An affair can be the most brutalising of all experiences in a couple relationship. The betrayed partner experiences a tidal wave of mixed and often chaotic emotions. The pain, hurt, anger, humiliation, and despair can be often overwhelming. It can produce fearful, anxious, and hypervigilant behaviours, not unlike symptoms felt by military veterans who have returned from combat; and it quite literally can feel as you are combating something completely out of your control.
Your mind races with out of control thoughts, but an affair is felt viscerally too, the body shakes, the stomach heaves, you wake up with images of what your partner did, the when and where endlessly replaying.
The betrayer also experiences a great deal of emotion. The guilt and often the suppression of the force and meaning of having betrayed the person they pledged to love can result in a just-wanting-to-move-on mentality, but this rarely works.
What causes an affair?
Why do happy partners have affairs? (and they do)
What does an affair mean? -incredibility it does not necessarily mean the relationships is doomed or the other person does not love you: an affair does not mean the relationship is over, in fact it might mean the relationship is beginning again.
But is does mean that you are both left with a huge, gaping wound in your relationship which, probably without help, will tear you apart.
The profound lack of trust that both feel, e.g. “I can’t trust him/her” and “I don’t know how I can seem trustworthy again means that “trust” will have to be approached very differently from how it was at the start of the relationship. Think about it: how did trust first enter the relationship? It didn’t, it was just there, almost magically. But why trust this person? You hardly knew them then? Trust comes with connection, and rebuilding trust means rebuilding your connections, connections that feel powerfully broken.
This you both need to do slowly and surely, discovering each other all over again: this will be an arduous commitment, but worthwhile if you keep going.
An affair does not have to mean the end but will require some work to move to the next version of your relationship; it’s a long healing process and you will both need to accept that sometimes it’s going to feel like you are moving two steps forward and three steps back.
It’s tempting to think that it will automatically get better with time. This is rarely the case, the anxiety, fear, resentment, anger, and guilt felt early on by the betrayed person often gives way to a slow but sure contempt for the betrayer or a sense that they must “pay for their crimes” for evermore.
This is not being in a healthy relationship.
There are 3 stages in moving on from an affair:
- Understanding and experiencing the trauma of an affair
- Understanding and experiencing the guilt of betrayal
- Emotionally recovering from the affair: tracking back, finding meaning and moving on
Or, tracking back and moving forwards. This work needs to be done together, and it often feel as if one cancels out the other. Stay with it. It takes both partners to do this, to survive and then thrive after an affair, but we can further break down the respective partner tasks:
For the one who has had the affair:
- acknowledge the hurt and the pain, understand the trauma and how powerful it is, almost literally fall on your sword. It tells your partner you want to work on things and him/her and your relationship really matter
- Attempt to find the meaning of the affair
- Take responsibility for the affair, do not shy away from this and expect your partner to do all the work, almost become a custodian for the affair
- Don’t try to move on quick; in fact, don’t use the words “move on” at all -repair, when it happens, will go at its own pace
- Express your guilt and shame
For the betrayed:
- Attempt to find the meaning of the affair and get past the gory details which you will want to hear, but will hurt you more
- Don’t turn this relationship into victim-victimiser i.e. feel entitled, if you have been hurt, to hurt back. This merely sets up a toxic future relationship
- Decide if you want to work on your relationship, if so, you need to do the work as well, if connections are being made appreciate them; you need to give feedback it’s working
- Reconnection comes before trust-take time to refit your relationship
- See your relationship as version 1 what was, version 2 what is, and version 3 what could be and work to this
- Start to work out what was missing in your relationship-the root cause of the affair- and be mutually responsible for this