SYR Podcast # 7 Session Notes
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Affair Recovery Growth: What Infidelity Can Teach Us about Relationships
Over the years I’ve worked with many couples recovering from an affair. Some of these couples were struggling with emotional affair recovery, many with sexual infidelity. In either case, the emotional pain and turmoil caused by these betrayals is enormous. And from this disruption can come a few potential outcomes.
When infidelity becomes lodged in the relationship, the defining moment that all else orbits around, couples are often not able to recover in any meaningful way. In these cases, the pain lingers with great intensity despite the passage of time; usually these relationships end. Ending the marriage or relationship is seen as the only viable release from the continued pain and humiliation caused by the betrayal.
Another possible affair outcome is that the couple remains stuck in the post-affair disarray but they stay together. They may adapt by existing in disconnection, forsaking intimacy for the safety that emotional distance brings.
Or the affair recovery process may be mis-directed, with the couple trying to recapture what was lost—a grasping for the pre-affair version of the relationship. This often backfires, especially if the affair was a symptom of something that was significantly wrong in the relationship. And often, the guilt for straying is so great that the person who cheated may do everything in his/her power to give the betrayed what s/he wants. And when the focus of these efforts center around reverting back to old patterns (patterns that were a driving force for the infidelity), it’s just a matter of time before the contrite partner finds him/herself unhappy and affair-prone.
Finally, there are couples who do rebuild their post-affair relationship and report that rebuilding has led to a stronger marriage or relationship. In these instances, the affair acted as a painful wakeup call. As a result, the relationship became unrecognizable and in the ashes something new and more vibrant emerged. Of course these couples wish they took a different (a less painful and disruptive) path to strengthening their marriage or relationship, but the fact is, the affair happened, and they reemerged from it renewed.
We can all learn from these couples who emerged from infidelity stronger.
What exactly changed for these couples after the affair?
Affair Recovery Growth: Why Our Relationships Are Stronger Now
1) More awake and more appreciative
After seventeen years of marriage, Vince acknowledges that he was simply going through the paces of his relationship in a numb (mindless) way. The days and weeks blurred into each other, the couple’s routines grew stale and Vince started to wonder, “Is this all there is?”
For Vince, the repetitiveness of domesticity put him to sleep psychically. He wasn’t fully engaged in his marriage or his life. How many of us can identify with falling into ruts that seem to dull the edges of our existence? After all, life is repetitive. There’s no way around this (and there are a lot of positives that come from this). But when we don’t take the necessary steps to revive ourselves from our waking slumber, an attraction to someone else can take on heightened meaning (especially when this attraction jars us to be more fully present and alive within our own skin).
Vince decided to end his affair and recommit to his wife.
Since rebuilding his marriage, Vince now works hard on seeing things differently. “I’m trying to see things through a new lens. It is the lens of appreciation,” states Vince. Prior to his affair, he didn’t feel appreciated by his wife Zoe but just as importantly (if not more so), Vince didn’t appreciate his life.
It’s easy for the person who had an affair to lay the infidelity at the feet of feeling unappreciated but Vince took this a step further. He recognizes how his lack of appreciation undermined his own engagement in life. And the less engaged he felt, the more emotionally numb he became. Life and his marriage felt like a never-ending series of dreary, overcast days with no sun in the forecast. Setting the daily intention to be more appreciative of what does exist in his marriage has turned this depressing forecast around.
Strengthen Your Relationship Self-Reflection
Do you go out of your way to actively appreciate what exists in your life and relationship?
How do you express this appreciation to your partner/spouse?
2) The pain of not mattering
From childhood to adulthood and into the later phases of our lives, there is an emotional need that joins us all despite the amazing diversities that make us unique:
the need to feel like we matter to those who are important to us.
Many of the couples who come to me for treatment don’t feel cared for, they don’t feel heard, in short, they don’t feel valued and prioritized by their spouse/partner. Often they’ll say something like:
“If he really cared, he’d_______”;
“She’d rather spend time with her friends than me!”;
“He never listens to me. It’s like I’m invisible.”
Behind these (and many other similar) complaints is the desire to feel special, wanted, desired, important.
