I am guessing it is no surprise to anyone that marriage therapists work with the issue of infidelity a lot. Oftentimes, the majority of my caseload is made up of couples struggling with infidelity in one form or another. Some of their marriages will survive it and some will not, but there are several key issues that need to be addressed in order for the couple to have a fighting chance. The earlier these happen, the better the chance of success.
- The affair must be over – This one seems obvious but ambivalence about ending an affair after it comes to light is common. If the affair is continuing after being discovered and there is continued dishonesty, the damage piles up. In this situation, I will often work with the betrayed partner to set limits and expectations – to let their spouse know they will not stay if the affair continues. Sometimes the only way for a person wrapped up in an affair to end it is the fear of truly losing their spouse and family. Marriage therapy is futile while the affair continues.
- The Betrayed Partner’s questions must be answered…honestly and repeatedly – Truth about an affair tends to “trickle” out, which only undermines the betrayed partner’s ability to trust again. The unfaithful partner is scared to tell the truth – it is hard to suddenly share the entirety of a secret that has been held for a long time. However, telling the whole truth early on helps in a couple’s ability to heal – if truth slowly is revealed, the betrayed partner will continually wonder what else will come to light down the road. Also, the unfaithful partner should be prepared to answer the same questions repeatedly – this is necessary for the betrayed partner’s healing.
- Transparency and Accountability – The unfaithful party has to be completely transparent. This means allowing their spouse to look at phones, tablets, know passwords, where they are going, and any other detail that is specific to how they kept in touch with the affair partner. In addition, showing their partner they are where they are when they say they are is essential. Technology may contribute to a lot of infidelity but it can also help heal – screenshot where you are, use trackers. All of this is important early on in showing trustworthiness. These steps are never meant to be done long-term, but are an essential part of getting to a place where the betrayed partner no longer feels the need to look at these things.
- The Unfaithful Partner must “lead the charge” – Oftentimes, after an affair is revealed, the unfaithful party feels a sense of relief. A secret that they have been holding is finally off their shoulders, and they are ready to move forward. Unfortunately, the betrayed partner now carries the weight of the betrayal. At the same time, the unfaithful party will generally struggle to understand the intensity of the emotions their spouse is feeling – they have most likely never been in that position. In order to feel supported and have hope, the unfaithful partner should take the initiative to learn how to help their partner heal. Pick up books, peruse websites, continually ask their spouse what they need. Taking these steps on an ongoing basis helps their spouse feel less alone in their healing.
Recovering from an affair is difficult, but possible. Unfortunately, due to the stigma, many people do not talk openly about their experience. Please never feel you have to figure this out alone. Marriage therapists are trained to guide and support you through the most difficult of times.
Kara Smith, MS, LCMFT, provides couple, family, and individual therapy in our downtown Bethesda office, and is extraordinarily adept at helping couples heal from infidelity. Call or email her today to set up an appointment or complimentary telephone consultation.