There are many types of affairs, both emotional and physical. Both men and women have affairs. In some cases the betraying partner hasn’t finished the affair or isn’t willing to address the affair.
This article addresses the most common affair scenario I see. A man has been caught having an affair that has gone on for some time. He has finished the affair. He feels guilty about it and wants to save the relationship. He is frightened of losing his partner. His partner is distressed and doesn't know whether to stay or leave the relationship.
This article is addressed to the man who has had the affair. It’s purpose is to help you (the man) understand the healing process around affairs and what you can do to best support yourself and your partner to heal the relationship.
Understanding The Big Picture
Part of being in a loving sexual relationship is emotionally investing in your partner. The feeling of being connected to each other is really about knowing that your partner cares about you and is there for you when you need them. An affair ruptures the trust that your partner is there for you. In reaction to the break of trust your partner is now reaching out in the form of protest to reconnect to you. Even if your partner is criticising you, telling you how she doesn't trust you anymore , it helps to realise that she is attempting to make sense of what has happened in order to feel emotionally safe again. She is likely to be in conflict about wanting to connect with you and not feeling safe to do so.
An affair brings out into the open what couldn't be spoken about in your relationship. The raw despairing feelings at the discovery of an affair can be worked through. As you deal with the overwhelm and safety begins to return to the relationship your perception and feelings around what happened change too. Right now an affair may feel like an overwhelming threat to the relationship , whereas in time it might be seen as a painful past chapter that you got through together. In the future when you look back, you may see how the affair brought everything that couldn't be talked about out into the open and the process of working it through has made your relationship stronger and closer. Many people mistakenly believe that they will never get over what they are feeling in the moment.
There is the possibility that no matter what you do, your spouse will refuse to continue the relationship. In my experience it depends on the extent of the betrayal, your partner's previous experience of betrayals and on your willingness to look at yourself. Regardless of your partner's choice on whether to continue in the relationship or not there is a place of rightness to be found, a place to step into yourself where you do your best to support your partner to make sense of what has happened and express remorse for the hurt caused.
Focusing on Today
If the affair has recently been discovered you are probably both in shock. I suggest to couples to delay making decisions about staying/parting for a at least a few months after the discovery of an affair to give yourselves time to make sense of what has happened and let your feelings settle. Rather than worry about the future, focus on working things through day by day.
The key to working through an affair is to process the distress in manageable chunks, step by step. When revealed, affairs are overwhelming, putting us in a reactive survival mode. Our bodies deal with the shock by protesting, avoiding, or shutting down ( fight, flight, freeze) . The way our minds cope is to try to predict the future by thinking ahead based on what they know now. Our minds crave certainty and find it difficult to deal with unknowns. Focusing on now isn't forgetting about the affair. It's actively taking time to make sense of it.
Getting Relationship Counselling Support
It's worth getting professional support with an affair. It you skip over it, attempting to start afresh, the feelings will linger. Working through affairs requires both of you. It's a relationship issue, so go for relationship counselling together. Individual counselling can be a useful addition but not a subsitute for working through an affair togther in relationship counselling
Typically a relationship counsellor will guide you through the following stages:
- Manage the Crisis - Discuss immediate day to day concerns following the revelation of an affair, sort out practical arrangements. Agree how to interact with each other. Agree how to interact with persons outside the relationship. Use support systems. Manage the emotional impact.
- Support for the betrayed partner - Look at obsessional thoughts, self-blame and comparison. Find out what is needed to start to rebuild trust.
- Support of Betraying Partner - Explore guilt , shame and frustration at your partner's questions and accusations.
- Relationship Repair - Develop a new set of understandings about yourself, each other and your relationship. Understand what led up to the affair. Understand the vulnerabilities in your relationship to prevent relapse.
- Steps to Move forward - Continue to work on the relationship. Work together to work through with flashbacks. Revaluate the meaning of the affair more deeply now there's better communication, and a better understanding of your relationship raw spots.
