The most common question we get at Well Marriage Center is some form of: “Can my marriage really survive an affair?” The answer is Yes. More and more, we see couples making the choice to try and save their marriages instead of hitting the auto-pilot for divorce. All of our counselors are very skilled at helping couples navigate the emotional roller coaster ride that an affair throws them onto. We asked one of our marriage counselors to write her thoughts about how she helps couples work through an affair.
“Getting off the Roller Coaster”
In our first session with couples we ask them to describe their strengths, admirations of the relationship, and memories that stand out as good. I love this part of our assessment as it gives me an idea of how the couple perceives their relationship. Brian and Joan came to me after Joan discovered Brian was in the midst of a year-long affair. The impact was devastating…for both Joan and Brian. Joan had an intense reaction during the assessment portion of their strengths. She was confused, sad, and angry. A common impact of discovering an affair is that memories of the relationship become contaminated by this new information. Joan had begun to question their history in a way that hindered her from seeing any strengths or good in their relationship. She said “How can we have any strengths if an affair was going on? I don’t admire anything about this marriage!”
Joan is not alone. The aftermath of an affair is very painful and confusing. Most couples will describe this experience as an “emotional rollercoaster”, where the victim has intense emotional ups and downs, a preoccupation with the violation, blaming, self-doubt, fear, and loss of rationality. Problems that existed in the relationship prior to the discovery may become more intensified. You may start to look at your life from a very different set of eyes, eyes that are more suspicious and less likely to trust without evidence. No one likes to feel out of control or as if they can’t trust their own mind and instincts. I empathize with the level of discomfort that comes with mistrust and encourage couples to process that emotion rather than creating methods that foster false trust (checking emails, texts, phone records, etc.). A false trust method is anything that finishes the message “I trust you if…” At that point trust is only intact if there is a way to measure it. Joan felt these attempts gave her more safety in the marriage but instead it created an element of control in the marriage that Brian eventually resented.
Most couples may entertain the idea of separation at this stage in order to cope with the roller coaster. However, it is important to avoid turning a disruption into a tragedy by making permanent decisions about your marriage during the roller coaster stage. When emotions are this high it is difficult to make a decision you’ll find peace with for the rest of your life.
When I see a couple experiencing this type of disruption I take great care in validating the victim and educating the offender about the roller coaster phase. Rather than diving into the easier but more destructive ways of establishing trust, I teach couples how to adopt appropriate levels of transparency. What a couple really wants at this stage is to feel understood. The victim in particular is looking for accountability and validation. Convincing the victim they are loved can often make things worse because words have lost their power. In Joan and Brian’s case, when Joan was feeling triggered or having a rough day with the preoccupation of her thoughts, Brian attempted to sooth her by trying to convince her not worry because he loved her so much. Joan became angry and felt that he did not understand her pain.
Through supportive marriage counseling, Joan learned to verbalize what she was feeling and why she was feeling it. She learned to communicate to Brian what she needed. It is the victim’s goal to help the offender understand their pain. Joan and Brian were instructed to make this a regular practice in order for Joan to heal. Several times a week they carved out time for Joan to verbalize what she felt, while Brian listened, validated, took responsibility, and apologized. Joan’s emotional reactivity was less intense when she felt Brian was authentic in his understanding of her pain. She believed that if he really understood her pain, he would be less likely to violate trust again. And she’s right.
Joan and Brian worked extremely hard over the course of about 9 months and learned to listen, support, and communicate with each other in a rich and authentic way. They have both been able to step off the emotional roller coaster and have both, separately, decided that they want to stay together and strengthen their marriage.
If you and your spouse are recovering from an affair there is reason for hope. Rebuilding trust is a process but it’s possible with tenderness of the heart and forgiveness. Yes, your marriage can survive an affair.