How Can I Trust After an Affair?
By: David Lechnyr, LCSW
Affairs happen for many reasons The main wound is that trust and comfort in the security of the relationship has been shattered. The fact that we all search for security makes any violation of the relationship, either mental, spiritual, or sexual, much more upsetting. The fact that one is not expecting it, or that it was not part of the assumption about how the relationship would progress and operate, causes traumatic responding. It violates the hopes and expectations that one can be really who they are with another person.
Affairs are not really about sex. It is about betrayal and the violation of Trust and healthy boundaries. It is about leading a life of lies – a double life – where there are secrets that are separate from the primary relationship. It suggests that something has been going on in one’s partner’s mind, life, that involved intrigue and deception while the offended spouse was operating under very different assumptions. This changes one’s perception of what is real and what can be trusted. It causes reactions of high emotions, upset, resentment, and confusion in the wounded spouse.
Issues of Affairs
- First, there is the secrecy.
- Second, there is the issue of emotional intimacy. Women are the most concern about this particular violation–even more than any issue of sex involvement.
- Third, there is the sexual chemistry–even if two people never touch.
- Fourth, there is the issue of time and energy away from the primary relationship.
- Fifth, there is the issue of blaming others for the reason the affair happened. The problem is that people create a pattern in the marriage that is not enhancing and avoids dealing with the problems in the relationship in appropriate adult ways.
- Sixth, after affairs people try to justify their actions by rewriting the marital history to say that they were never happy, blaming the other person for never really loving them, or anything to make themselves feel that they didn’t do such a terrible thing.
- Seventh, only about 10 percent of the people who divorce for the other person in the affair actually ever end up going with that person they had the affair with. They may go with that person initially but that relationship rarely lasts long.
- Eighth, involves the new concepts of societal sanctions for affairs–or the perception of people that everyone is doing it so it must be okay. This forgets the issues of boundary lines in relationships.
Issues of Boundaries
Boundaries are limits that one knows that they should not violate or cross. It is possible to be attracted to others even in good marriages without crossing the boundaries and acting on one’s feelings. In everything that we do in life we have to be aware of appropriate boundaries rather than creating opportunities.
One can have friendships but this requires being careful about sharing your deepest emotions and feelings with that other person beyond what is appropriate. This is because the sharing of such deep emotions and feelings is an affair in itself, even if there is no sexual relationship, because it violates the primary relationship. When a relationship becomes intimate and emotional, men tend to sexualize it.
Issues of Solving Problems
We can solve problems in many ways, but having affairs is not one of them. Unfortunately, this is a frequent way in which people handle problems–acting out rather than talking things out. There is a sense in our society that if things are not going well we then have permission to go out and find what we need. Usually one member tries to solve problems and the other one withdraws more refusing to respond to the efforts to resolve things. One becomes the pursuer and the other (usually the male) becomes the distancer.
Affairs are not always about the marriage. Affairs are about our selfish needs. They say something about how we learned about love and relationships in our early childhood years–issues of what was missing, lack of boundaries, and self-centeredness. Society, and women, blame the woman.
Many people think that a person having an affair is not getting enough at home. The reality is that the person is actually not giving enough at home! Some people feel that they are not complete enough in a relationship and need to have something or someone else to make them complete. The reality is that they can only find this in themselves. When one finds happiness in themselves, they no longer look to the other person to make them happy. All you are doing is expecting the other person to join you in your happiness.
Research has shown that conservative men are more likely to have affairs because they have an ability to split sex and affection–along with having little understanding of the other person as a separate human being with their own needs and feelings. Others are seen as useful to them.
Compulsive Acting Out Behaviors
Whenever behaviors continue to be acted out it points to the issues of compulsions. If a man feels entitled, then he experiences little guilt over any acting out behaviors. With compulsive behaviors there is the cycle of addiction that pushes the cycle going forward, including secrecy, denial, apologies, and then the push to act out again. If one gets into therapy, there is a chance to learn what the addiction means in the person’s life.
Often it relates to an emptiness that is in some way linked to the need for excitement to block the awareness of the emptiness. Others seem to be acting out like teenagers, rebelling against a spouse that is perceived as too parental. This then becomes the chicken and egg question about why one is the stronger parental one and the other is the rebellious teenager who has to act out in order to have a separate identity. It usually has more to do with the acting out spouse.