Telling The Truth Rather Than Waiting For More To Be Discovered
Your partner is feeling unsafe about the unknowns about the affair and she may doubt you are being honest in your account. It’s important to be honest about the extent of an affair, trips away etc ..as soon as possible. Waiting for more details to be discovered, further erodes trust. In an attempt to make sense of what has happened your partner may want to know the details and interrogate you. Be honest about what is going on inside you and support your partner to speak about what she is really asking underneath the question. It's understandable that your partner will want to know where, when and for how long questions and if you practiced safe sex. It's best not to get into specific details of sexual acts or get drawn into answering comparision questions which are really a call for reassurance. If you fear it will be unhelpful for your partner to know certain details rather than omit them, discuss your fears and find out what is important for her to know.
If you have any contact with your affair partner or need to contact her, let your partner know in advance or as soon as you can.
Taking responsibility is to admit the truth of what happened: You deceived your partner, You lied by omission. You didn't give her a say in you being intimate with someone else. You betrayed her trust which has left her in a bind: She loves you, she needs you and now she feels unsafe, vulnerable and left in a place of unknowing.
You partner may be asking:
- 'Will I ever be able to get over this injury to my self-esteem?'
- 'Will I ever be able to trust you again?',
- 'Will you do it again?' '
- What else will I find out ,what can I trust?
- ' 'How can I trust you ever loved me?' '
- "How could you do this to me?"
- "What does our relationship mean to you?'
Taking responsibility is to face into your partner’s distress. You have an important role in supporting your partner to make sense of what has happened. Support her to regulate the extreme feelings that come from a break in trust. What your partner needs is for you to 'get it' at a feeling/heart level rather than on a mind level. She wants you to understand the enormity of the pain she is in, and how unsafe she feels. She needs you to take responsibility, to say plainly what you did without excuses and work with her through the feelings. She is looking for you to understand why you did what you did and have some realisation inside that will prevent you from doing it again.
The way you show your partner that you are taking responsibility is to show that you see the pain she is in. A good way to do this is to tell her back what she is telling you in full sentences without justification. So rather than saying 'yeah , I get it I've hurt you' or 'I'm sorry, I made a mistake'. You need to give the fuller version describing
- What you see the impact is on your partner in detail
- Your feelings of regret
- Acknowledgement of the wrongness of what you did.
- A willingness to explore what caused you to betray her
- Your love for her and and your intention to do work at the relationship with her.
Understanding The Healing Process
It helps to understand the process of healing otherwise you might repeatedly wonder why it takes so long. Your partner is wanting you to reflect back that her feelings makes sense, that you are attuned to the pain she is in. She needs reassurance that you are there for her and won't betray her again. If you have ever had a big shock, you will have experienced that it takes time for your nervous system, "your creature self", to feel safe again . Healing from a break of trust is a slow gradual process for you both. It takes two. She will start to let go of it when you can stay with feeling it with her. Men's attempt to "fix" and "do" is an escape from being with their feelings.
It doesn’t work to wait until your partner "gets over it". She needs you to be consistently willing to listen and reassure her and to be actively involved. Your partner is waiting for you to face into the relationship, by really reflecting on why you betrayed her and to speak honestly about your feelings and needs. You can’t stay comfortable in your mind, you need to dare jump into your feelings and give a feeling response. This means risking showing your vulnerability too. She wants to see her pain on your face. She needs to know you really get the impact of the betrayal. All those hours talking about it is part of the process for you to deepen your understanding of the affair.
You need to understand what caused you to have the affair. You might need to become aware of the shadow parts of yourself ,in order to find better ways of meeting your needs in the relationship. Working through the affair involves learning to get in touch and express how you feel. It's about re-learning how to connect, feel safe and communicate with each other. Some men think they need to persuade their partner that they have changed. In truth no persuading is necessary, when you change, Your partner 'senses a change in you. She feels you differently' .This occurs through you learning to be honest and open and through facing into the relationship.
Have a Rebuilding Trust Agreement Regarding Your Phone , Email and Whereabouts
If your priority is to re-build trust then you will need to be fully transparent for a period of time. It helps to have an agreement that whenever your partner wants to check your email ,text, phone or other commuication she can, with you present. It's an agreement that you won't delete items without a discussion first or be secretive. It requires a new effort to tell your partner where you will be , who you will be with and to be contactable or be very clear when you won't be contactable. It requires you volunteering to make a call to check-in with her when you are out. It might mean limiting alcohol or avoiding situations that put you at risk of acting out.