The emotional pain of not feeling like she mattered to her husband really got to Cindy. She recalled that it was more than a year that she felt this way before having an affair with a coworker. Her affair partner made Cindy feel like she was on top of the world. He hung onto her every word, he was curious about her, hungry to spend time with her and really get to know her. All this sat side-by-side with what she saw as her husband’s apathy for her. The contrast was blinding.
Over the next few months, Cindy’s guilt about cheating caused her to end her affair and confront her husband Will. The couple is still in the process of seeing if their marriage can be saved, but Cindy is now crystal-clear about the following: “If Will cannot value me, if he cannot show me this through his actions (rather than just saying it), then I’ll have no choice but to end the marriage. I don’t say that lightly. But after feeling like I mattered during the affair, I cannot turn back and be in a relationship where this is totally lacking.”
Will wants to save his marriage and is trying to cope with his sense of betrayal so that he can give Cindy what she needs and deserves.
Strengthen Your Relationship Self-Reflection
Are you willing to set the intention to show your spouse/partner that s/he matters to you?
What makes you feel valued and like you matter in your relationship? How can you express this in a non-judgmental way?
3) Sexual healing
Sexual incompatibilities are common in the couples I see and these painful intimacy hurdles can impact the overall quality of a relationship (well beyond what just happens in the bedroom). Frequently, these incompatibilities become apparent as the relationship matures beyond the early, libido-fueled infatuation stage.
Individuals with higher sex drives (higher than their partner’s), often feel rejected (and undesired) when their partner turns them down for sex—especially if there is a pattern of having their advances consistently declined.
Theo complained that he was the one who always initiated sex. He wanted Abigail to reach out to him. He wanted to feel like she wanted him sexually. Abigail loved Theo very much but she just wasn’t feeling sexually drawn to him. So her half-hearted attempts just frustrated Theo further. He desired to be desired.
After years of feeling sexually unwanted, Theo had a six-month affair with someone from his gym. It was intense. It was passionate. But at some point the drama of it all became too much for Theo. So he ended it and decided to make his marriage work.
In couples counseling, Theo disclosed the affair to Abigail. He was deeply remorseful and it pained him to see how his infidelity devastated Abigail. She sobbed, and through her sobs she said that she had thought he loved her and that he wanted to take care of her. He did want these things, he reassured her, but he also wanted more. He needed to connect sexually with her. This need couldn’t be repressed.
He loved Abigail and he wanted to make love to her. Sexual intimacy was a powerful connector for Theo. Without it, he felt alone in the relationship. In counseling he was able to clarify his needs and express to Abigail that for him, sex was so much more than just the sex. It was emotional. It made him feel close to her.
This surprised Abigail. She had thought Theo was sexually ravenous most of the time and that she was just an outlet for his sexuality. An outlet that had nothing to do with emotions and love. Theo teared up when he heard Abigail share that she felt this way. The turmoil of the affair brought out so much that was unspoken for them both. He felt unloved and undesired. She felt burdened to satiate his sexuality, a sexuality she thought had little to do with their relationship or the love they shared.
They were now better able to move forward and negotiate more clearly what they each felt for and needed from the other.
Strengthen Your Relationship Self-Reflection
How do you and your partner compromise when it comes to sexual incompatibilities?
How do you express your feelings through sexual activity?
There are many reasons why someone may break the commitment of their marriage or relationship and start an affair. When an affair is about unmet needs, the affair recovery process requires the integration of these needs into the overall fabric of the relationship. It’s easy to vilify someone who has cheated. But the truth is, many who do are in great emotional pain. They may feel trapped in a relationship that feels endlessly and relentlessly painful.
This isn’t meant to justify infidelity. Instead, we should understand which emotional needs might be getting met through an affair so that we can more clearly communicate these needs to our partner. Part of this process will hopefully lead to greater empathy and understanding, an understanding of the pain that exists when our needs go unmet for extended periods of time.
Wishing you a relationship filled with fulfillment,
Dr. Rich Nicastro
(Featured image credit: “Edinburgh” by Andy Rennie 90 under CC BY-SA 2.0)