By Leslie Becker-Phelps, PhD
Just as earthquakes shake the ground we walk on, the discovery of an affair shakes the very foundation of a marriage. There are no two ways about it: affairs are destructive. They are a betrayal of a commitment that two people have made to devote themselves to each other. Yet, sometimes, a marriage can eventually be made stronger by it.
For any good to come after an affair comes to light, certain actions and responses must occur:
Admission and Remorse: Healing can only begin to take place if the person who had the affair fully acknowledges that what they did was wrong. Along with that admission, he or she must be remorseful for their actions. They cannot hedge with reasoning or justifications – it was wrong to go outside the marriage for emotional and/or physical intimacy that belongs solely in the marriage.
Validation of the pain caused: The spouse who remained faithful must be allowed to openly express their feelings of hurt, betrayal, sadness, anger, and whatever else they are experiencing. And to do so repeatedly as they process what has happened and how it has affected them. As they express this, the spouse who has cheated must be willing to really hear, accept, and validate this pain.
It’s important to note that for healing to happen, the hurt partner must be looking for validation and a caring response, not just retribution. What they need to hear is something like, “I am so sorry for what I’ve done and the pain I’ve caused. There is no good excuse for it, and I wish I could take away your pain.” And what they need to do is to take in the message (as long as it is genuine) so that hopefully with time their anger can be cooled and the pain somewhat soothed. Only then can the marriage possibly begin to move in a more positive direction.
Mutual “ownership” of the marriage: If the couple decides to try to move forward together, it is important that they assess the state of their marriage before the affair. While the choice to have an affair is a poor one, there might have been problems in the marriage that led to it. When spouses can talk about this, each admitting their part in problems, they can do what might have prevented the affair – talk through how to improve their marriage. By both people taking responsibility for the quality of their marriage, they can work together to strengthen it.
As couples move through this process, they can nurture a closer connection, better communication, and increased caring of each other’s everyday experiences. This won’t change the past or take away pain from the betrayal, but it does offer the possibility of a better future together.
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