See article by Brian and Anne Bercht Letting her Read My Emails
Understanding That Self-Criticism Doesn't Help
Healthy guilt is a feeling of wrong-doing about a behaviour you have done that leads to regret for the pain you have caused to your partner and others. Healthy guilt provides the motivation to make amends. In contrast, shame is feeling you are bad in your being. Globally feeing bad about yourself does't help.
A common reaction is for men is to internally criticise themselves, feeling all over bad, feeling ashamed( shame). This is a tough one, as feelings go deep. We live in a blame culture that re-enforces self-judgement believing there must be a 'persecutor' and a 'victim'. Consider for a moment that it’s possible to take responsibility for what you have done and still see yourself as essentially good. Rather than blame yourself in a punishing way , you could resolve to learn from it by recognising disowned parts of your personality that you have lost touch with. Unfortunately normal speech encourages us to say , I am this or I am that which implies we are all one thing. More accurately we can have many feelings and some of which are more centre stage at a time. You might love your partner yet what was centre stage at the start of an affair was a shadow part of yourself that wanted to sleep with someone else because you felt a need to express yourself freely, to be irresponsible, to express your desire, to feel alive, sexual, to desire and feel desired. It might have been an adolescent part of yourself wanting to re-live the feelings of an earlier time . Talking about parts of ourselves and the distorted expression of feelings and needs those parts express helps us to talk about feelings. The first step is to find the 'good man/ best self 'part , that stops the pattern of beating yourself up and finds dignity and focus in facing into healing the break of trust.
Castigating yourself, pushes away the openness you need. It actually stops you connecting to your feelings in a constructive way. Your partner doesn’t want you to suffer hell. Well If she does, her true needs are distorted in parts of her that want revenge. If she does want to punish you , let her tell you about it , get the anger out ,so she can speak out the fantasy of it rather than actually punishing you. This will help her get to the pain underneath. The thing with feelings is we need to feel them and be seen in them in order for them to pass through. In truth she wants you to be able to support her in her pain, to own your pain, and not to collapse into self-criticism.
What she wants is the safety that you understand yourself better, that you choose to make future choices that serve the relationship. There's a place of openness and self-dignity to be found even when you mess up ,where your focus is on accepting mistakes, taking responsibility, learning from them without putting yourself in the "dog-house". Work with your partner to repair the connection that been lost. It doesn't help either of you heal to swap the roles where she becomes the "persecutor" and you the "victim". There is a place to lead from strength and kindness where you feel the pain of your partner with responsibility and openess yet at the same time don't allow your partner to persecute you or keep you up all night talking.
Talking About the Affair with Your Partner
Many men are conflict-averse so the idea of 'being there' when they partner is in distress frightens them. They feel de-skilled. They feel on the spot, fearful of saying something wrong . If this is you, It's best to get support.
It's tough having an angry upset partner. You need to learn to self-soothe and to focus on accepting what is going on right now.Trust that you are learning how to work through this better together. Focus on being present to your partner. Let her speak her feelings.
Here are some suggestions...
- Express often your intention to work things through
- Don't get caught in the content of what you partner is saying, rather tune into the hurt feelings underneath. E.g. Your partner says,"I don't think I will ever be able to trust you again..', this is your partner wanting you to know how frighting it is to trust what you are saying right now. It's about this moment of now, not to be taken literally as a statement about the future. Your partner may have raw primary feelings eg. I don't feel safe ( fear) which they cover with secondary feelings eg.Anger - How could you do this to me! She is needing you to create a safe enough environment and to ask her questions so she can express the primary feelings.
- Reflect back what you partner is saying to you. eg ,'so right now, it's hard for you to imagine you will ever trust me again'. "You are really wanting to understand why I cheated on you'
- Attempt to make physical contact with her when you talk such as holding her hand or touching her arm. If you get brushed off, let your partner get some of the anger out and try again. See if you can distinguish between your partner saying 'go away, but please don't leave me' ( I'm feeling vulnerable and I'd like you to try again to connect with me again) or saying, ' really I mean it , don't touch me'.
