Friday, July 4, 2014

Healing Steps for the Unfaithful Spouse

This is a chapter excerpt from our book, Healing Infidelity: How to Build a Vibrant Marriage After an Affair. You'll find not only other helpful articles in that book, but our story of how my wife entered the affairs, how I found out, and how we successfully rebuilt.


This chapter is for those unfaithful spouses who wish to rebuild their marriages after having committed an act of infidelity. Many unfaithful spouses who have ended an affair and want to save their marriage don't always know what they need to do, what approach they should have, or understand fully the damage to the hurt spouse. Usually, the “natural” reaction is the wrong one to successfully rebuild. My wife, Lenita, who is an unfaithful spouse and has successfully rebuilt our marriage, wrote an article on what the unfaithful spouse needs to do to help the hurt spouse heal. I'm taking the core outline from that article to write this chapter.

This chapter assumes that you have told your hurt spouse about the affair and that he knows the general details of the affair. Now you are asking: what are the ways in which you can best help you and your hurt spouse heal and save the marriage, if indeed that is your goal? Here are the main areas that need your attention to potentially succeed.

1) Be prepared to invest yourself 100% and more into the rebuilding of the marriage. That means two major points. One, rebuilding will not be easy, especially for the unfaithful spouse. To help your spouse heal means facing the pain of what you've done, examining it, and dealing with it until the wound has healed. These are hard things for anyone to do. Unless you are totally committed to doing whatever it takes, you will tend to falter when, for instance, you debate whether to tell your spouse about that chance encounter with the affair partner or not.

Two, realize this will take years, not weeks. Too often the unfaithful spouse wants to put it all behind them. He doesn't want it thrown into his face regularly. That is understandable. But keep in mind that while you have known this secret for weeks, months, or even years, for the spouse it is fresh and new information that has to be processed, the loss grieved over, and the trust that has been violated to be rebuilt over several months. To do that, he needs to talk about it, deal with it, and process it to the point of satisfaction that he can move past it. That will not happen quickly. Doing the following will help it to happen as quickly as possible, but even in the best of circumstances, don't expect everything to be "back to normal" until a minimum of two years. In some cases it may take even longer. No two individuals are the same. But unless you realize you are in it for the long haul, it will be easy to get discouraged when after three or four months, he is still bringing up issues about the affair. He has to deal with the affair, and if he isn't allowed to, then he is prevented from healing.

2) Develop an attitude of healing. Lenita listed several examples of what that attitude needed to be:

I will own up to what I have done and place none of the blame on anyone else.

I will never try to 'gag' you but will listen bravely without flinching away and answer/discuss anything you need to, anytime you need to.

I will be humble.

I will show you my heart.

I will understand that I must be responsible for helping you heal and that I must work diligently to heal myself.

I will not be defensive concerning the affair or the affair partner.

Without these attitudes, the chances of rebuilding are slim. This is because for healing the marriage to take place, the bulk of the work will be with the unfaithful spouse. The bottom line is you have hurt your spouse, and now it is your job to heal that hurt. You are the only one who can heal your spouse, because only you can rebuild the trust that has been stolen from them. To not do the above is the equivalent of shutting the door on the marriage. If you said to point #1, "Yes, I am committed," then this needs to be the first place you take a stand. Because if you approach it with any other attitude, the following steps will not only be harder, but you'll not implement them as fully as you should to really heal your spouse.

3) Break all contact with the affair partner. Until the hurt spouse feels secure that there is no more contact of any kind going on between you and your affair partner, for him, the affair isn't over. As long as that door is still open, however slightly, the hurt spouse will live in fear that if the affair hasn't restarted, it is only a matter of time until it does. Contact means the emotional bonds are still alive. Only complete and utter no contact will allow the hurt spouse the ability to start healing. To not do so magnifies the odds against any rebuilding efforts being permanent.

Unfortunately, this is one step many unfaithful spouses find hard to follow through on. Especially if they were caught while the affair was ongoing. It usually means a sudden end to a relationship that at that moment, neither of you were ready to end. Maybe one goodby phone call and then to never speak or see them again sounds harsh and drastic. When someone has fallen in love with another person, even if inappropriately, to stop all contact is the equivalent to saying to the affair partner, "I don't love you, leave me alone and never talk to me again," when that is the exact opposite of how you feel. Yet if you want the affair to be over for your spouse so that healing of the marriage can begin, this is a necessity.

Remind yourself that if you are experiencing the sudden loss of a relationship with someone you were with for a few days, weeks, or months, how much more is your spouse going through when they are feeling the loss of a relationship they've had for years with you? At this point, you have to chose and invest yourself in whichever path you wish to go. In either case, that means cutting off all contact with the other you are leaving. No matter how much you love him. Bottom line: this is one of the hard consequences of allowing yourself to have an affair.