- First, any rebuilding of trust requires honesty.
- Second, the honesty REQUIRES the sharing of information about the encounters; saying I saw her today and she asked me how I was doing. This has to happen in order to remove secrets.
- Third, the sharing of information has to be done over and over again even if it does create upset. In the long run it helps to reduce the upsets because the offended one can start to see that the offender is trying to be more open and honest. This takes time, over time.
- Fourth, answering a spouse’s questions about everything, what happened, and what happened each day, is the way of reversing the process of hurt. This is going to take more time than you may think and you cannot rush it or tell them to get over it and let go of it. It may take up to a year of talking things over and over again–because it is part of the working through process also known as sweat work.
- Fifth, it answers the question of who is on the inside and who is on the outside of the relationship. An affair suggests that there was never a very close relationship and the victim spouse was left on the outside and alone!
- Sixth, it removes the walls from the relationship and put in its place clear windows that are open to the other person.
- Seventh, unless the unfaithful one shows empathy–feelings for–the pain that they have caused in the other one, the marriage is heading for collapse.
- Eighth, it is critical that the offending spouse recognize and understand their vulnerabilities that contributed to the acting out–curiosity, depression, need for excitement, rescue fantasies of a more helpless one, etc.
- Ninth, the offending spouse needs to assume responsibility for the betrayal, regardless of any problems that existed in the marriage.
- Tenth, the offended partner needs to be more aware of when their mate may be lying again. Cycles of negative behaviors has shown that once the tensions are released by acting out, the offending person will act loving while making promises, etc. Promises mean nothing. Behavior changes over time are the only guarantees that something has changed. Yea shall know them by their behaviors–not their words.
- Eleventh, the offended partner needs to stop putting their heads in the sand and pretending that everything is okay and will work out. They need to deal with issues as they come up.
- Twelfth, the offended partner needs to refuse to give without getting anything back in turn.
- Thirteenth, there is an effort to share responsibility for changing the relationship and taking time for it.
- Fourteenth, issue need now to dealt with in a calm manner using humor and reducing negativity.
Stages of Recovery
- First Stage, is the time a time of a great deal of hurt. The unfaithful partner needs understand that there will be an avalanche of emotions released by the affair on both sides, which makes one feel crazy, hopeless, and alone.
- Second Stage, is the time, after the initial reactions, to work on making thoughtful, not emotional, decisions. It is also time to understand how each partner will respond differently to an affair – accepting these differences as part of the healing process. This is the time when decisions have to be made about whether or not to recommit. This is the time to explore the ambivalent (mixed) feelings, develop a realistic concept of love, take responsibility for how one’s early experiences in life compromise their ability to be satisfied, intimate, and faithful in their adult relationships. This is the time to face truths about yourself.
- Third Stage, is a time to develop concrete strategies that help to rebuild trust, sexual intimacy, and considering issues of forgiveness (not forgetfulness). This is a time to have courage to either reject or embrace forgiveness.
What is Forgiveness
Forgiveness is having emotional closure. Until the person understands, and knows, what he/she did to you there can be no emotional closure. Do they understand the DEPTH of what they did to you. Are they willing to work on it, talk it through, be open, and understand things from your point of view. Are they willing to see and feel your needs and feelings as a human being or are they only wanting it to be over with because it makes them feel better. It may be that they are incapable of seeing things from any point of view than their own. This means that there can never be closure or the re-establishment of trust again. Without closure the relationship will not survive. Underlying anger, resentments, distrust, etc., will continue and these will only make things worse.
If closure is not accomplished, then the relationship cannot continue because it cannot grow. It is time for the other person to come out of themselves and see beyond their own needs to understanding the feelings and needs of the other person. If they cannot do this then they are incapable of being in a mature relationship. Being sorry is not enough. Promises are not enough. Being attentive is not enough. Saying lets just forget it and move on is not enough. Forgiveness requires fundamental changes at a core level–to grow beyond the self to see the other and understand the feelings that the others is experiencing. However, it does require that each person grow beyond themselves, see their part in the problem, and make core changes in how they approach life and their relationships.
Photo credit: Pixabay/MasterTux