- Initiate discussions about the affair - face in. Share your thoughts/ regrets. Don't leave it to your partner to be the one to bring things up. My experience is that injured partners welcome their partner initiating conversations about the affair.
- Don't get defensive or feel you need to justify yourself. When you feel attacked , remember that you partner is actually saying, 'please, see how hurt I am'. Rather than react defensively , repeat back what your partner is saying to you eg. 'Right now you want me to go to hell, you feel it 's all hopeless...'
- If you notice yourself getting defensive, take a moment, say' I just need a moment I'm getting defensive and don't want to. Breathe into your belly. Feel your feet on the ground.'
- Support your partner in expressing her hurt in manageable chunks and responding to it caringly. You want to support your partner to express her hurt feelings under the anger. She might need reassurance they you are 'staying in the relationship' and not leaving because she is upset. Avoid shutting your partner down.
Stepping into your partner's shoes as much as you can.
- Imagine the distress of not being sure what to believe and feeling you are not being told the full story
- Imagine things not making sense to you and wanting to understanding and your partner not telling you things which makes you suspicious
- Imagine obessessal thoughts, not being able to sleep, hating that you care so much, hating not feeling yourself at all
- Imagine feeling deceived.
- Imagine feeling stupid for not knowing about the affair
- Imagine guessing what you don't know, filling in the gaps.
- Imagine not understanding your partner at all, how can he not tell me why he did it? How can he love me and betray me?
- Imagine feeling you 'should' leave the relationship, yet on a feeling level wanting to trust again, wanting to feel safe.
- Imagine the pressure of your friends and family having opinions or not being able to tell them what you are going through.
- Imagine having so much feeling going on yet having to be careful who to talk to about it.
- Imagine finding yourself so suspicious and beside yourself you do uncharateristic things like that you check your partner's phone, email and whereabouts and hating yourself for it.
- Imagine feeling shocked about how distressed you are and feeling so hurt and let down.
Responding To Your Partner’s Feelings
When responding to your partner keep most of the focus on your partner rather than talking about yourself. Your partner needs you to be available to their feelings. One reason why partners keep bringing up the same questions, is that their partner’s get defensive, evasive or start talking about themselves about how bad they feel. Anger tends to be a cover feeling for more vulnerable feelings underneath. Help your partner express the underlying feeling by responding to the hurt rather than the anger.
Respond to the feeling.eg.
- "I feel terrible that I did that to you"
- "You didn't deserve that' "
- "I've really hurt you..."
- "I deeply regret hurting you"
- " It makes sense that you don't trust me right now"
Paying Attention To Your Feelings
You partner is distressed, maybe she has moved out. She is asking you lots of penetrative questions around the theme ,'How could you do this to me!'. She doesn't trust you any more and says she doesn't know if she can get over this. It's a lot to deal with. Feeling guilty, not being able to answer her questions either because you don't why you did what you did ,or because you fear if you tell her it will make things much worse. You might be fearful of your partner leaving you. You might feel that right now you have no right to be busy with any feelings of your own and you need push them down so you can focus on hers. In fact you need to reflect on your feelings and needs and what caused you to betray. You also need to listen to your partner and give her a real response. You need to be non defensive, and respond authentically and allow yourself to feel your remorse and sadness while at the same time not collapse into gulit and self-criticism.
Give yourself time everyday for half hour to an hour without distraction and write out what you are feeling.
Dealing With Flashbacks
A common pattern after an affair is that couples just start to feel things have calmed down and are going better and then the betrayed spouse gets triggered by an innocent event and doubts arise about if any progress has been made at all. This is normal. Rather that be disheartened, it's an opportunity for you both to reconnect. You need to create a collaborative open attitude where you support your partner to get to the hurt feelings underlying the surface anger. She needs to trust you with her vulnerable feelings, so she can heal the hurt through you hearing them. You hold the space and provide honest reassurance. Over time you both get better at dealing with triggering events and feel your relationship strengthen through them.