"But I work with the affair partner. How do I deal with that?" You may find your spouse is one of the rare ones who can deal with that situation, but with 99% of the hurt spouses, even if they acknowledge the financial stress of losing a job you've held for years, maybe nearing retirement, and the unpredictability of finding new work, the chances of successfully rebuilding the marriage goes down drastically if continued contact of any kind is retained.

Until contact is cut off, the affair is still going for the hurt spouse, even if in truth it isn't. The hurt spouse has no means to know you are being faithful even while making frequent contact at work. He has no way to know you aren't meeting in a closet or room or car. He has no assurance that you aren't sharing lunches together and discussing personal issues. Rebuilding trust in a situation like that is next to impossible. It's like telling someone to put out the fire with water while you continue to blast it with a flame thrower.

As Lenita often told me when she faced something painful, "I asked for this, you didn't." When you allowed an affair to happen, you put at risk everything. Your marriage, your children, your job, your stability. There may come a point that you have to sacrifice your job security for marital security. That can be one of the costs of having and affair. Which will you chose?

There may be solutions. You can ask for a transfer from your department if the company is large enough. Preferably to another building. Your spouse would even by happy in most cases to hear the transfer meant a move to another town. But if that doesn't work out, and there is no choice but to either quit or stay in contact with the person, it may mean making that hard choice to find another job. We again go back to points #1 and #2. It may mean less money, or financial hardships. That's when you have to ask what is more important to you? Your marriage or your job? If it comes down to a decision between the two, and no compromise can be worked out, it may mean making a decision of which one to sacrifice. No contact is that important.

No contact also extends to mementos you have from your affair partner. Pictures, written letters, emails, or other items bought for you all constitute links to the affair partner. These should be deleted or thrown away to complete non-contact. Both because they can be triggers to the hurt spouse, but also triggers for you, causing you to recall him or her and the "good" times. The goal of no contact is to let the affair partner fade into the past, so you can focus on your spouse, your marriage, and your family.

4) Become totally transparent. What is meant by this is to open yourself up in all ways that relate to rebuilding trust in the aftermath of the affair, so that your spouse can see everything he needs to see to feel secure that contact is not still ongoing, and that you are being truthful.

Think of it like this. The hurt spouse just discovered that you've broken your wedding vows to him, and in most cases lied about it, hid it from him. You've stolen something precious to him: his trust in you and his security in your love for him. Any "secret," any request for "privacy" to him is translated that you have something more to hide about the affair. He has no reason to trust you at this point.

It will take months of constantly discovering that you are telling the truth to begin to trust that you are actually doing that. The only way he can see you telling the truth is by being transparent.

There is a saying, that trust takes a lifetime to build, but seconds to destroy. Trust is the glue that holds a marriage together. By opening yourselves to each other in the most intimate of ways, you have made yourself vulnerable to being hurt. Trust means "I trust you enough not to hurt me. So I open my soul to you." The moment that perceived truth is broken by being hurt, the natural reaction is to pull back and not trust. After many positive examples of truth-telling, gradually he will start to trust again. Even then, it will never be the same innocent trust he had prior to the affair. Like an accident victim, he will tend to flinch inwardly when anything that even looks like the same threat darkens his path. That will be with him to some degree for the rest of his life. The only way to rebuild that trust is to no longer hide anything from your spouse that would be of concern to him or her.

What does “no longer hide anything” mean? We're not talking telling him what you ate for lunch, or all the thoughts that go through your mind everyday. Rather, there are two questions you can ask yourself that will determine if it is something you should tell him: “If I were him, would I want to know this?” and “Is this something I don't want him to know?” If you answer “yes” to either of those questions, then to be transparent, you should tell him.

On the practical side, transparency translates into actions like giving your spouse the user names and passwords to all social media accounts you have. All email accounts. All cell phone's and their bills. When your spouse asks to look at them, you readily give them over without the need to "erase" anything. Likewise, one of the best trust rebuilding activities you can do is to tell him things he could have never discovered himself. For instance, my wife told me about any and all encounters with her affair partner, who for some months kept attempting to contact her. Most of those I would have never known about if she hadn't told me. But she wanted to be totally transparent with me. Having her tell me that aided in my rebuilding of trust in her.

Some spouses expect a level of privacy and are unwilling to give this up. However, this is unhealthy, even for a marriage that has not gone through an affair. Even more so once one spouse has hurt the other by having an affair. Some secrets a spouse has are harmless. Maybe you were called a nickname by family or friends when little, and you've never told your spouse out of embarrassment. Understandable. However, once a couple is married, the old saying, “No man is an island” takes on an increased meaning. Any activity you do can affect the marriage and relationship, and each spouse has the right to know about it. That right supersedes any rights to privacy a spouse may think they have. Bottom line, if you have information you don't want your spouse to know that affects the marriage in any way, financially, socially, emotionally, sexually, or spiritually, you don't have the right to keep that from him, and he has every right to find out, even spying, if he has probable cause.

