Counseling After Infidelity: Cultivating Healing, Finding Hope
What is an affair? Must an affair involve sexual intercourse? What about a kiss? What about pornography? While almost everyone would feel betrayed if a partner had sexual intercourse with a third person, other amorous, intimate behaviors can be equally destructive—dinner with an old girlfriend, for instance, or flirting in online chat rooms. All of these behaviors may constitute a betrayal of trust. An affair is a violation of trust that destroys the fundamental beliefs that the hurt partner had about the unfaithful spouse and the relationship.
When important assumptions are violated in one aspect of the relationship, the whole relationship is thrown off balance. Unfaithful partners commonly feel intense, conflicting emotions: They may feel, for instance, relief that the truth is known, anger toward the hurt partner, guilt, grief upon losing their affair partner, or ashamed. With feelings of anger, guilt, anxiety, loss, and uncertainty churning within them, hurt partners frequently wonder:
- “How could I have been such a fool? I can’t trust my own judgment anymore.”
- “I don’t know my partner anymore. How could this happen?”
- “Did I fall short as a spouse? What was wrong with me?”
Unfortunately, after an affair, many couples suffer with thoughts and feelings like these in silence. Paralyzed by embarrassment, fear, and shame and swept up in a whirlwind of loss, pain, and confusion, both partners struggle with whether or how to continue the relationship. After the trauma of an affair, couples often feel that there is no hope for saving their marriage.
Healing is possible. An affair need not be the harbinger of the end of your relationship. With help, the crisis can be a wake-up call to problems in your relationship and eventually allow you to develop a healthier, stronger relationship with your partner. Therapy can help you find healing in the wake of infidelity in the following ways:
- Normalizing the feelings after the affair and coping with the immediate trauma. When the affair is first revealed, the hurt partner is often overcome by an overwhelming array of emotions, and the unfaithful partner is likely to experience conflicting emotions. You need to know that your reactions are normal. You may also need clear boundaries on how to interact with your partner during this turbulent time.
- Understanding why the affair occurred. You and your partner need to restore trust and intimacy, and a clear, balanced understanding of why the affair occurred will help them reestablish emotional safety, rebuild trust, and make marital unfaithfulness less likely in the future.
- Moving forward with life within the context of this new understanding. Moving forward after an affair means that you and your partner are now able to leave the affair’s power in the past, which means that your anger or pain no longer control how you interact with one another. You and your partner find healing through forgiving each other and yourself.
If you are reeling in the wake of an affair, individual psychotherapy can help you care for yourself during this difficult time as you decide whether you want to rebuild your relationship. Couples counseling can help you and your partner listen to the affair’s invitation to renew and strengthen your relationship.