To those of you who value stability, consistency, safety, and commitment the idea of an affair is devastating. An affair usually takes place as a result of the failures of one or both committed partners. There are a whole host of reasons why affairs happen, too many to name in this short article. I am writing to discuss surviving an affair, not about why people have them.
An affair is when one committed partner engages in a romantic or a sexual relationship with another person outside of the relationship. This is usually a repeated act and involves lying, deceiving, and hiding the behavior of the perpetrator to the victim. The reason this needs to be defined is because too often, I find that the perpetrator of the affair minimizes his/her behavior to the affected partner as “just sex” or “no big deal” – which only makes matters worse.
Step 1 You and your spouse have decided that you want to work through the exposed affair and try to make the relationship work. Step 1 is the most important step. The perpetrator must take and accept full and unconditional responsibility for their behavior and the effects it has on the relationship. A relationship’s foundation is trust and respect. An affair obliterates that foundation. Lets talk about what full responsibility means. This means that the perpetrator does not blame, make excuses, minimize, invalidate, or get angry when the victim wants to work on or talk about their behavior. The perpetrator explains their behavior and understands that there are psychological reasons as to why he/she did what she did, (i.e. has to develop an understanding as to why they would choose to jeopardize their relationship, their promises, the trust, commitment, and love in the relationship for the affair).
Step 2 is that the perpetrator has to make themselves fully transparent. An affair is kept alive through the use of deception, secrets, and lies. If the perpetrator wants to work the relationship out with the victim, then full transparency must take place in order for the victim to begin the process of healing and building trust again. Full transparency also means that the perpetrator must talk openly and honestly about their thoughts, emotions, and behaviors – even if they believe it will hurt their partner again. Once everything is out in the open, then there is little that can come up later to cause more hurt and destroy trust again.
Step 3 is to give the victim time and to learn to validate and be there for him/her. You (perpetrator) are trying to win back the trust of your partner. You may have a lot of reasons as to why you had the affair. You may be very angry with how you have been treated. Regardless, YOU are the person who engaged in the affair, not them. You are the one who has to prove yourself worthy. YOU are the weak person, not the victim. You have to get it through your head that you do not deserve to be trusted and your partner should not just “get over it.” You help them to move forward from it by how you are with them. You have made this mess and now it is mostly your job to clean it up. That means when your partner wants to talk about what a schmuck you are – you take it with open arms, when your partner is angry at you that they want nothing to do with you, you wait and reassure, validate, and attempt to comfort. When your partner wants to know more information, you tell them. When they want you to participate in their treatment (therapy) or otherwise – you go. If it is important to them in their healing process you make it your highest priority. Because if you do not – then you are not really committed to working on or in this relationship. That’s the message you send when you do not do the work of helping your partner heal. You send the message that you sent in the affair, “this is all about me. Me, me, me. I’m not thinking about you. You need to take care of you and when you’re done and good enough for me again, then come see me.” Pathetic and WEAK!
Step 4 Both individuals in the relationship have to take responsibility for how they let this happen. The affair is usually the result of several problems in the relationship that are woefully managed or not managed at all. Both individuals have to understand how it got to this point and move toward having a more open and honest relationship in which communication and the meeting of needs is of the utmost importance. Affairs don’t “just happen.” People who are blissfully happy in their relationships don’t cheat over and over again. Understanding the underlying problems in the relationship is a very important step. You each may discover that you both have significant individual problems that have to be addressed. A relationship is the expression of the mental and emotional health of each person in the relationship. If you engaged in the affair for sex, emotional connection, or to “get even” with your partner, your methods solve none of the problems. If your relationship is sick, broken, or dysfunctional, instead of pointing your finger at your partner, try looking in the mirror.
Step 5 The Chinese symbol for crisis is comprised of two symbols meaning “danger” and “opportunity.” Once the healing process is in full swing and you are back on track with one another – start the process of learning how to love one another in new ways, how to meet each other’s needs, how to be more involved and present with one another. Spend time together, pay attention to one another, learn new things about each other and never, not for a second, take each other for granted again.