One of the most difficult events that can happen in a relationship is infidelity. Relational safety is leveled to a 0 after an affair, and many begin to doubt their partner’s love and commitment to them entirely. There are many who say “I would never stand for that, I’d definitely leave!” when thinking about an affair in theory, but most of those same people find that it’s a much more complicated decision in practice. That is because we love our partners even when we feel betrayed, we’ve built a life with them and our friends/families, we have future goals that we imagined our partner to be a vital part of, we may have kids or financial entanglements to consider, but most of all, we don’t know whether things could work out in the end.
It is wise and fair to take your time with the decision of “what to do” after an affair in your relationship- making a rash choice is almost never advisable. That said, you want to make your time productive as you weigh your choices and below are some ideas/points to consider if you are unsure if you would like to remain in your relationship after an affair. These questions address both the “betrayed” (the person not having the affair) and the “betrayer” (the person having the affair).
1) Do YOU feel ambivalent or unsure if you would like to remain in this relationship? Are you only interested in repair because you are afraid to be alone? Are you only interested in repair because you feel guilt for what you’ve done and don’t want to be perceived by others as a “bad” person? Repair work is HARD and you most likely will need to feel very sure that you WANT this relationship to work to get through it.
2) Is the affair completely, 100% over? To repair your relationship, the affair MUST be COMPLETELY over. You have 1 chance to fix this- a second or repeat infidelity would be SO devastating and likely extremely difficult to recover from. You cannot commit yourself to relationship recovery work and also be actively harming your relationship in an affair- you have to pick one path!
3) Recovery from an affair will likely take MANY months, and it is not uncommon for recovery work to last over a year. It is also not uncommon for there to be emotional “flare ups” even years down the line. Are both parties prepared to do this work for the long haul? Do either party hope this will be “fixed quickly”? The “betrayer” is probably going to have to get pretty comfy losing (some of) their right to privacy during this time- it is a frequent expectation that there is transparency given regarding one’s phone/computer, an expectation to know one’s schedule, etc. The “betrayer” will also have to get very used to their partner being angry with them. It is your job to provide LOTS and LOTS of reassurance, which can be hard to do when your partner is very agitated and angry with you. You may feel resentful of your partner when they are randomly triggered. Are you prepared to withstand this anger? Your partner NEEDS to express their rage to a partner that can meet them with empathy, and that is SO hard to do! The “betrayed” must also work overtime to modulate their anger- you cannot yell and freak out forever. You cannot throw this in your partners face forever. At some point, you must “own” your decision to forgive. The betrayed must also work to show more than just their anger, including showing the vulnerable, sad, and scared parts that hide underneath.
4) The “betrayer” must come clean about basic facts regarding the affair when asked. That said, it is not necessarily healthy to get involved in “little details” with your partner- you can set boundaries around questions that feel unhealthy. The “betrayer” needs to do an honest inner evaluation of HOW and WHY this happened. Saying it was random and thoughtless is NOT comforting- to the “betrayed”- that means that this could randomly and thoughtlessly happen again, or that their pain is an afterthought. ** THE MOST PRODUCTIVE THING THAT CAN COME OUT OF AN AFFAIR IS AN HONEST ASSESSMENT OF PEOPLE’S NEEDS IN RELATIONSHIPS THAT MAY HAVE BEEN GOING UNMET. ** This conversation will be difficult, and it is important to not blame your partner for your actions if you discover you had an unmet need. It was still a decision to have an affair versus verbalizing this need to your partner.
5) Are you prepared for “checking behaviors” when rebuilding trust? Many people want to periodically check texts/call logs/emails or hear certain conversations (such as a conversation with your affair partner ending all communications moving forward). Many people may want to track your geographic location based off your schedule. This is a part of trying to learn to feel safe again in the relationship. NO, it cannot and should not last forever. This level of intrusion is “too much” for a normal relationship, but your relationship is not on normal ground right now. Setting a time limit on how many months this is appropriate may help.
6) Strengthen your relationship! Seeds of attraction fall on fertile ground, usually (but not always) because of a known or unknown slump or frustration in the original relationship. TALK ABOUT THIS. Date each other again, learn who each other is at this new juncture in your relationship. Try to take breaks from hard conversations to have a little fun together. Smiling and laughing does NOT mean you’re “all better”! It is important to have some lighter, respite moments during all of this hard work.
Working with a counselor through affair recovery is almost always vitally important to the success of this work. It holds the couple accountable to having difficult conversations with a moderator who can also point out possible miscommunications. This will be the some of the hardest emotional work of your life, but it can be SO rewarding. You CAN recover after an affair and have a truly beautiful relationship and life. Having this chapter in your relationship will always be painful, but it can also be transformative to a healthier and happier relationship, too. If this topic hits close to home for you right now, know that I am so sorry for the pain you are feeling right now. I hope these ideas have helped you start to consider your recovery path.
Written by: Kelly Birkhold, LCSW (offering individual and couples counseling, including to those recovering from an affair)