3 Critical Stages of Affair Recovery
Healing from an affair is a long and committed process. And while the circumstances surrounding the affair in your marriage is unique to your specific circumstances, studies show that couples have successful affair recovery if they follow certain steps. The revered Dr. John Gottman and his wife, Dr. Julie Gottman, have discovered through research that couples need to go through three phases in their recovery—atonement, attunement, and attachment.
In this article, we will explain these three stages, and also some alternative phases from different sources. You'll see some similarities and differences, and if you've experienced an affair in your relationship, you'll certainly identify in one way or another.
Stages of the Affair Recovery Process
After the initial shock, disbelief, pain, anger, and other numbed or heightened emotions, couples dealing with infidelity are left to deal with the aftermath. Research tells us if a couple is going to find healing after infidelity, they need to go through these three steps.
Atonement isn't a word we hear a lot in our day-to-day language, except perhaps in religious contexts. So for those that need a refresher, atonement is reparation for an offense or injury. It's simple if you think of it in the terms of a car accident. If someone is at fault, the atonement is that the party at fault (well truthfully, their insurance company) pays for the medical expenses of the injured party, as well as the amount needed to repair or replace the car.
In a broken marriage, the atonement is much more complicated. Surely most wayward spouses probably wish they could just make a straightforward payment and make it all right like you do after a car accident. But, marital relationships don't work that way. Atonement takes time, commitment, vulnerability, and above all sincerity.
The Atonement Stage leaves space for the truth to come out over time and for anger, fear, guilt, and shame. According to Dr. Margaret Rutherford from The Gottman Institute, the Atonement Phase is
"a tightrope that has to be walked very carefully, and with as much openness as possible."
It's also important to note that it's common for the truth to come out over time. This can happen for a few reasons. Often the cheating partner feels like they might be protecting their spouse or themselves by not sharing all the details at once. They may fear that it will be too much to handle. They might also still be dealing with feelings of attachment to their affair partner, which makes being honest complicated. That's why it's common for the cheating partner to share new details after being prompted and in various discussions. This is always hard on the betrayed partner.
The Attunement Phase of affair recovery is when the couple is able to take a look at what wasn't working in their marriage that may have contributed to the affair. Certainly, the affair partner has to take responsibility for their actions, and can't place the blame of the affair on the failing marriage. They still made the unfortunate choice of turning outside of the marriage to get their needs met.
Still, issues in the marriage need to be addressed to move forward, and this happens in the Attunement Phase. It's often helpful for couples to think about the post-affair time as a new marriage—a second marriage or an improved marriage with the same person. It's not effective to return to the old marriage and try to fix what was broken. It's more important to get attuned to each other's needs and create a new relationship that is better than the old one.
Another part of the Attunement Phase is the continued healing of the trauma of the affair. Rutherford points out,
"And, in all seriousness, this process [of the betrayed working through their trauma] can’t happen quickly enough for the betrayer nor slow enough for the betrayed."
The betrayed partner commonly experiences symptoms similar to PTSD. In fact, PISD (post-infidelity stress disorder) is a term that some psychologists will use to describe what the cheated-on partner goes through. This is a serious relational trauma an, as most of us know with PTSD, triggers can affect people over time, even in the long term. So if you're reading this and you're the cheated-on partner, know that your process is normal and okay. It's okay if it takes a long time to work through these phases.
And if you're the unfaithful spouse, know that you'll need to have compassion and understanding as your partner takes their time to heal.
Another tip that marriage therapists often encourage is for the couple to only talk about the affair during their counseling sessions, at least initially. This will prevent the affair from becoming all-consuming and taking away from family life, especially if the couple has children together. Maintaining a sense of stability is important for children. And honestly, it's important for the adults involved too.
Therapists suggest that if you simply can't resist talking about the affair outside of therapy, you schedule a set time and limit the amount of time you talk about it. Again, this prevents the affair from taking over and gaining more power than it already has.
The Gottmans also famously coined the term "The Four Horsemen of the Apocolypse," referring to criticism, contempt, defensiveness, and stonewalling. Avoiding these horsemen is helpful to the healing process. These reactions are challenging to avoid, so that's one of the reasons it's helpful to talk about the infidelity with a therapist present.
