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Recovering From Infidelity Part II

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Recovering From Infidelity:  Part II

Rev. Fr. Charles Joanides, Ph.D., LMFT

Infidelity is a serious breach of trust. Despite the serious nature of this breach, many couples can and do recover from infidelity. However, it is not an easy recovery process. Quoting from one spouse who was the victim of an unfaithful husband, she observed, “Trying to regain what I lost when I discovered that my husband was cheating on me on business trips was one of the hardest challenges I ever faced. In retrospect, I’m happy I didn’t seek a divorce. I was able to hang in there to determine if there was any future for us. Two years later, the effort was worth it. We are closer today to one another than we ever have been. Is therapy for everyone when one spouse has been unfaithful? I doubt it, but it was for me. For the sake of our children and family, before considering divorce I needed to know if we could repair the damage my husband’s affair caused.”

As this quote suggests, some couples can and do successfully recover from an affair. Some couples even suggest that their hard work and commitment to the recovery process facilitated a level of intimacy and connection between them that did not exist before the affair.

What follows is a brief description of a recovery process I use to help couples when infidelity is the presenting problem. I would not recommend that couples try to work through these steps alone. They are offered to simply illustrate a path toward recovery.  Couples struggling to restore intimacy after an unfaithful partner’s poor choices need professional help.

First Stage:  Zero Contact

In order for the recovery process to begin, both partners must commit to a minimum of six months of work. Of course, there is no way I can hold them to this initial commitment. Nevertheless, I ask for a six month minimum commitment to emphasize the serious nature of the breach and the hard work that the recovery process will require.

Concurrent with a six month commitment, if this has not already occurred, I also ask the offending partner to break off all contact with their affair partner. If the offending partner is continuing to meet with his/her affair partner and is unwilling to break off the affair, I will generally inform the couple that they are not ready to do the hard work that is required. I will then either provide a referral or suggest other options.

 Conversely, if the offending partner has either ended the affair or expresses a desire to work toward zero contact, I will work with the couple so long as (1) the partner who has been victimized is committed to the process I outline, and (2) the offender offers assurances that they have either ended the affair or intend to end it within a reasonable time frame – usually a few days – and they are committed to working on repairing the damage they have caused.

Second Stage:  Period of information and Questions

Once both partners feel reasonably certain that zero contact has been achieved, a period of information and questions unfolds. This stage is guided by the partner who has been victimized and tends to create a great deal of discomfort for the unfaithful partner. During this stage, I try to hold the couple in safety while granting the victim the latitude to ask as many questions as they need to ask. This is a necessary part of the recovery process which permits the victim the space to carefully understand what happened, why it happened and if there is any future for the relationship.  

Third Stage:  Remorse and Compassion

As the second stage unfolds, the hope is that the unfaithful spouse will begin to feel remorseful for their actions. The offending partner must begin to discern the level of damage, pain and hurt that their infidelity caused. Concurrently with the regret and remorse the offending partner experiences, since remorse generally evokes compassions in us,  the hope is that the offended partner will slowly begin to feel some compassion for their partner. If this occurs, the therapy will slowly move to the next stage.

Fourth Stage:  Building Trust

Remorse and compassion slowly guides the couple to a process of trust building. The partner who has been victimized can begin to let go of their concerns and questions and begins to slowly trust again. During this juncture, new rules and new boundaries are established that feel comfortable to both partners – especially the offended partner. Both partners also engage in more talk that alludes to a life together rather than apart. These types of exchanges stand in stark contrast with the couple’s initial conversations which focused on individual plans, dreams and aspirations. As trust building continues, it is not uncommon for spouses to make statements like the following one: “If he’s late and fails to call home, my whole world doesn’t begin to come crashing down around me. I’m upset, but not overwhelmed. I know that things happen, so I can wait until he gets home to hear what he has to say…. I guess this means I trust him more, but I still need some verbal assurances that his failure to call home wasn’t just him taking me for granted.” 

Fifth Stage:  Forgiveness 

Genuine forgiveness begins to emerge when the offending spouse understands what they did, how their behavior affected their spouse, marriage and family and when assurances are offered the offending spouse that such behavior will never happen again. This does not presuppose that the offended spouse will accept their partner’s apology immediately. In fact, the offending spouse must offer multiple apologies before the offended spouse will accept the apology. Once this occurs, the couple is able to move on from the debilitating effects of the affair toward a future together. 

Concluding Thoughts

The nature of infidelity is sufficiently serious to be listed among the few reasons our church will grant an ecclesiastical divorce. In some cases, when infidelity occurs – especially repeated patterns of infidelity – some couples cannot recover from the serious breach that the affair partner has caused. In these instances, the marriage is dead and reconciliation is impossible.

Despite the devastating effects that infidelity causes to many marriages, research also suggests that a significant percentage of marriages can be saved. This article has sought to illustrate a process that assists couples repair the serious breach that infidelity causes. If both partners are willing to do what it takes to repair the breach that infidelity causes, I have found that many can successfully recover.