Dr. Val Farmer
Rural Mental Health & Family Relationships

Putting An Affair In The Past

March 27, 1995

How does a couple navigate through the turbulence of hurt and anger after an affair has been discovered? How can an affair be put in the past?

Step one: No third party. Unless the third party is physically and emotionally out of the picture there will be no progress. Any semblance of loyalty or ambivalence about an affair partner further injures the betrayed spouse.

At this point, the "involved" spouse should have counseling to work through unresolved feelings and their grief at losing an affair partner. The betrayed spouse might consider a separation until their partner is committed to working on the marriage. The betrayed spouse may also need to process their hurt and gain control over their emotions before joint counseling.

At the beginning of joint counseling, information about family background, courtship and a short marriage history helps establish rapport and context for talking about the affair. There should also be agreement to talk about the affair and other marriage problems only at marriage therapy sessions to insure effective discussions.

Step two: The right attitude. Honesty and openness are essential. The involved partner should be humble

and contrite - not glib, irritated, guarded or defensive. The involved partner may have legitimate concerns about whether the marriage can meet their needs and whether their partner can put the incident in the past.

Complaints of the involved partner shouldn't be put on an equal footing with the affair. Jumping in and raising these points may sound like justification. Explanations are important but only at the right time and context later in counseling.

The betrayed partner wants their hurt recognized and validated before listening to other marital issues. Poor communication, conflict resolution and other differences will be addressed after the affair has been talked through completely.

It is a sign of love to acknowledge and apologize for the hurt a partner is going through. The offending partner may need some coaching in listening, empathy and nonverbal communication so their concern comes across. The betrayed spouse wants their partner to experience some pain and be accountable as a small token of justice.

The betrayed partner is a trauma victim. Their assumptions about marriage and the trustworthiness of their partner have been shattered. He or she is experiencing shock, disbelief, humiliation, obsessive thoughts, hypervigilence, accusatory suffering and flashbacks. Their own trust of reality was undermined when the involved spouse was able to deceive them.

Working through the trauma and telling the story of their own hurt and pain is essential to healing. The betrayed partner has an intense need to know what happened, how it happened and why it happened. The pieces of the puzzle have to fit. Details are important - all except sexual details that add to the trauma. The best way for the involved mate to show love is to be lovingly patient with their partner's emotions and need for meaning.

Step three: Getting the details. Discussing details forthrightly shows loyalty and openness by the involved partner. Holding back creates suspicion and doubt. This way the betrayed spouse gets a sense of whether their partner is trying to protect or still has feelings for the third party. The betrayed spouse wants a feeling of being on the "inside" while the affair partner is an outsider.

Lying goes with affairs. Otherwise, the offending party would have been thrown out of the marriage. There are many lies to sort through. When the unvarnished truth is told with sincerity, it is a sign that the affair has truly ended.

A counselor can draw out the betrayed partner and help soften the tone from vengeful inquisition to an exploration of truth. A counselor can also help keep emotions under control for constructive dialogue. The counselor takes an active role in gathering information, seeking acceptable explanations and clarifying inconsistencies.

What the betrayed partner needs to have answered is, "How do I know I won't be betrayed again?" This process of getting to the bottom of what happened and why might take several sessions. When nothing new needs to be asked or answered, discussion can turn to other marriage problems.

Step four: Trust takes time. Heartfelt apologies and realizing the danger signs of extramarital relationships helps restores trust. Then commitments need to be made: no matter what the condition of the marriage, they will be faithful to one another and they will go to counseling or do whatever it takes to resolve differences.

A marriage should stand or fall on its own merits without the complication of a third party. Introducing a third party into a relationship brings hurt and confusion.

Trust comes back with time. Sincere love shown daily over a significant time will speed up the process of restoring trust and full forgiveness. The story of an affair now has an ending and marks the beginning of something new and better.