has been having a year-long affair, she understandably crashes. Yet, she decides to try and save the relationship. She and Jim work towards healing.
But, there is a major problem: Mary feels stuck with her anger and rage. She feels there is no outlet for her feelings.
- She can’t cry because the kids don’t know anything.
- She can’t tell anyone because she knows how this type of gossip spreads like wildfire.
- She can’t share with her family because she fears they’ll never forgive him.
And what happens when she and Jim try to talk this out? Well, things quickly go wrong. She ends up lashing out and Jim just gets defensive or shuts down.
What a mess!
So, What about you? Is this your story? If so, you aren’t alone. I’ve heard variations of this scenario for years. There is such loneliness accompanying the aftermath of infidelity. It can be crazy-making for both partners.
Sadly, there are few opportunities for a hurt partner to express their pain or be heard. That inability to feel heard, acknowledged, and validated makes it impossible to start healing.
The Experts Agree: Non-defensive Listening Is Key to Turning a Marriage Around
The Gottman Institute addresses this very thing. They break down their approach to treating affairs into three phases: Atone, Attune, and Attach.
The first phase, Atone, deals specifically with hearing the pain. To benefit most from this relationship work, the unfaithful partner must listen, non-defensively and patiently. They must allow their wounded partner to openly express their pain.
To further underscore the hurt partner’s need for expression, author and expert in the area of extramarital affairs, Peggy Vaughan, reveals the results of an empirical study explored in her book The Monogamy Myth.
Dr. Vaughan studied people who anonymously wrote about their affairs online. She identified key differences between people whose relationships were salvaged and those who weren’t. She found that couples who stayed together talked through the affair openly and thoroughly. Couples who attempted to move forward without adequately discussing the affair typically didn’t make it.
A betraying partner’s expression of remorse is essential as is their willingness to listen non-defensively to the hurt partner’s emotions. In addition, they must answer their hurt partner’s questions with transparency.
This isn’t easy but relationship expert Dr. Shirley Glass counsels couples similarly in her book Not Just Friends.
So, Now You Know the Hurt Partner Must Be Heard…How Do You Make Sure This Happens?
I can tell you that in my program as much as I’m aware of this pitfall, I sometimes have to make sure I’m not behaving as some betraying partners do. Encouraging a hurt partner to move on, stop obsessing, and start fixing the marriage too soon is not productive. Neither the partner nor the therapist should press forward before the hurt partner’s pain is heard.
Here are some things you can both do to make sure you’re not trying to move on or tend to other relationship issues before hearing the hurt partner clearly and fully.
The Unfaithful Partner’s Tasks for Hearing The Hurt Partner:
- Be compassionate when your hurt partner shares what the affair did to them. Listen carefully, acknowledge honestly, and validate openly your partner’s feelings. DO NOT engage in defensiveness in any way.
- Don’t make the responsibility to talk about their pain theirs and theirs alone. Make it your duty to ask questions and check-in on your partner. See how they are doing, even if they seem okay.
- Make the time and prioritize your talks. You should be talking about this every day in the beginning. If there are children, go for a walk together, hire a babysitter, whatever you deem necessary. Don’t put it off, avoid it, or neglect this phase of recovery. If you do, you will likely regret it.
The Hurt Partner’s Tasks for Expressing Their Pain Fully
Do you think that all you have to do is talk about your pain? Often, sharing is a more complicated process.
- Take the time to let your partner know you need to talk. Say something like “I need you to hear this and just listen.” Don’t swallow the pain. It just makes the hurt more intense and guarantees a blow-up at some point in the future.
- Maintain a support system. However, do keep in mind that your partner needs to hear and acknowledge what they did to you. Confiding in others will not suffice if healing your marriage is the goal.
- Talk about how you feel about what happened. Talk about how coping with the betrayal feels. Refrain from lashing out, name-calling, and harsh criticism. Verbal assault will only cause your partner to withdraw and lock themselves in their “shame room.” Withdrawal then becomes additionally agonizing and hurtful.
All in all, these three essential tasks for each partner enable the highly important hearing of the pain.
To paraphrase Esther Perel (one of my favorite couples therapists), “this is when you talk about what the affair did to the hurt spouse”. Later on, you will talk about what the affair meant to the unfaithful partner. Make sure you don’t mix the two.
I do hope this was helpful and that you have a few more tools in your toolbox to start expressing and hearing affair-related pain. I know how tough it is to begin affair recovery.