Without consistent transparency, you severally limit the ability of the hurt spouse to rebuild trust in you and the marriage, and drastically lower the chance of success in rebuilding.

5) Avoid "rug sweeping" at all costs. There are two ways and motivations for wanting to take the issues generated by the affair and sweep them under the proverbial rug so you don't have to look at them or deal with them.

One, what you did is painful to face. It is easier to say, "Okay, that's in the past now. It's over. Time to move on," and clam up about the affair, expecting him to do the same. We've already discussed in the previous steps why this is dangerous. It prevents the hurt spouse from dealing with and healing from what has been done to him. He is not able to find closure. It also causes him to sense that you are continuing to hide something from him. Making it near impossible to rebuild trust again. Doing this will ensure the marriage will fail at some point because the hurt spouse will not heal.

Two, it also ensures that you, the unfaithful spouse, will not heal. You will help your hurt spouse heal in large part by healing yourself. He needs to know that you are working to not only discover what character issues as a person allowed you to treat any problems and fulfill any unmet needs in the marriage in such a destructive way, but that you are also working to fix those issues, to make the changes in yourself to prevent another occurrence from happening again.

If you refuse to face your issues and instead keep them out of sight, you will not heal. Indeed, by ignoring the need to face these issues and do the hard work to emotionally and spiritually heal yourself from this destructive event, the likelihood of it happening again is substantially higher. Your spouse knows this instinctively. If you are hiding from the issues, the fear that it will happen again is much greater than if he sees you wrestling with what you've done to him and yourself, and working to fix it.

6) Take advantage of counseling. Being willing to not only go to individual counseling to help you sort through your issues related to the affair, but also marital counseling, is a key component of healing for both of you. Especially important if your skills at communication are less than ideal. A counselor can help to facilitate constructive communication and conflict resolution. But even if you have good communication and you felt your marriage before the affair was good, this is still important.

For us, our marriage counselor helped point us in the right directions. Our first thought was my wife was dealing with a sexual addiction. But we didn't understand that term in its full clinical sense. Our counselor pointed us to where we needed to work on our marriage. I realized after the fact that claiming Lenita had a sexual addition was more a way to blame it on something rather than her bad choices. Self-diagnosis isn't a good idea. An objective, informed guide is much better for seeing where you are at and helping you through the maze of feelings and options you'll encounter.

That said, not all counselors are created equal. Many are not that experienced in dealing with infidelity. I've heard more than my share of stories where a counselor gave out bad advice. Sometimes enabling the unfaithful partner to violate many of the needed tasks listed above. If you have a counselor who does that, feel free to change. Not merely because they ask you to do hard things, but because they aren't helping one or both of you to heal. Get a second opinion. Find out if they have experience counseling couples involved in affairs. There is too much on the line to stick with someone out of some sense of loyalty to them if they are not helping either of you to heal.

7) Read books on dealing with the aftermath of affairs and marriage. For the unfaithful spouse, the following is required reading. Get a copy of How To Help Your Spouse Heal From Your Affair: A Compact Manual For The Unfaithful by Linda MacDonald. Read it, follow it. It is not a big book, but goes into much more detail than we can in this article. It is very practical, blunt, and tells you exactly what you as an unfaithful spouse needs to do to help you and your spouse heal. You don't need to have the hurt spouse read this book, though he certainly can if he wants. This book is for the unfaithful spouse, and is spot on in guiding you to what is needed if you wish to save the marriage.

After that book, I have three more highly recommended books for both of you to read. The first is Getting Past the Affair: A Program to Help You Cope, Heal, and Move On -- Together or Apart by Douglas K. Snyder. This book will take both of you through a process of healing, step by step. Very practical on issues like communication, and based on sound principles.

The second is Not "Just Friends" by Shirley Glass. This is the best book for gaining insight both into what happened in the affair for both parties, and the steps each needs to take to help heal from it. It is down to earth, easy to read, and very practical. The author has years of work in the field, and her understanding of the reasons why this happens and what needs to be done to change it are on target. Both spouses will greatly benefit reading this book.

The other is His Needs, Her Needs: Building an Affair-Proof Marriage by Willard F. Harley. This book attacks another issue that commonly plagues marriages that have gone through affairs: the need to show each other love in a way they understand it. Some people might balk at the idea of working on the marriage until the affair issues have been dealt with. But what Mr. Harley found out in his own counseling practice, is that the success of rebuilding was greatly increased when both spouses were able to effectively communicate the feeling of love to the other person.

If you think about it, it makes sense. The more in love you feel with your spouse, the more motivation you'll have to face all the hard tasks of rebuilding. Likewise, the more your spouse feels you love them, the more likely he'll be able to not only get past the damage of the affair easier, but also motivated to have empathy and forgiveness for what you did. Honest feelings of love become the oil in a marriage racked by an affair that speeds healing and makes all the efforts you do to rebuild that much more effective.

