Discovery of an affair in a committed monogamous relationship is one of the most devastating experiences in a relationship. An affair destroys trust and a sense of security within a relationship that usually leads to a lot of pain, anger, guilt and resentment. Often couples feel lost and hopeless because shame prevents them from talking about it or asking for help.
Despite common belief that break-up is inevitable after discovery of an affair, surprising numbers of couples would prefer to stay together and work things through. There are many benefits of overcoming an affair if it is done successfully. Many couples report renewal of commitments and deepening of their connection when healing is allowed to take place. For these couples, an affair may be a wake-up call for them to step up.
Affairs leave lasting hurt and resentment that may prevent you from trusting and loving again. Therefore, it is important to find ways to heal from the affair whether you decide to stay or go.
There are some conditions that need to be met if a couple wishes to stay together and move forward after an affair
- They must both be willing to reconcile.
- The offending partner is remorseful and willing to take responsibility.
- Both parties will be willing to explore the cause.
- The offending partner will end the affair.
- Both parties are honest with each other.
- The betrayed party has the intention to forgive and will not try to punish the other party.
When our relationship is threatened, it is often hard to be reasonable or rational. We tend to be reactive, which is often behaviour that drives each other away. Here are some common challenging interaction patterns that occur after discovery of an affair and tips on how to overcome them.
Demand and Withdraw
Demand and withdrawal is the most common yet stable interaction pattern in unhappy couples. Some common forms of demanding behaviours after discovery of an affair are: probing, attacking, disapproving, complaining, criticising, interrogating, accusing, confronting, clinging, yelling to make one’s point, controlling, questioning, following around the house, and judging. Commonly, the betrayed parties exhibit these demanding or protesting behaviours as they are needing reassurance to feel secure again in the relationship. These are behaviours that come out of fear. These behaviours trigger the other party to withdraw.
Examples of withdrawing behaviours are reasoning, defending, counter blaming, withdrawing (leaving the room or house), yelling to shut things down, minimising, dismissing and etc. The withdrawing partners are trying to prevent the conflict from blowing up. Often due to guilt and shame, which are feelings we want to avoid, they tend to wish to forget the past, minimise the impact of what they have done and shut down any conversations regarding the affair. These behaviours cause the betrayed party to feel invalidated and trigger their fear that it could happen again because the offending party does not appear sorry enough.
This combination of behaviours often perpetuates the negative cycle and makes it difficult to heal despite your best efforts.
So what can you do to make the healing process easier?
Communicate openly without judgement
Understand that healing is going to take time and that it might be difficult for a while. Remember why you are prepared to endure this trial. It is because you both decided that the relationship was worth fighting for. Be patient when you communicate with each other. Take lots of breaks and move away when you notice you are behaving in ways that aren’t helpful in your healing and reconciliation. Be honest but focus on your own feelings rather than what your partner did or didn’t do. Be prepared to listen. Take turns and do not interrupt until one person feels that they have spoken enough and feel heard. Ask questions and offer information. Ask questions that help you to understand the why, not the what. You might need to be partial towards the betrayed partner until they heal enough to be more on equal footing by giving them more opportunities to express their hurt feelings.
Find other outlets to address your pain
It is advisable for the betrayed partner to find some support away from the offending party to receive comfort and validation. It may be a trusted friend, family member, or a mental health professional. Broken trust in an intimate monogamous relationship can be traumatic and you may need a lot of support to recover. It may put too much strain on your already unstable relationship to depend on the offending partner alone for reassurance. In some ways, you may expect them to fix everything and make everything better. It may feel like they are the only key to you feeling better again. However, your demanding and protesting behaviour often may trigger them to become defensive or withdraw due to guilt, shame or even reactive anger.
The offending party should try their best to be accountable. You may for a time want to volunteer information and make an effort to have more transparency. You may need to show that you are sorry and are remorseful more times than you think is sufficient. Just trust that it is only temporary but that it may take some time to rebuild trust. One thing that may help is to remind your partner how much they mean to you and why they are uniquely special to you.
The betrayed partner has to be ready to forgive their partner. Forgiveness is often misunderstood as overlooking transgressions. Forgiveness is actually necessary because there was a wrong that was done to you. It is not to get the person who hurt you off the hook, nor is it about letting yourself be treated like a doormat. It is to free yourself from bitterness that keeps you stuck in pain. You can forgive yet still have standards and boundaries. For example, if your partner keeps betraying your trust, you may need to end the relationship and move on. But if they truly are remorseful and making efforts to rebuild the relationship, you shouldn’t make things harder for yourselves by holding on to grudges.
The information here is for educational purposes only. Discovery of affairs is a highly stressful time for all involved. We encourage you to reach out and speak to a couples counsellor to make the process a little easier.