We hear it in girl power anthems every day on the radio. We gossip about it over lunch with our friends.
“Once a cheater, always a cheater"
We never envision ourselves staying with a partner who has strayed.
“Everything you own in that box to the left," preaches Queen Bey. And of course, there are some who shout that anthem and slam the door shut on a cheating partner and never look back. A friend of mine once broke up with a guy just because she thought he *might* be hiding something (on the outside I was the model supportive friend, but on the inside I thought, “ouch…”).
If you are one of those people who has already packed their bags, this post is not for you. And yes, there are plenty of situations when leaving is the right decision (and it is ultimately YOUR decision!).
I know firsthand that for many of us, it’s just not that easy or uncomplicated. When we are in pain in our relationships and we dig deeper, there are (usually) no clear heroes or villains in the story. If perfect relationships were the norm, Taylor Swift would not be selling out arenas.
The truth is, there are many more people who try to stick it out and save their relationship after their partner cheats than the larger culture would have us believe. It is one of the most common presenting problems that we see as couples therapists. And these vulnerable folks often have two basic questions when they come into our offices:
“How do we build trust again after this, and how long will it take?”
“Is this normal?”
The 3 Phases of Recovery From An Affair
The short answer to these questions is: it depends. Affairs come in all shapes and sizes, and every relationship is different. A one-time drunken make-out session at a party will take less time to move on from than a 6-month affair where heavy emotions got involved.
But we do know from research that there are three phases of recovery that couples go through when they make it through an affair.
My clients find it helpful to know that yes all of this hurt and confusion is normal, and yes there is a light at the end of the tunnel if you move through these phases together in a healthy way.
Here are the phases of getting over an affair, adapted from Tammy Nelson, Ph.D. over at the Huffington Post:
The Crisis Phase
Symptoms may include crying in the fetal position, yelling, or throwing shoes. Also long phone calls with your best friend or your mom.
The Understanding (or Insight) Phase
Early signs of empathy a few weeks after you stop yelling. Maybe they're allowed back into your bed and you've started unpacking what happened. Expect to relapse back into the crisis phase if you notice a text message from the "other woman/man" that they neglected to tell you about.
The Vision Phase
Symptoms include regained trust, little to no thrown shoes, and feeling ready to plan a future together.
But what do these phases actually look like? I’ve worked with dozens of couples trying to piece their lives back together after an affair, and here are six things I’ve learned that you can expect:
1. You Will Want To Know Every Excruciating Detail
And you will just need to trust me on this one, you *do not* want to know every detail.
It is natural for us to go after this information, and we feel like we need to know in order to move on. But do you really want those painful images imprinted in your memory forever?
Future you will thank you for resisting the impulse to demand a play-by-play from them. Your imagination can and will be vicious and do most of the work for you anyway, but trust me, you don’t want to give it actual content to work from.
Instead: Get only the basic facts. How long was the affair? Was it “just sex” or were there emotions involved? And then use all your strength to try to let those other details go. It won’t be easy, but the feeling of “I need to know” will fade over time.
You will inevitably feel the impulse to blurt out in the heat of battle, “did you have sex with her in our bed!?”
Just breathe. Call a timeout and reach out to a friend to vent.
2. You Will Open Your Heart Too Soon
You love them, and you want to just move on from this. I know that when you’ve gone a few days without a screaming match, you will want to say “I forgive you” and declare your relationship healed.
But not so fast. The Crisis Phase is not completed overnight, and these early impulses to make the big decision to stay together (or breakup!) usually don’t stick, because the emotions are still running too high.
Instead: Know that these mood swings are normal. Resist the impulse to make big decisions right now. Accept that there will be days when you never want to get out of bed with them, and days when you just can’t stop crying.
3. You Will Look Through Their Phone. A lot.
Trust me, it takes a long time to rebuild trust. There will be many days when you grab their phone every time they get up to go to the bathroom and anxiously scroll through every text message.
You may feel entitled to every password and conversation thread from now until the end of time, but making demands that destroy any hope of privacy in your relationship is not the answer.
