I don’t know how I’ll ever trust him again…
I don’t know if I’ll ever be able to forgive her…
It’s safe to say that, with virtually every couple I’ve treated post-affair, the theme of “trust” dominates the discussion, hands down. This tells us something important. It’s not the sex outside the relationship that feels so destructive, though that’s bad enough. It’s the lying. The deceit. The double life led by the partner. The parter who was betrayed almost always expresses something to the effect of, “Who is this person I’m living with?”
There’s a caveat to what I’m about to say. Repairing trust can only happen in a real relationship, with well-meaning people who have been committed to each other. (I say “have been” because the trauma of the discovery of the affair can shake the foundation of the commitment.) Trust cannot be rebuilt when the “cheater” is a serial sociopath, who has affairs and doesn’t feel guilty about it, or where there is such a power imbalance in the relationship that one person does not have a voice about what her husband does. (We have a prominent public figure like this.)
There’s another layer to the trust problem; it’s not just wondering if we can ever trust our parter again. It’s: Can we trust ourselves? That’s part of the reason people whose partners had an affair are shaken to their core. In many couples I’ve seen, the one who was betrayed (sorry, I don’t have a shorthand word for the person on the receiving end of the affair) worries that she cannot trust herself. How will I know in the future if he’s cheating? How did I miss the signs? How was I so blind? She starts to question her sanity. That’s a painful state, to be sure.
When I hear these sentiments expressed in my office, I nod in empathy. I get it. I would feel the same. Yet I know something they don’t yet know. In the vast majority of couples I’ve worked with, over many years, a new level of trust eventually emerges that ends up making the relationship feel more solid, more secure, more authentic. Sounds strange, I’m sure. And it’s not easy to get there. Here’s how it works:
The first stage of the therapy, following the exposure of the affair sets the stage for the rebuilding of trust. I talk about this in my post Affair Repair. It requires a 100% no-holds barred accountability for the affair by the one who cheated. The one who took the cowardly way out. No “yes, but….”. It’s got to be complete and total responsibility. Complete transparency. This, of course, tends not be a completely straightforward process. I’ve seen many guys who hedge the details of their cheating so as not to “hurt” their partner, crazy as that sounds. These guys (or women) are clumsy in part because these couples typically don’t have much experience in direct confrontation, or openly painful discussions. And, of course, it depends on what the betrayed person wants to know. That’s a case-by-case basis. I will say, however, that in my experience, the greater the demand for openness, the better the prognosis for the couple. Openness and transparency tend to act as a disinfectant in an atmosphere of lying and cheating.
Once the accountability for cheating, and for creating incalculable hurt has occurred–a process that can last for several months–the really difficult work begins. This is the process of exploring the dynamics of the relationship, and beginning to understand the Soil In which The Affair Grew. As a therapist, I can tell you that this is never easy. I’m always aware that the scales are out of balance, that one person has been severely wronged by another in an intimate partnership. One person broke the contract and lied about it. And created great harm. Nevertheless I know without a doubt that the relationship was broken–or at least troubled–sometimes in very subtle ways, before the affair.
This is where we see what people are made of. I always say that the measure of our character is not how we handle ourselves when things are going well, it’s how we are in the midst of adversity. This includes the courage to look at ourselves, even when we feel “wronged.” We all struggle with adversity, sometimes a lot of it. Life is full of stressors, and at times it feels unsurmountable. Our partner’s affair can feel like one of those things.
The “Exploring the Soil” of the affair, is the trickiest and most important part of the therapy. (I talk about such a case in the post Anatomy of An Affair.) Usually it uncovers the couple’s unspoken agreement to avoid conflict. Or to not make too many emotional/relational demands, or perhaps a fear/avoidance of intimacy is at play. For the person who had the affair, it allows him to talk about HIS suffering in the relationship. We all need to feel “known” in our relationship. That’s partly what intimacy is about, to be able to reveal our pain to another. As I said, this is delicate, but it’s crucial to the rebuilding of trust. Out of the innumerable couples I’ve seen reeling from an affair, I have never yet seen a case where the “cheater” was happy before the affair. In the vast majority of cases, the one who cheated felt emotionally isolated, and/or didn’t know how to ask for what he needed. Usually he was guided by some misplaced overprotection of his spouse. Often he didn’t want to be too “demanding”. Ouch.
Often these patterns were created in the marriage, with some help from both partner’s family of origin. In other words, some of these patterns of conflict avoidance began even BEFORE the marriage. But, on some level, both partners unintentionally contributed to the (often unspoken, unacknowledged) state of misery that characterized the relationship before the affair. Frequently a kind of covert (unconscious) lying was going on for the couple even before the affair: Lying about how we feel about each other, lying about the state of our happiness in the marriage. I’ve had quite a few couples come to me post-affair, stating that their relationship was the “envy” of all of their friends.
These two ingredients, complete accountability for the affair, and shared “ownership” for the relationship before the affair, seem to be the magic that restores trust in the marriage. Let me re-phrase that. The marriage is not “restored.” In this kind of Affair Repair, the affair seems to (mercifully, painfully) bring to an end the old marriage, and establishes in its place a more dynamic, alive partnership. The couple now looks and feels different to each other. No longer invisible, or unnaturally repressed, or falsely happy. These are the kind of people who can, in due time, grow old together.