Many couples begin counseling wondering whether they can ever recover from the hurt of infidelity. Can trust be regained? Can forgiveness be offered? Can guilt be accepted? In short, yes. I have worked with couples who were on the brink of divorce stemming from infidelity only to help see them through the work of repairing and strengthening their relationship. There are several factors that make this possible.
Recommitting to making the relationship work is of the greatest importance. For many valid reasons this isn’t always possible to do at first. The injured spouse often carries a mixture of anger, hurt, and sadness following the affair; he or she will typically think long and hard about whether to stay in the relationship. The unfaithful partner may also deliberate about whether they are not only willing to stay in the relationship but whether they will ever be accepted and trusted again. Therapy can help couples work out their feelings and make decisions about whether to pursue healing the relationship. If the decision is made to work on the relationship then all contact with the affair partner must be ended. The unfaithful party must be able to make a genuine promise that there will be no future contact with their former partner. It is disrespectful to the current relationship to continue the contact and it dilutes energies needed for repairing the relationship.
Genuine remorse from the unfaithful partner is required, as well, in order to understand and support safeguarding the relationship against a future affair. He or she must recognize the pain that they have caused, ask for forgiveness, and take active steps towards ensuring that there will not be a future lapse. Sometimes this is not possible, as there are cases in which the unfaithful one blames the other for their misdeeds. “If you weren’t so (insert excuse here) I wouldn’t have gone elsewhere.” While relationship strain may be real it never justifies the choice of infidelity. One must take responsibility for his/her actions. The alternative is narcissism – a quality of self-absorption that contributes to an unsatisfying and immature relationship.
Last, the unfaithful companion must be willing to respect his or her partner’s need to know. Questions about the affair are normal and oftentimes necessary. The fastest way to shut down trust building is through secrecy and stubbornness. I see many men whose strategy is to say “I don’t want to talk about it. That was in the past. Let’s focus on something else.” While this strategy is understandable, its air of concealment and defiance damages the relationship. The affair must be discussed in an open, sensitive, and thoughtful manner, usually many times over.
When the preceding conditions have been satisfied couples can not only recover from infidelity but in many cases develop a more intimate relationship than they previously enjoyed.