Insights from Emotionally Focused Couples Therapy (EFT) to help you save your relationship after the affair.
Affairs are rated as one of the most seriously hurtful life events with long term effects on the injured partner and the relationship (Freeny, 2004).
Your world is turned upside down. Your bond is shattered. What was once your source of stability, your closest relationship, is no longer a safe and trustworthy place. In some cases, your family crumbles, and you lose your sense of security (Faller, 2020).
The aftermath of an affair is emotional chaos, injured partner grappling with rage and intense negative feelings. An Injured partner has to make sense of the changed relationship, something they thought would never happen.
Add to this the deep sense of mistrust that affairs create. You may feel like you can’t take your world for granted now. You may start to question everything, even yourself and your ability to make judgments.
The big dilemma: Should I forgive, or should I leave?
You may be struggling with the big question: “Should I forgive my partner who cheated on me?”
It’s a difficult decision.
You probably have other questions that all link back to the big question:
- Do I have to break up the family?
- Can I stay in a relationship where I don’t trust my partner?
It may be too painful to make decisions right after you learn about the affair. You may feel too raw and angry.
Honor the time it takes to make a decision, and to be indecisive (Faller, 2020).
Allow yourself time to make sense of what happened and let that inform the choice you make. It’s normal to feel indecisive, or even ambivalent (Jinich, 2020). Many things have changed about your world and you can pause to reassess how you want to navigate your new surroundings.
Forgiveness is also a process, not an event. Whether you decide to stay or leave, forgiving your partner for the affair will take time.
Just saying “I’m sorry” isn’t enough – You need to offer more
Most often Injured partners want to talk about the affair and most Injuring partners don’t want to have this difficult conversation.
Often it feels too difficult for the Injuring partner to have the conversation because he or she may feel guilty and ashamed of what they did.
Common thoughts and feelings from the Injuring partner:
- I don’t like thinking about the affair because it makes me feel guilty
- After I apologize and promise to never do it again, I want to move on
- I don’t like how it feels to see your pain
Common actions from the Injuring partner:
- Avoids the topic of the affair
- Becomes defensive after apologizing
- Distances emotionally
It’s hard for the Injuring partner to come close to the wound he or she caused, due to the guilt and shame of causing that pain. But, if the Injuring partner avoids going into the Injured partner’s pain, it creates problems, the couple can’t build trust and injuring partner can’t support the hurt partner (Faller, 2020).
Trust is not a choice. The Injured partner cannot simply choose to trust the Injuring partner again. Trust is a natural product of couples feeling safe with each other (Jinich 2020). And avoidance of the Injured partner’s pain perpetuates mistrust.
Common thoughts and feelings from the Injured partner:
- I want to be able to talk about my pain and hurt
- If you avoid taking about the affair, you must not care about my pain
- If you don’t care about my pain, I am even more alone and betrayed
This can lead to the Injured partner becoming more closed off and guarded (Jinich, 2020). The Injured partner may feel like letting their guard down opens them up to being hurt again, and this makes psychological sense.
If you caused the injury and don’t want to talk about it, it will be impossible to achieve forgiveness.
Emotional disengagement can lead to affairs
When partners are not emotionally engaged, the relationship is at risk. Couples who become unhappy, lonely, and disconnected from each other may turn away from their partner to meet their emotional needs.
How affairs can happen – an example
James and Beth were both busy young professionals. They had two children under the age of five, and their respective careers and young family took most of their time. At home they were exhausted and spent very little time alone together.
James was starting to feel lonely and distanced from Beth. His way to connect was through physical intimacy and sex.
Beth, feeling tired most of the time, would reject James and bark at him. What she wanted from her husband was help with their children. She did not feel safe talking about her real need, what came out was criticism. She was feeling unappreciated and unseen by her husband in trying to manage work and family.
Over time, snapping at each other became their only mode of interaction.
To avoid conflict, James shut down. This was his way to minimize the constant criticism and fights and to calm things in the relationship. He engaged less and less with his wife.
They were starting to emotionally disengage and distance from each other.
How emotional distance leads to affair – an example
At the office, James became close with his female co-worker. He liked confiding in her and felt that he could share things with her that he was not sharing with his wife.
At home, if he tried to talk to Beth, they would end up fighting. So, he turned to someone outside of their relationship, who was interested and listened. He didn’t think it was a big deal.
James had no intention to cheat initially. And at first, it was an emotional affair.
After few months of friendship and confiding in each other, James and his coworker went on a business trip. With some drinks, this quickly turned from an emotional affair to a physical affair.
The aftermath – an example
James felt bad about what happened and confessed.
