"How am I going to get over this?" "When am I going to feel better?"
These are typical questions I'll hear in therapy from clients trying to recover from a partner's affair. Perhaps like you, these clients want to be assured that in six months or a year they're going to be rid of this tremendous pain.
There's no magic bullet when it comes to healing from an affair. And there's no guarantee you'll be able to. Some marriages become stronger after a betrayal but affair work is nothing short of brutal. Any couple who's successfully done it will tell you that. If you're considering giving forgiveness a shot, here are the must-haves for your post-affair toolkit:
1. A sincere promise the other relationship is over.
Goes without saying. If you've discovered an ongoing affair, you need to be sure your partner is willing to completely call it quits with the other person -- and that includes no communication or friendship. Otherwise, why would you consider forgiveness? There's no chance at healing if he resists ending the other relationship.
2. A heartfelt apology.
You won't make much headway without this one. If your partner hasn't offered a profoundly genuine apology, you still need one. Ask for it. If she's blaming you or the marriage for the affair, she isn't taking responsibility and you're not feeling her remorse.
3. An open book.
Your cheating partner has now forfeited his rights to his pre-affair privacy. To acknowledge that, he needs to commit to what I call the "kitchen table policy." That is, everything must now be available for your perusal, including cell phones, tablets and computers. If he won't tell you his passwords, your suspicions won't abate. You need access -- whether you take advantage of it or not.
4. Ongoing efforts.
Is she continuing to let you know how sorry she is? Is she acknowledging the suffering she's caused you? Does she approach you -- unprompted -- to address the issue? If she doesn't, you'll feel quite isolated in your pain and resentful that the onus is on you to fix this. Affair recovery takes two. You need a supportive, open partner to help you move on.
5. An honest evaluation of the relationship.
If an affair is a symptom that something's wrong in the marriage, well, what is wrong in the marriage? Even if you're not the one who cheated, ask yourself if the relationship has met your needs and if it's worth saving. Getting beyond an affair is going to take a lot of time, heartache and patience. Why bother going nuts over his affair if the relationship has run its course?
6. A timeline.
Right now you may feel like you'll be miserable forever. Do yourself a solid and put some time limits in place. If you're pretty sure you want to stay in the relationship, give yourself at least a year and then reassess. Discovering your partner has been unfaithful is nothing short of an emotional trauma. You wouldn't expect to get over the death of someone you love in a couple of months. Treat your affair recovery with that same respect and sensitivity.
7. A fair assessment of your capacity to forgive.
Be honest with yourself. Are you really ever going to be able to move beyond this? Not everyone can. Have you historically been able to forgive easily or at all? Are you the type of person who holds grudges? If so, you have a big decision to make. You can stay or you can leave, but don't stay in the marriage just to torture your partner about her affair. Can you hate the act but forgive the actor?
8. Some knowledge of the affair.
I caution clients who say they want all the details of their partner's affair. Why? Because once you know these crushing tidbits, you can't un-know them. Then, you have to carry that knowledge and visual for the rest of your days. So, you really don't want to know they had sex in the janitor's closet at the office, but you might want to know just how serious this other relationship was. Was it a one-time quickie? Or was it a five-year love story? Knowing what the other relationship meant to your partner -- and to your marital history -- can go a long way in helping you figure out what you need to do.
9. Realistic expectations.
If you're expecting to wake up one day and have all remnants of the affair be gone, you're going to be disappointed. No matter how successful you may be in moving forward, the affair has changed your relationship forever. Even couples who overcome the betrayal will still acknowledge the affair as a game-changer. You may forgive but you won't forget. And that may be a good thing. It's a reminder to both of you that your relationship is precious -- and that neither one of you would ever do anything to recreate such a painful time.