Reactions To Getting What We Long For
Paradoxically, when we start to get some of what we long for, it can bring up fear and self doubt and unworthiness. If your partner starts to push away the love you wish to give, go slow and support your partner to share her fears. Also risk sharing your own. It takes time to 'trust good things' after there has been a break of trust. Conversely when you discover how much you mean to your partner and the love they have you, it might be hard to bear, and "easier" to focus on the destruction rather than receive how much you mean to them. Learning to bear witness to your partner's distressed love for you can be what you need to open your heart.
Making Sense Of The Affair
You need to feel into what was going on for you at the time and what led up to the affair so you can make sense of it yourself. The intention of this section is to support you to take responsibility for the affair by recognising the needs in yourself that you were unaware of at the time that you attempted to get met thorugh the affair.
Many men have a defence mechanism of rationalising and compartmentalising or blocking out their feelings. A metaphor would be that if a man's mind was like a living space, then a man's space would have some partitioned rooms with closed doors , whereas a woman's space is more interconnected with an open-space layout. Men frequently split off sex from love . This split is normalised by the media and re-enforced by man-code of masculinity. Working through an affair can really challenge you sense of self (image) and make you question /re-evaluate what it is to love.
Some scenarios are:
- Man gets stressed at work, he feels under pressure to hide is insecurities, vulnerablity about not being able to cope from his partner. ( Not able to share and get reassurance from partner).He starts an affair to boost his sense of self and to get some self-esteem, Man is stressed about life events and doesn’t feel able to talk to his wife about them. He talks to another woman seeking support which leads to an emotional affair.
- Man influenced by 'entitlement' messages in his social group. He's encouraged to seek new sexual excitement he imagines other men are having and doesn't think about the impact on his relationship.
- Man makes false comparison between the bloom of a new relationship and the long term relationship he is in. ( Not accepting intimacy challenge in current relationship) He misses that he will need to deal with his issues in any long term relationship.
- Man feels shut out sexually by his partner. He feels she doesn't need him or appreciate him. He has an affair to feel good about himself.(Not able to discuss intimacy/sex with partner)
- Man struggling to feel included when baby arrives. Partner is focused on baby or children ( Man able to talk about his need to feel included.)
- Sexual issues in the relationship are not dealt with so man has an affair to prove himself.
- Man gets an ego-boost by flirting, by letting women wonder if he is sexually interested in them. He convinces himself that what he is doing is harmless, unaware why he needs to do this. This leads to befriending and becoming emotionally close to women who were ‘just friends’. He doesn't realise at the time that is a form of emotional infidelity as he is getting his love and attention needs met outside his primary relationship. ( Identity need around self-acceptance)
- Man and woman are caught in a relationship pattern where she is in the mothering role and the man feels told what to do all the time/criticised.
Consider for a moment what was going on for you at the time of the affair and what feelings came up for you during the affair. See if you can recognise 'who you could be in the affair?. Consider what needs it met in you underneath the obvious ones.
Ask yourself what was stopping you talking to your partner about what was going on for you at the time? Also consider what stops you now talking honestly with your partner?
Setting Your Boundaries
- Your partner wants you to listen and contain (not shut down) the intensity of her feelings
- Stay connected with physical contact such as holding hands when you talk or having an arm on her shoulder
- Gently set limits about her being abusive such as attacking you physically or calling you names, insulting you. 'I want to talk with you, meet with you, but not like this'.
- If you find yourself getting overwhelmed - say you need a time out for 30 minutes. " I really want to hear what you are saying, I'm getting overwhelmed , I need a time out for 30 minutes- would that be OK? I will be back to talk in 30 minutes.I'm just going for a walk, I want to think over what we have been talking about." The key point is to keep your word to reengage after the agreed time.
- If every night you are having conversations into the early hours , see if you can agree to talk fully and openly for a set time so you can both give time to process and think things over and agree to park further discussions for the rest of the evening . It's all about expressing your intention to work things through. if you are willing to really face in and be fully present for an hour or 2 hours and you commuicate to your partner when you can next talk she will be more willing to agree.
I hope you find this information helpful.