Recovering from an Extramarital Affair – The Process for the Unfaithful Partner
Affairs are so traumatically hurtful to the betrayed partner and the need for their healing and recovery is so apparent that it isn’t always obvious that a healing and recovery process is likewise required for the partner who has been unfaithful. It can be a real challenge for those who have been betrayed, and for those who love them, to soften their views to acknowledge that the unfaithful partner has anything to resolve and heal from other than their guilt.
However, there is a case for recovery. In general, unfaithful partners also have a lot of pain, even though their experience is quite different from their hurt partner’s experience. Of course, each individual will have to deal with their own unique set of issues, but there are some common themes for those who have been unfaithful.
Unfaithful partners trying to recover from their affairs often grapple with guilt and shame for the choices they’ve made and the pain those choices have inflicted on partners and family. Their hurtful choices and behavior may also create a fundamental distrust of themselves – a distrust that they won’t be able to discontinue an affair, or that they won’t be strong enough to decline a future possible affair. This self-distrust is a particularly big issue for those whose betrayals are part of an addictive behavioral pattern.
Because guilt and shame and self-distrust are so uncomfortable to live with, unfaithful partners may have strong needs for forgiveness, and to put the affair behind them and move on quickly. These needs tend to be in direct opposition to their hurt partner’s recovery, which requires intense investigation, information gathering, having questions answered over and over, and repeated reassurances and non-defensive responses from their partner over long periods of time.
If the partners are going to stay together following an affair, there will be demands on the unfaithful partner to help their hurt partner recover in spite of these opposed needs. And because extramarital betrayals are usually so traumatic for betrayed partners, their needs take precedence over those of the unfaithful partner. Despite the unfaithful partner’s desire for forgiveness to assuage their guilt and shame, and to avoid reminders of the hurt they’ve caused, they’ll be requested to live with their hurt partner’s trauma and intense reactions, and they’ll be expected to defer their needs in support of their hurt partner.
As mentioned above, such support may entail answering embarrassing questions, providing intimate details, providing emotional reassurance over and over and over, and verbally being accountable for shameful or hurtful choices and behaviors. As a result, unfaithful partners may need a great deal of support for themselves during a recovery period to sustain what’s being asked of them around their partner’s needs.
Another unique consideration for unfaithful partners for which there may be little to no sympathy, is that they can experience loss and grief over giving up their affair partner. They may feel that they have no right to feel their grief and that they need to navigate it on their own. However, this aspect of their experience must also be worked through for their healing and recovery to complete.
Making sense of the context for the affair can be incredibly helpful in easing self-distrust and self-loathing. Understanding what dynamics in the relationship, what personal qualities, characteristics, experiences, and what external stressors put the relationship at risk for an extramarital affair is often a critical part of recovery. External stressors on the relationship such as major moves, financial woes, and problems with in-laws or children can all put a relationship at risk for an affair. Likewise, partners being uncomfortable with conflict, having fears of abandonment, and emotional distance between partners can all be risk factors.
Knowing these specific details for the relationship in which an affair has occurred is also a starting point for making changes to strengthen the relationship. Such relationship strengthening is important in the recovery process for creating reassurance that there is little risk of another affair in the future.
Another piece of healing work for the unfaithful partner is gaining understanding about how the affair happened. I think about “how it happened” in terms of what was the environment in which the affair started, what happened each step of the way, and what allowed the unfaithful partner to give him or herself permission to start and continue down the path to being unfaithful. Teasing out these details can be reassuring in that it sets up the probability of having better control over future choices.
The final pieces of healing may be working through all the grief and shame to reach a place of self-forgiveness, and repairing relationships to achieve forgiveness from the betrayed partner, family, and friends. This can be very painful work indeed, but the good news is that people as individuals or as couples do recover from extramarital affairs and go on to have thriving relationships.
If I can answer any questions or provide you any help or support around recovery from an extramarital affair, please contact me via my website: www.hlcounseling.com or by calling me at 720-363-5538.
Articles by Heather
- Choosing Your Relationship
- How To Stay Connected (and Keep Passion Alive)
- Improving Communication: The Most Important Piece
- Making Sense of Couple’s Painful Interactions
- Recovering from an Extramarital Affair – The Process for the Unfaithful Partner
- Recovering From An Extramarital Affair: The Process for The Injured Partner
- Reflections on Healing
- Transformation and Growth Through Emotional Pain
- What to Expect in Couples Counseling
- Writing for Healing and Emotional Well-Being
- Transforming Resentment