Rebuilding Trust After an Affair
Perhaps you’ve discovered your partner’s affair, or your partner has confessed. It could be primarily emotional or sexual or it could be a combination; it could be multiple partners and one-night stands, or it could be with a single person for a long period of time.
While the particulars do matter, the sense of betrayal and the feeling that your life–and partner–is not what you had thought tends to be similar. So how do you begin to move forward?1) Be truthful with yourself and your partner about what you’re feeling.
That means that if this is eating you up day and night, you don’t have to pretend that it isn’t. There’s no need to judge yourself for whatever you’re feeling, or tell yourself that you need to get over it, now.
Rebuilding takes time. It takes patience. It takes kindness toward yourself and your partner.
What? you might ask. Kindness toward the person who hurt me?
Yes. Maybe you’re not capable of that when you first find out, but if you want to save your relationship, then kindness needs to be a goal. Just because your partner disrespected you doesn’t mean you want to get in the habit of disrespecting them back. Eye for an eye, and everyone goes blind, right?
But if you’re angry, express your anger–in as respectful a way as you’re capable of. If you’re hurt, express that, too. Disappointed? Ditto. Confused, disoriented, uncertain how to get past what’s happened, even if you want to? Ditto. You’re probably all of the above, plus some I didn’t mention.
You need to know where you are in your emotional process, and your partner does, too.
2) Insist that your partner give you a detailed recounting of what happened, if you feel it would be helpful.
You might not know what’s helpful. But I’ll tell you what most people tend to do: They tend to try to reconstruct their lives in their minds, to go back over where they were and what was happening, to understand how they could have missed certain cues or thought things were a way that they weren’t.
A detailed recounting aids in this process. It means that nothing is going to come out later–that it’s all out on the table and can be dealt with.
I strongly encourage the partner who’s had the affair to be incredibly forthcoming. Hold nothing back. In the long run, it will be better for you because if you try to tell some of the story and leave some out, you’ll forget which is which; the rest might come out. And it’s much harder to be forgiven later for what seems like a double betrayal. That could be the death blow to the relationship. Far better to try to be forgiven for everything at once, to start clean. This is the most respectful choice for you, your partner, and the relationship.
That said, I do not recommend parsing details obsessively and over a long period of time. If the spouse that’s been cheated on finds themselves ruminating and always having more questions, despite assurances that everything has been revealed, then it’s time to look at why that person can’t seem to get any peace.
Is it because they’re still suspecting more lies? Waiting for the other shoe to drop? Feeling like forgiveness lets the other person off the hook? Torturing themselves because subconsciously, they feel like they deserve this?
3) Determine a way to deal with the anxiety, together.
Not being able to trust your partner is very anxiety-provoking. The two of you need to develop a system whereby you can get the reassurance you need. This might involve many repetitive-seeming conversations, but they are necessary. Identify what you really need to hear. It’s probably based in your greatest insecurities.
Sometimes it means that the person who had the affair willingly gives up some degree of privacy–sharing passwords, putting a tracking device on their phone, opening up all their correspondence, letting the partner peruse all contacts in the cell, etc.
For some couples, this breeds too much resentment on the part of the person being monitored, or the other person becomes too obsessive with monitoring and that means that instead of relief, it creates more preoccupation. You’ll have to think if any of these types of measures will work for you. Or you might try them out and abandon them if they’re not helping.
Also, you need to realize that a person who’s determined to deceive will find a way. So what you’re really trying to do is temporarily manage anxiety. You can’t control people, and it’s not going to benefit either of you to try.
4) Try to find explanations, not blame.
While it’s important that the person who had the affair takes responsibility for their actions and expresses appropriate remorse and compassion for their partner, it’s also important that the relationship doesn’t become a repeated flagellation, that it’s not all about blaming and shaming.
You need to start figuring out where things went wrong. That’s how you affair-proof a relationship: by looking at what form of disconnection existed between the couple, what resentments might have gone unnoticed, how one person felt neglected, etc.
Gaining greater understanding of yourself and your partner can be a healthy byproduct of an unhealthy situation. You’re not just rebuilding your old relationship; you’re creating a stronger one.
***Holly Brown is a marriage and family therapist in the San Francisco Bay area. She has a private practice in Alameda (http://hollybrownmft.com/ ). She’s also the author of–what else?–psychological thrillers (http://hollybrownbooks.com/ ).
Brown, H. (2017). Rebuilding Trust After an Affair. Psych Central. Retrieved on April 30, 2017, from https://blogs.psychcentral.com/bonding-time/2017/03/rebuilding-trust-after-an-affair/