Beth was devastated. She had dedicated herself fully to her family, made sacrifices, and had never had thoughts of cheating on her husband. Now, she didn’t know what to think.
Beth wondered if they should divorce, and what that would do to the kids and her career. She wondered what her friends and family would say if they knew. And she wondered if she could ever trust James again.
James took responsibility. He focused on his wife and wanted to save their relationship. They sought couples counseling.
Hidden reasons that affairs can happen
James hid himself, his pain, and his loneliness from his wife. He was not expressing the more vulnerable side of himself, and Beth didn’t know his feelings of incompetence and his sense of failure as a husband. It was too scary to reveal those vulnerabilities to her and risk the confirmation. He didn’t want to lose his wife, and he didn’t know how to make it better.
James hid his softer emotions and only expressed frustration to his wife. He closed off the areas of emotional vulnerability and ended up feeling more alone and incompetent.
Beth also felt she could not share her deep feelings of loneliness and not being seen. She didn’t know how to express that James’ lack of help with the kids made her feel like she was facing parenthood alone, and that it was scary. And sometimes she felt like an invisible servant making the household run without any acknowledgement.
These were the hidden areas that Beth and James needed to bring to light even before the affair.
Couples therapy gave them space to begin to reveal their vulnerable sides and get the support they needed from each other.
As they built safety together, they could talk about difficult topics. James revealed he felt rejected when they didn’t have sex. Beth shared that she feared she was not a good mother or wife.
When they saw the true unmet emotional needs and deeper fears, they were able to strengthen their connection and fill those needs for each other.
Stronger relationships after affairs are possible
After the affair, Beth and James found each other in a deeper, more meaningful way than before.
So can you and your partner. Resolving affairs can lead to growth and transformation, and you can maintain this new, more intimate connection through healing.
Steps Towards Healing Your Relationship
The following steps are based on the EFT framework found in Sue Johnson’s Hold Me Tight (2008).
1. Apologize and take ownership of your actions
The Injuring partner’s apology is the first step towards healing.
Offer a heart-felt apology. Sincerely acknowledge and own up what you have done and how much you have hurt the person you love. Reassure your partner that it will never happen again.
This is what a heartfelt apology looks like:
“I see what I’ve done, and how I’ve hurt you so much. I want you to know I feel terrible about it. I can’t find the right words to express how sorry I am. I really care about us and I will do anything to work on our relationship. It will never happen again.”
Your apology is diminished if you find excuses for your actions and become self-defensive.
The best apologies express genuine regret, remorse, and a sense of the pain you caused in your partner. Be engaged and present with the Injured partner’s pain.
2. Connect with your partner’s hurt (Injuring Partner)
Although it is uncomfortable to see what you did to your partner, you need to hear your partner’s hurt and pain. Allow yourself to be touched by it.
It may be counter intuitive but lean into that pain. Enter the inner world of the Injured partner and help comfort them.
Research shows that the Injured partner can trust again when a person who has betrayed them sees the pain they caused and expresses their understanding of the depth of it (Faller, 2020).
The Injured partner’s main questions are: Do you understand what you did to me? And, Will you do it again?
Show your partner that you care about the pain you inflicted. Get in touch with your remorse and guilt, or even shame, and share it. Intellectual forgiveness is not enough.
Then the Injured partner will be able to start the process of forgiveness and trust.
If I can feel that the pain you caused me causes you pain too, I know that you’re afraid of what could happen to our relationship. I can see it. Then maybe I can start to feel safe with you again. Then maybe I can believe that you do love me.
3. Ask for comfort (Injured partner)
If your partner was able to sincerely apologize and lean into your pain, be open about your hurt so that your partner can feel it.
Tell them your fears about what will happen to your relationship. This is an opportunity for the Injuring partner to reassure you.
When the Injured partner asks for comfort and support for his or her pain, the Injuring partner has a chance to be empathic and non-defensive.
If the Injuring partner is responsive and available and shows that he or she is there for the Injured partner, it provides comfort and soothing for the pain they caused. The Injured partner sees that they don’t have to face their fears alone, and they may find some renewed stability in the chaotic period after an affair.
4. Process the affair together
Let’s start by acknowledging that both parties have to be motivated to resolve the issue.
Both parties have to examine what happened, which may mean you need to go over the events over and over again. You need to process that hurt, pain, lack of trust, and sense of loneliness.
To fully heal from an affair, you need to understand what was going on in your relationship before the affair happened.
The Injured party is not responsible for the affair. And ultimately you are both responsible for your marriage.