The Attachment Stage is the phase of recovery that is the true stage of reconciliation. This is essential in preventing a marriage filled with bitterness, passive-aggressive behavior, and unhappiness. If years after an affair, the betrayed partner says they want a divorce because they never could get over the infidelity, that's a clear sign that the couple skipped out on the Attachment Stage.
During the Attachment Stage, the couple begins to experience more sexual and physical connection. It's also vital to provide each other with reassurance that you're still committed and still doing the work. For the partner working hard to rebuild trust, it's important for the hurt partner to affirm them along the way. Staying bitter and distrusting forever will not result in a fulfilling marriage. Remember—this is marriage #2, and you want it to be better than marriage #1 ever was.
As we mentioned before, the grief of the affair will still come in waves in the Attachment Phase. Events might trigger either partner, and this can bring emotions right back to that raw and real place from when the affair was first uncovered.
Be honest with each other during this phase. A healthy relationship requires constant communication and honesty. Do your best to consider your partner's triggers and reaction to those triggers objectively instead of getting defensive. Being defensive is one of the Four Horsemen, and it's bound to lead to an emotional spiral you don't want to be in.
If the Attachment Stage is successful, over time, triggers will grow farther and fewer. Pain lessens, trust grows, and intimacy increases.
Other Timelines and Steps to Affair Recovery
The actual timeline of what couples typically experience after an affair follows typical phases. Affairrecovery.com shares a timeline you may find that you relate to that goes like this:
Ground Zero—This is the discovery phase, whether the affair is uncovered by accident, or the cheating partner decides to disclose the affair.
6 Weeks—Reaction Phase—Throughout these first few weeks, the cheated-on partner often experiences detachment, distrust, and searching for why. It's also when they'll typically move through the first few phases of grief, including denial and anger.
12 Weeks—If the affair has truly ended, the couple will start to feel a little more emotional stability at this point. Healing will still be a long process but the initial shock and pain are starting to fade.
6 Months—Release Stage—It takes a while to get there, but around six months, the cheated-on partner begins to be able to forgive and sexual intimacy might increase at this time.
12 Months—As with any event worth grieving, the one-year mark tends to be challenging, with triggers being abundant. Tension might feel higher than it has in a long time at this 12-month mark. That's very normal.
18 Months—Recommitment Stage—If a couple has made it this far and has been committed to doing the work, they typically experience a recommitment stage at this time. The marriage or relationship is finally stabilizing and the couple feels recommitted to each other and their future.
However, this recovery timeline may feel more helpful to you if you can identify with the varying waves of emotion you might feel over time. And, know that your healing journey and recovery time isn't set in stone. Couples can experience this timeline for a shorter or longer amount of time, based on both partners' willingness to put in the work.
Also, these stages can only occur if the cheating partner cuts off the affair completely which is something the hurt partner needs to happen in order for to healing broken trust to happen. The cheating partner needs to be willing to be completely honest. And, these stages happen most effectively if you have the support of a couples therapist who can guide you through the bumpier parts of the stages of healing. Professional advice is a saving grace in a time when emotions are high and communication is challenging.
Experiencing an affair, and choosing to work through it, is a challenging thing. Yet, if you and your spouse are both in the right mindset to move forward and you're both committed to it, you can ultimately have a better marriage. By working through the 3 stages of affair recovery—atonement, attunement, and attachment, couples can find healing from infidelity.
If you're in a marriage where there's been infidelity, marriage counseling is going to be an important part of your healing process. At Evolve Therapy, our licensed marriage and family therapists help couples work through a variety of issues, including infidelity.
We specialize Emotional Focused Therapy (EFT) backed by research which teaches couples how to better identify negative patterns in the relationship, uncover feelings that drive negativity, clarify the root behind anger and detachment, and then help couples to find mutual understanding. Having a neutral and designated place to talk about the affair is also extremely helpful in keeping the infidelity from overtaking life. And, seeing a therapist means you'll have a mediator for those moments when emotions and defenses are high.
Call Evolve Therapy today to schedule an appointment with a marriage counselor that can help you work through infidelity or any other marriage and relationship concerns.