Instead: Accept that there will come a day when you will not flinch and look over their shoulder every time you hear their phone go off, even if that day is not today. A good partner will understand this and be patient.
4. You Will Blame Yourself
At some point, you will realize that your relationship was probably not so satisfying for either of you just before the affair.
Here’s an important aside: If you’re reading #4 and you are still in the throes of the Crisis Phrase, you may be feeling like you want to throw a shoe at me, and that’s okay. Bookmark this article and catch up with me in a few weeks.
And we’re back…
Emerald City Sanctuary clinician Carly Haeck, LMFTA has this to say about couples who are trying to make it work after an affair:
"In order for the relationship to heal, the cheating spouse must be held accountable for their actions. However, while breaking a commitment and lying is never okay, often affairs happen when there are problems in the relationship. In these situations, in order to truly heal, both partners must also take responsibility for the state of the relationship, acknowledging their roles in the problems and recommitting to working on these issues"
Maybe just before the affair, you had been making a habit of withholding sex as a punishment. Maybe you were going through a life transition and were struggling with depression and anxiety.
Infidelity typically does not happen in a vacuum. But blaming yourself is not fair, and does not help anyone.
Instead: Resist the impulse to sink into shame. Begin to accept that you were not a perfect partner either in this first part of the Insight Phase, while still holding onto a healthy sense of dignity. No matter what, you are worthy of faithfulness.
5. You Will Realize That Both of You Share the Blame*
Here is where you start to have those difficult, heartfelt talks about what went wrong between you.
Maybe you were withholding sex as a punishment because they weren't making you feel appreciated, and they weren’t making you feel appreciated because they felt like they couldn’t get close to you. Maybe you didn’t feel supported by them while you were feeling anxious or depressed, so you began to isolate yourself and they didn’t know how to help you and started to withdraw (which, of course, would make you more anxious and depressed).
You will start to see how you are both responsible for creating intimacy in your relationship, and somewhere along the line you stopped being honest with one another.
*However, it is also important to note that infidelity is a complex phenomenon that is not always attached to relationship dissatisfaction. In her new book The State of Affairs: Rethinking Infidelity, Esther Perel writes about why happy people cheat.
Carly Haeck, LMFTA summarizes:
"Perel writes about how sometimes affairs happen in happy relationships, with no explanation of why the cheating partner would feel the need to stray. Perel suggests that in these situations, people cheat not because they are looking for satisfaction from another person, but because they are looking for a part of themselves that they are missing- an identity crisis that she notes often happens in modern relationships, as it has become almost customary to merge identities with one's spouse. While their actions are still not permissible, approaching the situation by giving the person space to explore what they are longing to feel or discover can allow for important growth within the relationship. In addition, the betrayed partner may be able to externalize the affair, as it is not about their deficits nor does it reflect their partner's view of the relationship"
But no matter what the cause of the affair was, this last and most important step will happen for couples who are able to get their relationship back on track:
6. You Will Draw Up a New Contract
Perhaps not literally. But if you come to the Vision Phase and decide to keep your recovering cheater around for a while, you will both need to sit down and talk about what it means to start fresh. You need to be able to answer some hard questions:
What are the boundaries of our relationship? How will we create a safe space for honesty if our needs are not being met? Am I ready to truly forgive and move forward?
This means no more throwing shoes, no more reading through their text messages, and no more false starts. It also means it’s time to get serious about honest communication and working on your vulnerable bond a little bit every day.
This roadmap for recovering from an affair should of course be used with caution. Sometimes, moving on is the right decision. I have seen clients and friends give a second chance to partners who truly did not deserve it, and that's a topic for another post.
And I have also seen many couples come out of the other side of an affair stronger for having gone through it, and together with their partner they learn how to care for and protect their relationship. As always, you will need to make the right decision for you.
If you or someone you love is looking for support while working through an affair, ECS clinician Carly Haeck, LMFTA is a couples therapy specialist. Contact her to set up your free phone consultation.