How does an affair happen?
There is no doubt that infidelity is a devastating act of betrayal, but it can also be an expression of loss or loneliness, or the need for novelty, autonomy, power, intimacy, affection, or the need to feel loved, wanted and desired.
When an important need remains unmet, there are two options – and only two. We can either let go of the need, or change the environment in which we’re attempting to meet the need.
Affairs often aren’t about wanting the person who is the target of the affair, but about wanting the way that person meets a need. If the person having the affair could have anything, it would most likely be to have the person they love – the one they are hurting – to be the one to meet the need
How to heal from an affair, together or apart.
For a relationship to heal from betrayal, there is a need for brutal honesty from both people. If a relationship has been devastated by an affair, healing will take a lot of reflection on what went wrong, and what is needed to make it better, but if both people believe the relationship is worth fighting for, it can find its way back.
First of all, where do things stand?
Is the affair over? Or has it been scared into submission, just for now.
If the affair is still going, and you’re pretending to work on your relationship, just take your partner’s heart in your hand and squeeze it hard. It will hurt a lot less and it will do less damage to your relationship.
If the affair is genuinely finished, the one who has been hurt will need ongoing confirmation of this for a while. Probably for a long while. This is why, for the person who had the affair, the privacy that was there before the affair (texts, phone calls, messages, emails, info about where you are, what you’re doing, and who you’re doing it with), will be gone for a while.
Some questions to explore together:
- When did it end?
- How did it end?
- How do you know you won’t go back?
- How do I believe that it’s over?
- What if he or she gets in touch? What will you do?
- What moves have you made to stop them contacting you?
- You risked a lot for the affair to continue. What stopped the affair being worth the risk? What might make it worth the risk again?
- I’m suspicious. I’m paranoid. I’m insecure. I’m scared. I don’t trust you. I never used to feel like this, but now I do. I want to trust you again and I want to stop feeling like this. I want to stop checking and wondering and panicking when I can’t reach you, but I’m scared that if I stop, I’ll miss something. What can you do to help me feel safe again?
Is there genuine regret and remorse?
Healing can only begin when the person who has had the affair owns what has happened, and shows regret and remorse, not just for the damage and pain the affair has caused, but for starting the affair in the first place. What’s important is that there is a commitment to protecting the relationship above all else, and letting go of the affair.
- Would you still regret having the affair it if it wasn’t discovered?
- What do you regret about the affair?
- How do you feel about it ending?
- How do you feel about what it’s done to us and to me?
- What was the story you told yourself to let the affair keep going?
- Where does that story sit with you now?
Do you genuinely want each other?
The truth is that sometimes, people outgrow relationships. We can’t meet everyone’s needs and sometimes, the relationship might no longer be able to meet the important needs of one or both of you. Sometimes letting go with love and strength is better than letting the relationship dies a slow, bitter death.
- How to you feel about [the person you had the affair with]?
- What do you miss?
- How do you feel about me?
- What did you miss?
- What do you miss about me now?
- What made the risk of losing me worth it?
- What’s changed?
- What is it about me that’s keeping you here?
- What is it about us that’s worth fighting for?
- How do you each about the relationship?
- How do you feel about each other? Can either of you see that changing?
- What is it about the relationship that’s worth fighting for?
- What is it about each other that’s worth fighting for?
If the decision is to stay, how to forgive and move forward.
How did the affair become possible?
The person who had the affair delivered the final blow, but it’s likely that there were things that led up to the relationship becoming vulnerable. Healing will happen if both people can own their part in this. This doesn’t excuse the affair, but it will help it to make some sort of sense. Many hard conversations will need to happen.
- What did the affair give you that our relationship didn’t?
- How did the affair make you feel that was different to the way you felt with me? More powerful? More noticed? Wanted? Loved? Desired? Nurtured? What was it?
- Have you ever felt that way with me?
- When did you stop feeling that way?
- What changed?
- What was the biggest difference between [the other person] and me?
- What would you like me to do more of? Less of?
- I know you want this relationship to work, but at the moment it’s not. What’s the biggest thing you need to be different? And then I’ll tell you mine.
Be honest. Can you meet the need? And do you want to?
