As a therapist that works with affair couples, I can say with certainty that couples that choose to work at their relationship after an affair tell me that their relationship is better than ever. Some have told me that they were even glad the affair happened in the first place. A bold statement for sure. If you are reading this blog and an affair has recently been disclosed, you might not feel the same way right now or ever feel that way. I encourage you to keep reading.
Affair recovery is a long-term process. According to the research it can take 18 months to two years to completely recover and repair the relationship. Rebuilding after broken bonds is a delicate process. I am going to condense it for purposes of this blog.
After the crisis has settled and the involved partner has recommitted to the relationship, the real work of affair recovery begins. The recommitment part is important and that means making sure that the noninvolved partner is the number one priority. This takes time and work to get to this new space.
Both parties are often anxious to know why the affair happened. The noninvolved partner doesn’t want to be blamed. Typically, there is an emotionally withdrawn partner that is emotionally avoidant. Frequently this partner is also shocked that the affair happened. Normally, it happens because the avoidant partner hasn’t been paying attention to his/her/their feelings. The withdrawn partner reports he/she/they were lonely in the relationship and the affair partner offered the emotional connection that was missing from the relationship. The affair couple starts to connect and talk deeply about themselves and become close and the affair begins. This affair feels great to the withdrawn partner, because he/she/they feel alive and feel seen due to all of the sharing taking place. The problem is, it's with the wrong person and the issues of being out of touch with their emotions and the problems in the primary relationship haven’t been addressed. Some withdrawn partners don’t see this and mistake the feelings as real and attribute it to the affair partner.
On the other side, there is a partner that is upset about the lack of connection. He/she/they commonly have been trying in various ways to let their withdrawn partner know they are concerned. At times, it might even come across in a harsh or angry way which causes the more withdrawn partner to avoid even more. This partner sometimes manages the disconnection in the relationship by becoming involved with work, the kids or other activities to distract themselves from also feeling alone. Or, they might turn up the heat and get angrier and angrier at the withdrawn partner hoping for change.
Affairs can happen in the reverse as well. The partner upset about the lack of connection may finally give up and find themselves in an affair and the withdrawn partner becomes so shocked and dismayed that they now start to show up and trying to engage. This presentation isn’t quite as common. The involved partner here may be quite angry that it took an affair to wake up their avoidant partner.
The process of affair recovery is one of helping both parties engage in conversations differently than they have previously. During therapy the more withdrawn avoidant person becomes more in touch with his/her/their emotions and communicates them fully and completely. The noninvolved partner is drawn to this deeper level of communication. During these more meaningful conversations both partners learn to connect in a way that they have never done before. Typically, these conversations include an expression of how the affair affected the non-involved partner’s view of themselves and view of their partner with a request for a deep emotional need to be met. The more withdrawn partner is engaged and open and can receive this request now.
Many of my couples tell me even years later that they have “affair-proofed” their relationship, because they know how to communicate deeply to each other. It doesn’t mean that couples are communicating deeply all of the time, they are communicating in key moments when they need it. They are also in tune with themselves and their partner. That is the unexpected outcome of an affair; a deeper level of engagement and connection.