Infidelity in a marriage brings your world to a grinding halt. Everything that you thought you could count on has been smashed to pieces. But is it repairable? Under the right circumstances, the answer is yes. What may be even harder to believe, however, is that sometimes an affair can be a blessing. It can actually become a catalyst for rebooting and breathing new life into a troubled marriage, and the relationship can become even better than it was before the affair.
There are many reasons a partner strays. If you are not dealing with a sexual addiction of some sort, the most typical reason for infidelity is that the person straying feels that his or her needs are not being met within the relationship. There are a few indicators of this. In my book What About Me? Stop Selfishness From Ruining Your Relationship, I talk about the never-ending fights in which couples are unable to ever find resolution and therefore argue endlessly about a certain matter. The flip side of this is when one partner stops fighting. It might seem like a good thing, but in reality the person has simply given up, knowing that no matter how hard they fight, they will never be heard. They have reached a point of resignation. So, people don’t go looking for an affair. Most often, it happens when there’s already some long-standing unhappiness brewing in the marriage. But, the betrayed person doesn’t realise the extent of discontent their partner might be experiencing.
It’s your call
Infidelity is a wake-up call for your marriage and, once it is discovered, can lead a couple in one of two directions.
The first is when the anger and resentment are so great that the person who was cheated sees no other choice but to walk away and end the marriage.
But it is also possible that both partners commit to rebuilding the broken trust and continuing as a couple. I have worked with many such couples over the years who have decided to give themselves a second chance. Most of them agree that their commitment to each other, their level of intimacy, and their relationship in general is far better now than it was before. But to get to that point, they had to be willing to do the heavy lifting.
Most often, an affair happens when there’s already some long-standing unhappiness brewing in the marriage
If you are the betrayer
Initially the person who has strayed feels terrible and wants to make amends. There is also an element of self-righteousness that can creep in when that person might feel they were pushed into infidelity. They might say things like, “I wouldn’t have done it if you hadn’t done whatever.” But if you intend to rebuild your marriage, such retorts have no place. The betrayer cannot insist on having his or her own needs being met until the foundation is under their feet again—and that takes time.
With this in mind, the following three steps can help you recover and carry on together.
The first step is the apology. You must take ownership and responsibility for what you did. There has to be a real acknowledgment of the enormity of what took place.
The second step is a move toward empathy. Remember the Tin Man from The Wizard of Oz and the importance of his constantly being oiled? When you empathise with your partner, you let them know that you understand the way they feel and the pain you’ve caused them. You must be able to say over and over again, as often as is necessary, that you know how much anguish you have brought to your beloved. You cannot afford to slough it off. Indeed, you must address your partner’s feelings of hurt and resentment each time they it bring it up, otherwise they are at risk of getting stuck in their anger and despair. Your ability to empathise with your partner while they talk openly about what they’ve been through will enable them to move beyond the pain.
And the third step is frequent doses of reassurance. You must promise them, time and again, that this will not happen again because you are committed to rebuilding the trust. A major ingredient for making this work is that you don’t harbour any more secrets. Complete accountability and full disclosure is the way to go. You must answer all questions, as hard as that might be, keeping in mind that your spouse’s imagination will likely be worse than the reality of what actually happened. This is no longer the time for ‘doing your own thing’ and keeping things private. If your spouse wants to see your e-mail, your laptop, your phone—that is all fair game now. The time for personal space that created so much distance has passed. It is a time to close the gap between you.
Only when you have established each person’s willingness and ability to trust again can you begin to talk about what was missing in the marriage before the infidelity episode. In my experience, your partner will be more willing to listen and be open to your needs because they don’t want to take a chance on losing you again.
I encourage couples to seek counselling to help them through this. Once you are through the hardest part [which can take up to a year], and have talked it all out, your marriage will hopefully be in a better place than where it was before the affair.