When you can understand what drove the affair, you can look at whether that need/s can be met within your relationship. Sometimes it becomes a case of either not being able to meet the need or resentment and hurt wiping out the desire to even try. Both people need to honestly look at what they want from the relationship and what they are able to give to the relationship moving forward.
Moving forward, staying forgiven and getting close.
As with any trauma, finding out about an affair will create massive potential for the trauma to be re-experienced over and over.
Every time there is a gap in knowledge in your relationship – an unanswered text, a phone that is off or that goes through to voicemail, something that doesn’t make sense, not knowing where you are, being late home, not being where you said you would be – anything that can be associated with the affair or with the possibility that the affair is still continuing, can recreate the feelings associated with the betrayal.
These feelings might include panic, sadness, fear, anger, suspicion, loneliness, loss. This will keep happening until the trust has been restored. This will take time and it won’t be hurried.
If you’re the one who has had the affair, your job now is to help your partner to feel safe again.
To do this, make sure there is 100% accountability for as long as it takes for your partner to know that there is nothing else more to find out. The privacy that was there before the affair is gone, and it will be gone for a while.
Know that for your partner, he or she doesn’t want to be that person who doesn’t trust, and who is suspicious and paranoid – but that’s what affairs do.
They turn trusting, loving, open hearts into suspicious, resentful, broken ones. It would be that way for anyone. How long it stays that way will depend a lot on how you handle things moving forward.
Be accountable every minute of every day.
Be an open book. Let there be no secrets. Knowing that there is nothing going on is critical to healing the anxiety and trauma that has come with discovering the affair. Looking for information isn’t about wanting to catch you out, but about wanting to know that there is nothing to catch out. For healing to happen, it will be your turn to take responsibility for standing guard over the boundaries of your relationship for a while.
Be the one who makes sure there are no gaps, no absences, and no missing pieces in the day. And no secrets. If the person you had the affair with contacts you, let your partner know. Be the one who makes things safe again.
If you’ve been hurt, there will be a constant need to find evidence that the affair isn’t happening.
It may become an obsession for a while. Finding out about an affair is traumatic, and the way to find relief from this is by searching for proof that the relationship is safe, that the affair is finished, and that it’s okay to trust again.
To the one who has been betrayed …
Forgive yourself for feeling angry or sad or hateful or for not knowing what you want. Forgive yourself for everything you’re doing to feel okay. Forgive yourself for not knowing and for not asking the questions that were pressing against you when something didn’t feel right. And let go of any shame – for leaving, for staying, for any of the feelings you felt before the affair or during it or afterwards.
None of the shame is yours to hold on to.
Forgive yourself if you missed something. This relationship involved two people.
If you weren’t giving your partner something he or she needed, it was up to them to tell you so you could put it right. There will have been times that your needs went hungry too. It happens in all relationships from time to time. It’s the intensity and the duration of the unmet need that does the damage.
You deserved the chance to know that something wasn’t right. And you deserved the chance to put back whatever was missing.
Right now though, you are going through a trauma.
Give yourself plenty of time to forgive, and to start to feel okay again, whether that it is in the relationship or out of it. Be kind to yourself and be patient. You deserve that. You always have.
Every affair will redefine a relationship.
It can’t be any other way. There will be hurt and anger and both of you will feel lonely and lost for a while, but if your relationship is worth fighting for, there will be room for growth and discovery.
The heartbreak won’t always feel bigger than you.
Some days you’ll hold steady and some days you’ll be okay and some days you’ll wonder how you’ll ever get back up. This is so normal and it’s all okay.
You’re grieving for what you thought you had.
You’re grieving for the person you thought you were with and or the relationship you thought you had.
Good people make bad decisions.
We do it all the time. We hurt the ones we love the most.
We become, for a while, people we never imagined we could be. But the mistakes we make – and we all make them – impress in our core new wisdoms and truths that weren’t there before.
An affair is a traumatic time in a relationship, but it doesn’t have to define the relationship. Rather than collecting the broken pieces and scraping them from dustpan to bin, they can be used put the relationship back together in a way that is stronger, more informed, wiser, and with honesty and a love that is more sustainable.
Editor’s Note: This publication was edited down from its original version on HeySigmund. If your heart is hurting from betrayal and your relationship is living in this pain, you are encouraged to read the full article for more understanding, insight, healing, and hope.
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