RECOVERING FROM AN AFFAIR, PART 5
by Mike Sorenson, LPCMH [download printable PDF version]
“Why do you look at the speck that is in your brother’s eye, but do not notice the log that is in your own eye?”
Recovering from an affair requires a certain level of emotional upheaval. It is long, hard, draining work and it sometimes seems, to one person at least, as if it has been unfairly thrust upon you. As people settle into the process and become aware of the difficulty of it, one of the questions they often ask is, “What is the point of all this?” We are geared to look for purpose in our lives. We can handle the roller coaster ride a whole lot more patiently if we can look forward to a payoff at some point. If the end goal is just to go back to the same broken relationship you had before the affair, you might not be too motivated to keep working.
The truth is your relationship likely had problems long before the affair ever started. They might look minor compared to the problems you are facing now, but if things were so blissful before, you likely would never have gotten to this point. Give that last sentence a moment to sink in. It may be hard to accept if you are the one who has been betrayed. It is one thing to forgive what your partner has done to you. It is another to have to admit you might be part of the problem. To be clear, you are not at fault for your partner’s affair. That was a tragic choice that cannot be justified. This last step in the process of recovery, though, is not as much about the affair at all. It is about allowing the affair to highlight the flaws that were already present in your relationship before it ever happened. For those problems, you were a willing participant. If you fail to repair those flaws, you may be at risk for a recurrence of the affair or some other crisis down the road. However, if out of humility, you allow this crisis to lead you into acknowledging and working on the long-term difficulties in your marriage, it can be a catalyst for true, deep, lasting change that blesses you for the rest of your time together.
For the forgiving spouse, if you are ready to move forward into this step of recovery, you are going to have to ask a very difficult question that you may have not honestly wanted to ask: what did the affair supply to my partner that was lacking in our relationship previously? It is a humbling step, but the question needs to be asked if the relationship is going to improve. It is easy to look at the act of sex for the answer, but that is rarely the primary reason. At its root, there is almost always an emotional need driving a person who gets caught in an affair. Whether it is a need for appreciation, encouragement, passion or attention, your partner had a need that was being fulfilled (albeit in a destructive and unhealthy way) by their affair partner. Likely, you are the person they really want it from, but they don’t know how to get it legitimately within the context of your current relationship. That is why the feelings for the other person were so confusing at the time. Your partner was getting a deep-seated need met, but the real longing was for that need to be met by you. That thirst is still there, waiting for you to quench it.
One of the most common themes that arises from an affair is the desire to feel appreciated. The new person longed to spend time with them, told them how wonderful they were and showed genuine concern for them. For men who have affairs, it is often the statements of admiration and appreciation that suck them in. He feels as if much of what he does goes unacknowledged, while this new person (who has the advantage of not having to live, work and raise children with him) thinks that he is the most wonderful man she has ever met. For the wife who strays, she often becomes enamored with the sensitive man who really listens to her and understands her struggles. It might be really uncomfortable to look at (and some cannot handle doing so), but there is a treasure trove of information in how your spouse’s affair partner related to them. Something really hit the mark, and it would benefit you greatly to know what it was. If your husband felt unappreciated well before the affair, it would be unwise to continue that pattern going forward. If your wife felt unheard, it is time to start learning how to listen well.
Your husband or wife may not be able to register these same complaints, for there a number of relationship problems that could be at the root of the desire to stray. Sometimes a hectic schedule leads to a lack of time together. Sometimes an abundance of stress and conflict leads to a desire for escape. Whatever the emotional root, it is time to make sure you clearly understand your own role in the struggles in your marriage. When the time is right, ask your partner about what they have been needing from you. Ask in a spirit of humility, with a willingness to listen and a readiness to receive a rebuke. Make sure you have an extended amount of time to listen and a heart to understand. Expect some reluctance from your spouse, as this is a really uncomfortable topic, but persist with your willingness to really hear him or her. Persist with this topic until you begin to see clearly what you contributed to the cycle of emotional distance that was present in your marriage. Finally, be ready to take action on what you hear. Refuse to perpetuate your own struggles to the detriment of your marriage.
You may feel your spouse has no right to request anything of you after what they have done, and there may be some truth in that. However, it is not just your partner who is asking. The answers to that question are likely at the root of what God Himself wants you to get out of this terrible situation. In Matthew 7:3-5, Jesus did not refer to a specific sin situation when He gave his teaching about the plank in the eye. It is a general principle for responding to those who have sinned against you. So, resist the urge to categorize your spouse’s sin as too wretched and hurtful to be responded to with grace and humility. Jesus’ point is that you will not be able to clearly see to help your spouse with their sin until you have clearly identified and dealt with your own. You MUST know where you fit in the equation or you will not be able to accomplish anything in fixing your relationship. If you are focused on whose sin is bigger, you are missing the point. According to Jesus’ statement, the sin in your own “eye” is always the bigger one. Until you are able to see it from that perspective, you are not ready to truly heal in your marriage relationship.
A funny thing happens when you begin to take ownership of how you contributed to the marriage problems. You begin to feel a little bit lighter, a little bit happier and a lot less angry. I have had the privilege of seeing people in the moment when they realize this, and it is as if they see their whole marriage in a different light. Forgiveness gets a whole lot easier and the whole recovery process picks up speed. Often this is the turning point, not just in the recovery from the affair, but in rebuilding the relationship. This is where God begins to break down the true obstacles to intimacy that have been there for years. One person had the affair, but both of you likely contributed to a pattern of disconnectedness or contention. If your partner has made it this far in the process, he or she is likely very invested in changing the dynamics of your household, so make sure you are equally invested. It is here that you begin to understand God’s true purpose for this trying period of your life, when you see Him highlighting and changing your own deep wounds and sins. No one ever asks to have to go through such a gut-wrenching, torturous situation as finding out their spouse was unfaithful, but through the pain, forgiveness, grace and eventual healing you can find some of the deepest growth and sweetest intimacy you have ever known. That is a purpose worth pursuing!