Crushed. Devastated. Hopeless. These are some of the emotions you may be experiencing if you have recently discovered that your partner has been having an affair. Your world has been turned upside down. You feel like you don’t know your partner anymore. And you are desperately, desperately sad. You wonder if surviving infidelity is even possible.
It is. But how?
There are four broad stages you’ll need to go through. They aren’t easy. But they’re also not impossible. Here’s what the road ahead looks like.
1. Feeling the Pain – The First Step to Affair Recovery
Let’s be honest – this is going to be painful. Surviving infidelity is not a walk in the park. There’s no way around it. If you are going to be real with yourself and not pretend it’s all good, there is going to be a lot of hurt to get through. And that’s normal.
Your trust has been broken. You may feel like everything you believed is a lie. Certainly if your partner’s affair has been a long-term one, you may find yourself reevaluating your entire history together. The instability, the confusion, and the grief can be overwhelming.
But it won’t last forever.
Emotions by their nature come and go; they are never permanent. That doesn’t mean that what you are feeling isn’t real; it just means that it is safe to assume that you will not always feel the way you do now.
So allow yourself to feel however you feel. Acknowledge the pain; trying to ignore it, pretend it isn’t there, or distract yourself will just prolong it. This is not to say you have to focus on it 24 hours a day – it just means that you can’t forever look the other way. It won’t work.
Feel what you feel, and don’t judge yourself whatever those emotions are; just let them be there, hard as it is. If you don’t let yourself experience those feelings, you disconnecting yourself from what has happened. You will forever be putting band-aids on a deeper, chronic problem.
2. You Need the Truth About the Affair (or most of it, anyway)
Surviving infidelity requires honesty. Part of grappling with this major event in your life is getting a sense of reality that you are comfortable with. Most betrayed partners feel they need to know what has happened in the affair, rather than just moving on and looking forward. It is normal and healthy to wonder; it doesn’t make you nosy or insecure. (If you are feeling insecure lately, it is because your partner has pulled the rug out from under you, not because of some kind of character flaw!)
You need to be able to ask your partner any questions you want to know about, and they should be ready to answer you. (It is not easy for the straying partner to provide the necessary support for recovery; if you find your partner is not helping the process along, seeking couples counseling is highly advised.)
You should also feel free to ask the same questions over and over again, even though (or maybe because) you will likely get the same answers. Getting back to a sense of consistency and predictability is helpful in moving forward.
Every person will have a different level of need-to-know – some will want detailed accounts of how the affair partners met, others will just want basic timelines. Whatever feels right to you is what you need.
A word of caution, though:
One area that is not recommended to dig into too deeply is the details of their sexual encounters. This tends to put images in your head that will be hard to get rid of, and can negatively impact your intimate life together (once you are ready to even consider that). It is wise to draw the line at basic information on this topic, such as whether your significant other and the affair partner did or did not have sex. But the gory details are best left untouched; you can survive infidelity without them.
3. Will You Be Able to Live with This?
Once you and your partner are discussing the situation openly, and you feel they’re being appropriately supportive and apologetic, you still need to decide if you can live with what happened. Let’s be clear that getting to this stage is already a lot of work. Cheating partners can become very defensive, angry, attacking, etc. Or they can be dismissive and pressure to “move on already.”
What do you do about that?
The only way that surviving infidelity is possible is if your partner is willing to own up to what they’ve done, express their remorse, and demonstrate willingness to participate in the recovery process. If they aren’t doing that, you may still decide to remain in the relationship, but you will be suppressing rather than resolving the problem. It’s possible for things to work out in the long run this way, but not very likely. The pain will never fully go away and the trust will never fully return.
However, even if your partner is doing everything right in trying to repair the relationship, you still have to decide whether you can accept what has happened and move on. It’s certainly possible to do, but only you can make such a decision. What are your values? Where does forgiveness fit into them? And what other ramifications are at stake? If a pregnancy has resulted from the affair, or your partner has contracted an STD (and possibly passed it on to you), the stakes are certainly much higher. Weighing these out on your own, with a trusted friend, or a professional therapist is important.
4. Rebuilding After Infidelity – Making Your Relationship Strong Again
Moving beyond merely surviving infidelity and rebuilding your relationship into a bond that is solid and whole will likely take years of work. What that will look like is different for every person, and it will likely take years before you reach the peak of relationship happiness again.
Many couples have remarked that their marriage or relationship was actually even stronger after they recovered from an affair. So there are good times to look forward to. But of course, it will take work.
Here are some of the aspects of recovery you’ll need to attend to:
- Building trust. You most likely do not and cannot trust your partner at this time. That is normal. Trust takes a long time to establish but only a moment to destroy. Honesty and transparency will have to be extensive, even exaggerated, for some time until you are feeling more trusting.
- Exploring what led to the affair. Often, though not always, the relationship was deteriorating even before the affair happened. While your partner made a decision and is accountable for it, you can still consider what roles both of you played in the relationship getting to the place it did.
- Airing your pain and anger (again). You will likely feel the need to come back to these emotions repeatedly and to get them validated by the one who hurt you. As you continue to rebuild, they should begin to fade and pop up less frequently. But it is does not reflect stubbornness, vindictiveness, or an unwillingness to forgive to revisit these feelings periodically. Your partner will need to understand this, and again, professional couples therapy can help with that.
This process could (and does) fill volumes. While this isn’t a comprehensive guide to surviving infidelity, it will hopefully give you a little bit of a roadmap for the times ahead. If you’re suffering through this difficult situation and need help, know that we’re here for you. We’ve seen people go through the tumult of an affair and come out the other side. You can too. Contact us if you need help!
Read more about our infidelity counseling services here.