Consider each other’s views and feelings as you process the affair. The Injured partner should try to see from their partner’s eyes, even though an affair was the most painful solution to deal with relationship problems. What was going on inside the heart and mind of your partner that lead them to have an affair?
On the other side, the Injuring partner needs to understand what’s holding the Injured partner back from forgiving. And what made them seem unreachable before the affair.
If you can both develop deeper empathy for one another and curiosity into your partner’s more vulnerable feelings, you can start repairing your relationship.
5. Don’t rush forgiveness – rebuilding trust takes time
Forgiving is a risk. If you start trusting prematurely, you can get hurt again, so it’s understandable that letting go and forgiving is a process that takes time (Jinich, 2020).
If you are still in pain, it speaks to the fact that your relationship is still not OK.
The key to finding forgiveness is the connection you build when the Injuring partner opens up to their deeper emotions of guilt, shame and regret and share them. Injured partner needs to know that injuring partner is hurting too. And this is how you begin to repair the relationship.
Forgiveness to the Injured partner means they are able to talk about their pain and have their partner truly listen to it (Jinich, 2020). Only after seeing compassion, regret, and the Injuring partner taking in what they’ve done, can the Injured partner bring down their walls and start the process of rebuilding trust.
Healing will take a while, and willingness to talk about it helps.
When the source of pain is also your usual source of comfort, forgiveness is especially complex. The person who hurt you is also the person you want to reassure you.
You can try to heal on your own, go to individual psychotherapy, talk to a friend, pray, exercise, but nothing will take the place and power of the person who caused the hurt helping you heal.
6. EFT couples counseling for relationship repair work
Many couples don’t make it after the affair. But couples who are committed to each other and who are willing to put a lot of effort into relationship repair work will get through. This repair work is where couples therapy can help.
Emotionally Focused Therapy (EFT) is designed to repair relationship injury while maintaining a sense of emotional safety.
A skilled EFT couples therapist can lead couples through deeper understanding and empathy for each other. Couples therapy can slow things down between partners and create opportunity for exploration of pain, fear, loss, grief, and mourning. Acknowledgment and understanding of these vulnerable areas builds a base of connection between partners. From there, they can grow closer and more intimate again.
If the affair is not addressed, it damages the relationship
Ignoring or glossing over an affair erodes trust and safety in the relationship. The Injured partner may be feeling, “If I let go of my pain, if I forgive them, my partner could do it again“ (Jinich, 2020).
If the Injured partner cannot begin the process of forgiving and must hold onto the pain and injury, it hangs over the relationship. The couple will be stuck. Partners will be emotionally distanced.
If the pain and mistrust of the affair is not healed and the Injuring partner continues to avoid the topic or be closed off, he or she will remain a stranger to the Injured partner. The relationship may not last.
Strangers are unpredictable because we don’t know them, can’t anticipate their actions or reactions. The Injured partner may think, “I don’t know who you are. I can’t trust that you won’t hurt me again.”
It makes sense to keep your guard up in this situation. Without intentional relationship repair work, you could be hurt again.
You can heal your relationship after the affair
As Hemingway wrote, “The world breaks everyone and afterward many are strong at the broken places” (1929).
As a couple, you can heal together in those broken places. They can even make the relationship stronger.
Of course, pain doesn’t magically go away. It takes time, commitment, and willingness to do the emotional work. However, when couples process affairs, it no longer has the same power over the relationship.
Loving is risking.
Seeing the vulnerable places and pain inside our partners (and allowing them to see ours) renews our connection and opens the door for trust.
Do you need relationship help?
Dr. Irena offers online therapy for couples in Texas and New York City. She uses the research-proven method known as Emotionally Focused Therapy (EFT) to help couples develop and maintain emotional connection and support each other through stressful times. She has helped numerous couples heal from their affairs.
If you need help with your relationship, contact Dr. Irena at 281-267-1742 or email her at [email protected] to discuss your situation and find out how she can help.
Faller, G. (Host). (2020, February 27). Foreplay Radio Podcast: Forgiveness After An Affair [Audio podcast].
Freeny, J.A. (2004). Hurt feelings in couple relationship: Towards integrative models of the negative effects of hurtful events. Journal of Social and Personal Relationships, 21, 487-508.
Hemingway, E. (1929). A Farewell to Arms. New York: Scribner.
Jinich, S, and Bughatti, A. (2020, June). Working Towards Forgiveness in Attachment Injuries with EFT [Video file]. We Heart Therapy. Retrieved from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ZC6zVIvX7Fg
Johnson, S. (2008). Hold Me Tight. New York, NY: Little, Brown Spark