(In this article I focus on men who have been unfaithful [because statics show that men are more likely to stray than women]. However, the points made are also relevant to women who have had an affair).
The Fallout from an Affair
Let’s start with the obvious: An affair is devastating and some couples never recover from the pain of this kind of betrayal. Some even report that the wounds of the infidelity follow them into future relationships (they have trouble trusting future spouses/partners).
Couples have reported that the pain from an affair is like nothing they’ve ever experienced. Your whole world is tilted on its axis when the one person you thought you could trust more than anyone violates everything that has emotionally grounded you and brought deep meaning to your life.
The good news is that many couples do heal from an affair and couples even report that — after the hard work is done — their marriage is stronger as a result of the crisis caused by the affair. But recovery can be and is often a long and painful process.
As a marriage and couples counselor I’ve seen the following pattern occur in the affair recovery process:
At some point the person who had the affair gives up because he cannot tolerate how long his wife’s pain and anger lasts.
It isn’t that these men aren’t genuinely sorry and remorseful for what they’ve done; in fact, they are, and the regret they experience overwhelms them at times. They truly want to heal the relationship and save their marriage. But many of the men I worked with are totally unprepared for the level of hurt and anger that will be directed at them. And many are not prepared for how long their wives’ devastation will last.
Marriage Help: Preparing for the Affair Recovery Process
One of the approaches I take with men is to prepare them for what’s ahead. Having information about what to expect can be very helpful.
The five points I hammer home about the affair recovery process:
1. The road to recover will not be easy, and it is not linear.
Just when it feels like you’ve gotten over a very difficult emotional period and the marriage is starting to feel semi-normal, something that feels out of the blue to you may cause your wife to become flooded with pain and she’ll be thrown into a whirlwind of emotional despair and anger. Consider this rollercoaster the norm for a while.
2. Feeling genuinely sorry for the affair and promising that you’ll never cheat again isn’t enough for healing (though it’s an important step in the healing process).
Your promises will feel hollow to your wife. After all, some of the biggest promises you’ve ever made to her (loyalty, commitment, and exclusivity) have been broken. So for a considerable length of time she may not trust anything you say—your words have lost their meaning.
A big part of the recovery process will have to do with your actions—you will have to prove yourself as trustworthy and responsible. This will take time.
3. You will feel like you’re being punished for what you did.
And, in fact, your wife may want to punish you (can you blame her?). But the important point to remember is that while it might feel horrible to endure your wife’s pain and anger, it feels much worse for her. She wishes she didn’t have these feelings, and, if she could, she’d turn them off in a second.
You may be the target of her intense feelings for quite a while—consider this the norm in the healing journey. Your job is to endure and understand her pain and anger (easier said than done).
4. You might lose patience with your wife’s post-affair requests
I’ve seen this happen with many of the men I work with:
For the first couple of months or so, husbands are fully devoted to the affair recovery process. They understand their wife’s intense feelings, her need to check phone logs and emails, the repeated requests for details about the affair, and the men whole-heartedly agree to all of these requests for the sake of the marriage.
But as time passes and their wife’s feelings and requests (which start to feel like unreasonable demands) continue, some husbands start to feel hopeless and frustrated with how long it’s taking for their wife to “get over it.” Some even start to feel like they’re being treated unfairly and picture a lifetime of misery if they stay in the marriage.
You’ll need to refill your reservoir of patience over and over again.
5. You’ll question if the marriage is worth it.
The continued loss of patience can start to erode all confidence that the marriage is salvageable, and when this occurs, some guys start to check out of the marriage (emotionally or literally). As one husband said, “I need to cut my losses and move on with my life.”
This sense of despair is to be expected, and part of the healing process is to try and see the bigger picture of the relationship—to remind yourself of all the reasons why it is worth riding the long wave of recovery.
Unfortunately, there is no one-size-fits-all recovery process. So there is no way to predict how long it will take. But when you put expectations on how long it “should take” (six months, one year), you set yourself up for short-circuiting the level of patience needed for healing to occur.
Forgiveness is an important part of the affair-recovery process. I’ve created a comprehensive resource for how to make forgiveness a regular part of your relationship.
Check out my ebook for couples, Hurt by the One You Love: The Power of Forgiveness in Intimate Relationships
Until next time,
Dr. Rich Nicastro