“How can we ever rebuild our relationship after an affair?”
Infidelity in a committed relationship can be an immense strain on both partners and on the relationship itself. Often the news of an affair is like a bomb going off in the middle of the relationship, and it may take the other partner completely by surprise, making that person feel shocked, betrayed, angry, jealous, worthless, lonely, or confused. The partners who had the affair may feel guilt, shame, loss of respect for themselves. In some cases, they may feel they have lost their voice and identity, and be unable to face the pain they caused their partner.
Many couples come to couples therapy at such a time to try to understand what just happened in their relationship, and to try to recover and move on. They consider a variety of options along the way, including separation and divorce, and it is often a long and painstaking process to rebuild trust, love and emotional security.
A couple working through an affair has to understand why the infidelity happened in the first place, and what are the assurances that it won’t happen again. They have to come to a new understanding of their relationship and of each other, and to mourn the loss of the innocence of the earlier relationship. Regaining trust is a process that takes quite a while and requires new promises to be made and kept over time. Often however, the couple can come to a new understanding with each other that allows them to feel a greater connection and a revitalized relationship even after the affair. Some couples end up coming to the realization that “Yes, you could get a divorce and have other marriages with different people, or you could try to have a different marriage with the same person.”
The difficult issues facing couples after an affair can be ignored or given superficial treatment by inexperienced psychotherapists who are not familiar with the needs of these couples.
At the Center for Psychological and Interpersonal Development, we work with couples after an affair using Emotionally Focused Couples Therapy (EFT), a highly effective form of couples therapy. When a relationship is going well, you feel that you can turn to your partner and express things that are difficult to feel and to say, and that your partner will continue to be there for you and to accept you.
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The Negative Cycle
When relationships aren’t going well, we may feel like our partner isn’t there for us when we turn to them to discuss our needs or when we need them for support. We may not even feel like they really love or accept us, and we become disconnected further from them. With EFT, we can help unlock the emotional reasons for disconnection and help change them into ways to partners connect more deeply with each other.
Parker and Mel (not their real names) come in to the office in a crisis as they have a 9-month-old baby and Parker has just told Mel about an affair he has been having with a female colleague for the past 3 months. In the first stage of dealing with the crisis, Mel expresses her anger, sense of betrayal, and fear of loss of the relationship, and Parker learns to hear and accept these feelings and the pain he caused Mel. They are honest with each other about how this happened as they are beginning to rebuild trust, get support and take care of their own needs. In the next stage, they begin to understand the negative cycle between them that led to the affair. Parker felt he got too little attention after the birth of the child and was under pressure from Mel, he felt he couldn’t express his needs to her, gave up, and took up the opportunity to have the affair. Mel felt overwhelmed by the new child and the changes in her life, couldn’t express her needs or be present for Parker, and became critical and dismissive of his efforts.
Later on, Mel is able to fully express her pain and Parker is able to hear it, and Parker is able to express his own pain about what he has done and the pain he caused. This is healing to her, as she was alone before with her pain and now he can be there with her. It is also healing for him, as he can make use of their shared pain to help ease her pain and he can feel more connected with her. In the last stage of therapy, Parker and Mel put what they now know into practice and use it to build a new marriage between them; marriage that feels different and more solid than the one they had before the affair.