Someone I know recently went through a tumultuous and heartbreaking divorce due to one of the leading factors in splitting up these days, infidelity, and it got me thinking about other couples I have seen in the therapy room.
After this betrayal, many people will struggle with trusting their partner again. According to Esther Perel, renowned couples therapist, “Genuine trust rests on our ability to tolerate what we do not know about the other, as long as we’re driven to uncover every detail, we can’t trust”. Many couples are driven by their own past experiences of abandonment and rejection and this can prevent trust from being rebuilt. Often times after an affair, the betrayed partner will hold on to their investigative mode of going through credit card and cell phone bills, checking their emails and text messages, monitoring their every move and expense to ease their anxieties. These partners establish a reign of control and all-knowing, confusing intimacy with surveillance. Even though the intrusiveness, interrogations, and search for evidence is done out of anxiety, it does little to alleviate their fears. Instead of searching for details and facts about the affair, you might get more out of asking questions about the meaning of the affair.
Meaningful questions will help the couple shift from detective mode to repair mode. Some examples include: Did you think of me when this was going on? Did you think it would help you stay in our relationship or help you to leave? How did your lover illuminate other parts of you? At what point did you realize you wanted to stay? Were you afraid to lose me, our family, our kids?*. This is the shift from facts to meaning. Facts tend to cause pain and keep you in a loop of ruminating over details that keep you up at night, whereas meaning gives you the opportunity to open up and discuss the multitude of feelings that are shaken during the wake of an affair. Things like love, sex, desire, commitment, betrayal, loss, secrecy, honesty, intimacy, eroticism, accountability, trust and forgiveness.
But how do you move on from an affair in your relationship when you have friends and family saying “Oh, he’s a dog, leave his ass!”, “Get rid of her, she’s no good and not worth it”, or “once a cheater always a cheater! You are dumb for staying with him”? Many people will share with their best friends or family that they were cheated on and understandably their friend will see the pain and have the gut reaction to protect them. The problem with that is that is often times the betrayed partner still loves them and actually needs advice that will help her think and not just react. This advice which can include her accountability in the relationship and the examination of her role as a partner, is difficult for most friends to offer when they see a friend in pain. If the betrayed partner chooses to stay with their person, they can feel like they can no longer talk to their friend because they fear that they might be angry for staying in the relationship or “not standing up for themselves”. This can feel very isolating even though the friend’s intention was to be supportive.
How to Be Supportive to a Friend Through an Affair:
- Provide a safe space for your friend or family member to cry, process their thoughts and emotions, and a place to stay if they need to.
- Let them know that they are important and that you care about them.
- Offer a distraction, offer to watch the children occasionally (if there are any involved).
- Do not insert yourself into the story of your friend. This is their process and they need to decide what is best for them and their relationship.
Couples may be feeling like they are on a roller coaster, that they have conflicting emotions within themselves and about their partner, and feel like they had the rug ripped out from under them. Pain from an affair takes time to heal. It takes patience and both sides to want to work toward a place where the pain isn’t so much.
After an affair is revealed, both partners are shaken, both of their predictable futures have been altered, neither know where this is going to go and may be experiencing lots of anxiety, fear, regret, anger, and sadness. Yet, a lot of couples in therapy during the aftermath of the affair tend to have really open and honest conversations that they have not had in years, even if they are painful. In therapy, we focus on creating a space for managing the aftermath of the bomb drop, creating meaning of the affair, and then creating a new vision for the relationship. We need to shift the idea of “What you did to me” to “What we went through together”. You just have to start the conversation.
*Perel, Esther, 2015. Global Media Production. Investigative Questions for Couples Experiencing Infidelity. Email subscription.