Staying Together After an Affair
- Thursday, July 27, 2006
It’s stressful enough to struggle with problems in your marriage, but an affair with someone else can devastate your relationship. Infidelity has great power to wound both you and your spouse, regardless of which one of you has been unfaithful.
But an affair doesn’t have to kill your marriage. Not only can you keep it alive, you can even build a stronger relationship than you had before the affair. Here’s how:
Understand what caused the affair. Realize that the affair didn’t just suddenly happen, and it wasn’t caused simply by an external circumstance. Know that brokenness in your marriage created the pressure that, over time, led to the affair. Identify which of these common risk factors contributed to the affair: communication issues, character development issues, conflict resolution issues, adult life stages or landmarks, and confused or broken choices. Consider which of these needs you and your spouse have failed to meet for each other: affection, sexual fulfillment, conversation, recreational companionship, honesty and openness, physical attractiveness, financial support, domestic support, family commitment, and admiration.
Think about how you and your spouse’s backgrounds (including family of origin, peer group, and dating relationship dynamics) have created dysfunction that needs to be healed. Don’t place the blame solely on the offending spouse; recognize that both partners have contributed in some way to a broken marriage, and take responsibility for your own part in the problem. Recognize that once you understand what caused the affair, you can begin to focus on healing specific aspects of your marriage that need attention.
Fully and honestly reveal details. If you’re the one who had the affair, ask God to give you the courage to disclose details about it to your spouse. Know that doing so is an important turning point in restoring intimacy to your marriage. Consider revealing the details during a counseling session so a professional therapist can minimize damage and maximize healing as you discuss what happened.
Focus on the facts and be sure to reveal information about: who the affair was with, what happened, when it happened, where it happened, the current status of the affair (whether it is ongoing, terminated, or in the process of being terminated), and who else knows about the affair. Keep the circle of people to whom you disclose the affair as small as possible – only as large as is necessary for healing to occur.
Set some basic goals. Recognize that, although your dreams for your marriage have died, they can be resurrected. Think back to a time when your relationship was good, and believe that it can be even better in the future if you both pursue healing. Clarify your commitment to each other, your marriage, and your family. Decide to work together to get through the crisis, stay together, and build a solid future as husband and wife.
Strive to understand and be understood. If you’re the one who had the affair, try to listen to what your spouse has to say without defending yourself. If you’re the one who remained faithful, try to speak to your spouse without offending him or her, sharing your thoughts and feelings instead of attacking your spouse. Do your best to understand your spouse as you both identify and confess your personal responsibility.
Continue to live together if possible. If either of you threatens the other’s well-being, consider a separation to provide space for the healing process. But if neither you nor your spouse is combatant, continue to live together while you work through the crisis. Tell your children something appropriate by joint agreement, such as that you’re upset about an adult problem, but are trying to solve it. Get tested for sexually transmitted diseases, and take good care of your physical health, such as by eating, exercising, and sleeping well.
Define what it means for you and your spouse to try to reconcile. Carefully and reasonably, keep defining specific ways you would like to try to grow closer during each step in the process. Ask your spouse to try whatever you’d like, but don’t require it. If your partner can’t give you what you ask for, ask him or her to propose a close alternative. For example, if you ask your spouse to start sleeping in the same bed with you again but he or she isn’t ready for that yet, an alternative could be sleeping in a different bed but in the same room.
Transform negatives into positives. Remember that the main goal of reconciling is to explore the problem and generate solutions. Ask God to help you turn broken, negative thoughts into whole, positive ones. Rather than thinking, "The worst thing is the dishonesty," know that, "My partner is right now being honest with me about one of the hardest things to reveal." Instead of thinking, "No one can ever really get over this," realize that, "Over time, as we approach this with wisdom, it will become a distant memory from which we profited." Continue to turn negatives into positives as you discuss the issues, until you reach a whole and healthy consensus with your spouse.
Realign your relationship. If you’re the spouse who had the affair, let go of your relationship with the third party (the person with whom you’ve been romantically involved outside your marriage). Work with your spouse to come up with a closure letter to break off the affair. Then, after your spouse approves the wording, send it yourself to the third party. Do your best to make as clean a break as possible, eliminating further contact with the third party. Expect that a relapse might occur, and if it does, simply be honest about it with your spouse and work through it together. Don’t keep any secrets from each other.
Refine your character. Base your long-term decisions on your values instead of your feelings. Ask God to use this crisis to help you become the best person you can be. List your most positive character traits. Then list your most negative ones, and commit yourself to turning the negative traits into positive ones. When talking with your spouse, mention each other’s positive traits often, never or rarely mention negative ones, and focus on the commitments that you each have made to improve. Encourage each other as much as you can while you grow.
Engage in healing rituals. Consider participating in rituals that will help you and your spouse strengthen your bond, such as: renewing your marriage vows; inviting a spiritual leader to bless your marriage and home; receiving communion together; burning or burying things symbolic of a negative past; erecting or displaying things symbolic of the positive future; having a new family portrait taken; remodeling, building a new home, or moving to another home; taking another honeymoon or special trip; and throwing a celebration party.
Enhance your relationship. Do all you can to rebuild your marriage so it’s better than it was before the affair occurred. Increase the frequency of positive experiences you share with your spouse. Engage in activities that you both enjoy. Ask God to help you relate to your spouse out of strength and independence rather than neediness and dependence. Remember the qualities that first attracted you to your spouse, and seek to notice new qualities that also draw you to him or her.
Dream new dreams together. Think and pray about how you can work with your spouse to pursue significance through fulfilling relationships, developing your talents and skills, contributing to the world to make it a better place, and making peace with God. Develop specific goals as individuals and as a couple that address personal, spousal, parental, familial, communal, financial, and professional achievements you hope to make, as God leads you. But be sure to wait about a year after the crisis began to make any life-altering decisions. Give yourself plenty of time for professional counseling to support you both through the healing process. Be true to your values, and trust God to give you all the love and wisdom you’ll need to move into a better future together.
Adapted from Staying Together When an Affair Pulls You Apart, copyright 2006 by Stephen M. Judah. Published by InterVarsity Press, Downers Grove, Ill., www.ivpress.com.
Stephen M. Judah, Ph.D., is a psychologist in private practice, a workshop presenter and an advanced clinician in Imago marriage therapy. He serves as executive director of the Columbus Marriage Coalition in Columbus, Ohio.
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