RECOVERING FROM AN AFFAIR, PART 4
by Mike Sorenson, LPCMH [download printable PDF version]
ďMany people profess their loyalty, but a faithful person Ė who can find?Ē
If you have made it this far in the process of recovery, you have already outlasted and likely outworked most couples who face an affair in their marriage. You have both made a commitment to stay in the relationship. The partner who strayed has shown brokenness and repentance, while the offended partner has begun to work through the process of forgiveness. You have built a great foundation for the rebuilding of your relationship. You have already worked really hard and gone so far, but it likely seems like there is so much still ahead of you. And, no matter how much you let go of the past, the present keeps bringing it back. The discovery of an old email sheds new light on the depth of the affair. A seemingly casual conversation with an opposite sex coworker sets off alarm bells in your mind. If you are the spouse who cheated and are legitimately trying to prove your renewed commitment, you may become extremely frustrated by your partnerís constant distrust of your motives or truthfulness. It may not feel like much progress has been made at all. The truth is that, having laid a solid foundation, it is finally time to do some real relationship work.
The reason your marriage still feels unstable is because trust is still so badly damaged. Rebuilding trust cannot happen quickly, so there is no promise, decision or conversation that can restore it by itself. In the beginning of a relationship, trust is often given freely. However, once it has been broken, restoring requires rebuilding it brick by brick over an extended period of time. It takes tremendous consistency of behavior and character over time to outweigh the disastrous decision to betray your spouse. While it may seem daunting, it can be done, and the work put into this process has the potential to bless your marriage for the rest of your life. The dividends are huge. Also, unlike the confession and forgiveness steps, this process will require work on both sides if it is going to be successful. The betraying spouse must learn how to live and relate in a way that evidences character and faithfulness, while the offended spouse must learn to build trust on the right things so that his or her confidence does not get repeatedly destroyed.
If you are a man who has had an affair on his wife, you need to begin to understand how completely and thoroughly this has damaged her confidence both in you and in her own judgment. She not only feels betrayed by your actions, but likely very angry and confused at herself because she was so fooled by your behavior. Her only protection from being devastated again is to remain skeptical and guarded. She will not let down that wall easily, so you will have to be patient. Even if you are doing everything right, she is likely going to be looking feverishly for any hint of wrong motives or potential deception. It is an unfair and unrealistic expectation that she would take you at your word. She is going to need to see corroborating information. By all means tell her the truth about what you want, what you feel and what you are doing. Just donít expect a welcome reception from her at first. Take as your motto Proverbs 20:11 Ė ďeven a young man is known by his actions, whether his activity is pure and whether it is right.Ē What you will have to learn to do is live a life of transparency.
A good rule of thumb on your side is to give her whatever information she asks for and anything you know she would want. Let her be the judge of how much detail she wants about your affair. While it hurts her to hear it, she will be better able to trust you in the long term if she knows you were open with her, even about the most condemning parts. Also, give her access to every form of communication you have. She should have your email passwords, the right to look through your cell phone and cell phone bills, and access to your Facebook account just for starters. You may even need to cut out any points of contact that were used in the affair. This is true whether your spouse wants to look at them or not. She needs to know you are offering it. This way you are able to give her verifiable proof of what you are doing and saying. Finally, make sure your spouse is aware of your whereabouts at all times. Unaccounted for time plays games with her imagination, so if there is any change in your schedule, even if it is only 10 minutes, make sure she is aware of it and able to contact you. In all of these things, err on the side of too much information. You would rather have your wife tell you she didnít need to know something than to cast suspicion because of a conversation or change in schedule that was not revealed. This may seem like a rather severe change in lifestyle and will take some getting used to, but just like anything else it will become habitual after a while. As a byproduct, this level of transparency is also the greatest protection you will have against falling into this trap again.
If you are a wife who is recovering from this most severe betrayal, you likely feel a compelling urge to know everything your husband is doing and saying. Reading phone records, poring over old emails and text messages provides some instant gratification and can provide a false sense of security. While it is your husbandís job to be transparent, you will need to be selective about what information you really need to see. Remember that you canít not know something once you know it. The gory details of what was said and done by your spouse may serve only to put disturbing images in your head that will haunt you for years to come. You will also not be able to build trust based on knowing your husbandís whereabouts at all times and monitoring his every conversation. While he needs to know you have access, this knowledge will never satisfy you or give you the peace you desire. There is always another potential means of communication you donít know about. What if he has another secret email account? What if he has just found a different website to chat on and has just learned to better cover his tracks? Even if he is being totally open and honest, you will never be able to prove the unknown. Use this access to verify information and test what he is telling you, but donít put it on too high of a pedestal or you will only feed your fears and insecurities.
Trust that will truly give you the peace you desire is based on character and behavior. There are certain characteristics that canít be faked. While you may not know the details of what your partner is doing, you can know whether he is acting in a way that is consistent with someone who is honestly committed to your relationship. The characteristic you are primarily looking for is openness. In some cases, the kind of openness needed for a successful marriage has never really been present, so you may not even have a clear picture of what this looks like in your spouse. Once you have experienced it, though, you will begin to have trust in your spouse again. Be aware, though, this openness is not just about your spouseís whereabouts or conversations. It is an openness about deep thoughts and feelings. It is this kind of openness that both builds intimacy and enhances trust. You need to be able to talk about frustrations and insecurities, biggest fears and greatest joys. It is a near certainty that this was not occurring during the affair, because it is impossible to share oneís heart openly and protect such a dangerous secret as an affair. They simply are not compatible. In this recovery process, donít settle for less than total intimacy. You will likely need some help here, so if you have not already, meet with a counselor together to facilitate this kind of communication. There are many points of resistance to sharing openly, but you simply must work through them if you are going to rebuild trust.
One of the biggest obstacles to developing openness is usually time, so you are going to have to be intentional if you are going to recover. Set time aside every night, even if only 30 minutes or an hour, to share about deeper, more private things. Share emotions, dreams, goals and fears. Make sure that you take turns in sharing and that one person is always in the listening role and seeking to understand. Soon, you will learn things about each other that you had never known before. When you first start, much of the conversation will likely surround the affair and its effects, but as you heal you should maintain this same process to talk through more mundane occurrences and future plans. You need to know and appreciate each other on a deeper level and develop a habit of intimate conversation.
If you are doing the things described here consistently, over time trust and intimacy are going to grow in abundance. This is not a quick fix and will not answer every question or solve every conflict that arises, but it does chart a course to follow for the long term. It is going to require some discomfort and hard work. You are going to have to persevere to develop a comfort level with this kind of openness and transparency. The payoff, though, is worth it, as any couple who has recovered will tell you. Most who come out the other side look back on the affair discovery as a real turning point in their relationship. So, if you value your marriage and are ready to fight for it, take these directives as a starting point and ready yourself to persevere with the process. It might take longer than you want and it might require more of you than you thought you had to give, but you will definitely never regret it!