In the aftermath of the discovery of an affair, there is a whirlwind of emotion, confusion, trauma, and pain. What can often get lost is that there are two distinct and valid experiences happening during this whirlwind, not just the experience of the betrayed partner. The betrayer must also be able to own and navigate their emotional experience to be able to connect with their partner and move towards healing in this crisis.
But how can the betrayer do this? It’s much easier said than done to be able to hold space for your partner’s rage, anger, grief, and fear as well as trying to process your own fear, guilt, shame, and grief all while healing the insecurities and pains that may have led you to the affair in the first place. For couples who choose to reconcile, move forward together, and begin to rebuild trust, being able to connect during this crisis phase is crucial.
Undoubtedly this is a painful and confusing stage and while each couple and partner is different, we’ve compiled a few general ways you can work on rebuilding your connection and intentionally supporting your partner and yourself during your affair recovery.
- Acknowledge how much pain you’ve caused. Name the harms and their impact on your partner and be specific to show that you understand the pain you caused through your affair, along with any lies or other tactics you used to hide it. Express your guilt and remorse in a way that stays focused on their experience instead of making it about yourself and how badly you feel. Communicate your remorse and allow yourself to be moved emotionally by their hurt and show them that you care by expressing your emotion.
- Initiate. Don’t wait for your partner to bottle up and then release all their emotions and questions on you at once. Your partner will likely have a lot of questions for a while. Put down what you’re doing and your defenses to show them that you care about their experience and healing by checking in with them regularly. Attune to each of their emotions and questions with your full attention and effort to understand and connect. You can’t take back the affair or “fix” it, but you can attend to and meet the needs they are communicating to you through their questions and emotional bids.
- Don’t try to defend or minimize, but rather help your partner understand and make sense of how the affair happened and why you made the choices you did. Defensiveness will only invalidate your partner’s experience and continue the patterns of disconnection in the relationship you’ve been working to heal. Instead, stay curious about yourself and reflect on your choices and what led to them, like the mental state you were in, the insecurities you’d had, the hurts that were unresolved, the needs that the affair partner met, etc. This can help to clarify and repair the relational injury for the other person and help them to get to know you and your needs better. These conversations will not be easy, but providing honest and genuine answers will lead to understanding and empathy. These efforts may help you both to embrace the emotion and vulnerability together, leading to more safety and trust.
- Connect with yourself compassionately and curiously when the shame and guilt arises. Coming to terms with the pain that your affair has caused can be a dark and scary journey and during the crisis phase, it can feel like there isn’t enough space for both your partner’s pain and yours. But in order for you to have enough energy to sustain the support that your partner needs from you during this time, you will need to keep carving out the space for your own emotions and needs to be validated and met. Your partner may or may not be able to do this for you during the crisis phase and so it’s your responsibility to find someone in your life, a friend, family member or therapist, who can create a safe space for you. Make sure that you are providing yourself with the compassion, acceptance, and understanding you will need to continue healing.
- Listen and sit with your partner’s emotions and questions as long as they need. It may feel tiring to keep having the seemingly same conversation over and over but repetition and attunement to your partner’s emotional experience provides the safety they need for their nervous system to heal. Validate their emotions and experience with compassion. You must understand that your partner is in crisis and their rapidly shifting mood is normal. They have experienced a great trauma and are trying to restabilize their nervous system, but it will take time, compassion, and patience from you. Listen deeply for what they are really asking you for. Instead of just questions and accusations, they are seeking to rebuild security and trust. They are asking you to comfort their hurts and reassure their insecurities. They are asking you to validate their anger and respect their boundaries.
- Indicate your commitment to not repeat the affair or the other harmful actions again and give a thoughtful plan as to how you are going to ensure it doesn’t happen again. This requires reflection and understanding as to how and why you engaged in the first place. You can tell your partner again and again that you won’t have another affair, but until you take the time to show it through your actions, helping to soothe their traumatized nervous system through internal reflection, growth, and change, your wounded partner will remain distrustful. You must commit to ending your affair for good. Any continued contact that you have with your affair partner will re-traumatize your partner and cause a potential loss of all of the trust and safety you had previously built.
As the psychotherapist, author, and speaker, Esther Perel has said to the couples she works with in the aftermath of an affair, “Your first marriage is over. Would you like to create a second one together?” This journey of affair recovery requires courage and change, from both you and your partner. The crisis phase requires a great deal from the betrayer to set the tone and lay the groundwork for safety, compassion, patience, and trust in the recovery process. To aid in your own journey, consider committing to working long-term with a couples therapist and/or an individual therapist. You can reach out to us for couples therapy here and for individual therapy here. We would love to be a safe space and positive resource for you as you work to heal and create a second marriage or relationship after an affair.