These last three books we suggest you read as a couple. Preferably reading to one another. This not only provides opportunity to bond and participate in an activity together, but provides many chances to explore the events of the affair in a non-threatening manner, and see them through the light of another person. You'll find out your "unique" experience isn't all that unique.

Once done with these, seek out other books. Not just about affairs, but marriage enrichment in general as well. It will keep you both focused in building and maintaining a healthy relationship.

8) Don't neglect the spiritual dimension of healing. One of the advantages those of faith have is ways to deal with the moral and ethical guilt created by an affair. Often disciplines and perspectives can help a person not only deal with the guilt of what he's done, but the spiritual attitudes and practices that will aid in the healing process.

My wife, being a Christian, acknowledged her growing distance from God leading up to the affairs. She mentioned how she kept God in a closet much of the time during her affairs, and how hard it was to approach Him after it was all discovered. Then, as she emerged from the fog and faced the reality of what she'd done to me and herself, the immense guilt overtook her for months.

During all this time, our priest was instrumental in her spiritual recovery. This was key because it directly influenced her recovery in all other areas of the marriage. It also allayed one of my big fears upon discovering her sin, that we'd spend eternity apart from each other if she didn't change course. Key also is the fact that seeing her struggle spiritually enabled me to see she was working on all parts of her life, not just emotional or practical boundaries, but making herself stronger spiritually, which reinforced in me the sense that she was doing all she could to fix herself.

If you are or have held a faith, this is the key time to bring yourself back to that faith for support and strength and help in dealing with all the hard issues you have to face. You need to hear from God, "Neither do I condemn you. Go and sin no more," just as the adulterous woman heard that from Jesus. You'll never hear that by avoiding God. Only by coming to Him in repentance and humility. But dealing with this can be a long road. There are many consequences to work through. As Scripture also says, the sin of adultery is, at its heart, a sin against your own body, your own self. Healing that will require spiritual aid as well as the other steps discussed above.

One practice I gave my wife was to memorize Psalm 51 and say it everyday. If you don't know, Psalm 51 is often referred to as the psalm of repentance. In the case of adultery, it is on target, because this is a psalm King David wrote upon being convicted of not only committing adultery with another man's wife, but having him killed so he could have the man's wife for himself. I knew she would need the constant reminder not only that she could repent and be forgiven by God and me for what she'd done, but the humble attitude needed to rest in God's forgiveness. It became one of the spiritual crutches that helped her through the months when the guilt weighted heavily on her soul as she worked to accept His forgiveness.

9) Work to fall out of love with the affair partner(s). If you felt you loved your affair partner, this is a hard one and will take many months to accomplish. But it is important for the following reasons.

One, the relationship was immoral and should have never started to begin with. It is important that the unfaithful spouse do all they can to erase the improper relationship from their lives. Your love for the affair partner is an affront to your spouse.

Two, no one can love two people and give 100% to only one. The love for the affair partner(s) is love stolen from your spouse who you pledged it to.

Three, as long as you remain in love with the affair partner(s), you are susceptible to temptation to reignite the fires of that relationship. Time alone will not kill off love. You can be ten years of no contact, and if the love never died, it can fire back up into another affair.

At first, it will be hard to do the following, but as you establish no contact successfully, and you gain some distance from the affair, you'll want to make sure you do the following.

One, make sure no contact is fully established, including getting rid of any items or messages or pictures associated with the affair partner. These items serve as remembrances, and provide a link to keep the flame alive.

Two, as you emerge from the fog induced by infatuation, make a list of all the negative things you ignored about the affair partner. In Lenita's case, he had more of an anger problem than I do. I'm very emotionally stable, and she is highly sensitive to anyone being angry to her. He would have, at some point, crushed her love and self-esteem. But in the midst of the affair, she didn't think about it and he remained on his best behavior.

Three, practice guarding your thoughts using distraction and other techniques as described in the "Healing Steps for the Hurt Spouse" chapter. You can't so easily stop thoughts of them from popping into your mind, but you can work to not dwell on them. They slip out as soon as they arrive. The less you think about them, the faster you fall out of love with him.

Four, focus and work on loving your spouse as fully as you can using the resources mentioned in the "read books" step. Investing yourself into loving your spouse will not only regenerate feelings of love for him, but also make feelings you had for your affair partner pale in comparison.

There are many other details we could go into, but the books listed will have more of that than we could ever hope to squeeze into one chapter. But the above are the core issues to deal with to help your hurt spouse heal and save your marriage. It is a lot of work and will take a long time, but the reward can be very worth it both in terms of your own healing and growth as a person, as well as a fuller and richer marriage, despite the negative affects of the affair.

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