For most couples, when one partner learns that the other one has had an affair, it is the equivalent of blowing up a bomb. It’s devastating and feels like there can be no rebuilding. But the reality is that there are couples who do rebuild. They regain trust and sometimes nurture an even stronger relationship.
For there to be any chance of trust being rebuilt, the offending partner must take two steps:
Admission and remorse: The person who had the affair must fully acknowledge that what they did was wrong and must express genuine remorse. They must unequivocally admit that despite whatever reasons they had to go outside the marriage for emotional and/or physical intimacy, they broke a commitment they made in getting married (except in cases where the partners explicitly agreed to an open marriage).
Validation of the pain caused: The offending partner must also invite and be open to truly listening to their partner’s experiences, such as feelings of hurt, betrayal, sadness, and anger. The hurt partner will need to do their feelings repeatedly as they process what has happened and how it has affected them. And it is up to the partner who had the affair to accept and validate this pain, even as it is painful to do so. The response should be 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.”
At this point, the partner who did not have the affair must be open to healing. That means they are not seeking retribution, but instead, are looking for validation and a caring response from their partner. If their partner offers a genuine sense of empathy and remorse, then hopefully the hurt partner’s anger will cool over time and the pain will be somewhat soothed. Only then can the marriage possibly begin to move in a more positive direction.
As these two steps are successfully navigated, there is hope for the partners to find a path forward. It can be very helpful for them to 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 work to understand each other better than they did before the affair. It would also be important for them to review current and ongoing struggles.
By both people taking responsibility for the quality of their marriage, they can work together to 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.