Stages of Healing After Infidelity
We understand that affairs hurt. If you are struggling with the effects of infidelity in your relationship, the first thing to know is that you are absolutely not alone. Infidelity is one of the biggest reasons many couples seek out marriage counseling, and working through the complex emotions that come with cheating is much easier with professional help that specializes in affair recovery.
The good news is that many couples are able to work through the intense pain caused by infidelity and go on to have happy and fulfilling relationships or marriages. This is especially true when both partners want the relationship to continue and are willing to put in the time and work it takes to process through the stages of healing after infidelity.
Even when couples decide to break up after an affair, therapeutic healing can help each individual with the damaging emotions and trauma, like shame, anger, grief, and even PTSD that follows.
People who are dealing with infidelity want to know things like “How long does the pain from infidelity last?” Because the desire to know how and when you might be able to recover from cheating is so common, let’s look at several ways to think about the stages of affair recovery. These include:
- the betrayed spouse cycle
- the stages of grief after infidelity
- the stages of couples therapy after infidelity
These different breakdowns of how recovery can look give a helpful framework for many people to understand what may be in store for them. But it’s important to remember that rebuilding your relationship after cheating will not be a perfectly linear path, and each couples’ experiences will be unique to them.
What Are the Stages of Recovery from Infidelity?
There are four common stages that the betrayed spouse often goes through when dealing with infidelity, sometimes also called the betrayed spouse cycle. Although there aren’t exact timelines for how long each stage lasts, they do typically occur in this order.
- Discovery – Ground zero,when a partner first learns about the affair. This includes feelings of shock, confusion, and disbelief.
- Reaction – After processing the initial shock, the betrayed spouse experiences a rollercoaster of emotional reactions, often including anger, fear, distrust, denial, and obsessive thoughts.
- Beginning to Forgive – When the initial reactions and emotions have been worked through, partners can start to examine and accept why the cheating happened and start to think about the future of the relationship.
- Recommitment and Reconciliation – Partners are able to move past the affair and create the new version of their relationship with infidelity as just one piece of their overall story.
What Are the 5 Stages of Grief With Infidelity?
After the shock and discovery of unfaithfulness, grief is a common emotion. The partner that was cheated on will likely mourn the loss of the relationship as they knew it, and the broken trust that comes with the betrayal. They often wonder if everything about their partnership was a lie. But do the cheaters grieve, too? Oftentimes yes. The person who was unfaithful is also dealing with a complicated set of emotions that can include shame, guilt, grief, and sadness.
Many people struggling to deal with infidelity find it helpful to apply the idea of the stages of grief to their cheating spouse reaction. Although not everyone experiences each stage and they can occur in any order, these stages are:
It can be a real challenge for couples to deal with all the strong emotions infidelity brings up for both parties. It’s important to center the needs of the betrayed spouse while not neglecting the emotional turmoil that the unfaithful partner is experiencing. This approach helps a couple move together through this process. Helping each partner share their truth is something a professional therapist trained in infidelity recovery will help couples navigate.
This framework typically applies most during the reaction stage of infidelity recovery and relates to the impact of infidelity on the betrayed spouse. During this phase especially, working with an experienced marriage counselor can be vital. It is extremely important that the person who was cheated on is given the support they need to process their understandable emotions, while also protecting the relationship as a whole so partners have the option to reconcile. This is a very delicate balance and will be made much easier if there is a neutral moderator in attendance.
What Are the Stages of Marriage Counseling After Cheating?
At Well Marriage, our experienced clinicians don’t necessarily all follow one specific approach, because every situation is different. But there is a rhythm of how a specialist will work with couples after affairs. This can be broken down into two stages.
Stage One: Emoting
There will be strong emotions on both sides after infidelity is discovered. If a couple is willing to work with a therapist to try and save their relationship or marriage, that does not mean that one or both partners don’t still have many strong emotions about the situation. Understandably, the betrayed spouse often feels hurt and angry, and wonders what happens if the pain of infidelity never goes away. At the same time, the partner who stepped out is often wrestling with their own feelings of unworthiness, guilt, and defensiveness.
During this stage, an inexperienced counselor or friends that a couple might confide in for support tend to focus on the problem. Discussions can spiral out of control quickly. Unguided personal attacks on the cheating partner and other unproductive negative conversations about the relationship as a whole can irreparably damage the relationship.
But a couples therapist who is experienced in guiding people through these conversations can help protect both partners and the relationship as a whole. This can be similar to a delicate dance, allowing each individual to share their emotions without making it harder for them to ultimately reconcile if that is what they choose. A therapist can help the partner who was cheated on share their complex emotions AND the cheating partner hear it in a way that’s helpful to them and to the relationship going forward.
Stage Two: Root Causes and Next Steps
Once the biggest and most intense emotions have been worked through, the next stage of therapy is to look at what was happening in the relationship before the cheating. This isn’t done to justify the cheater’s actions or minimize the emotions of either spouse. Instead it’s to allow them to work together to find a way forward after infidelity in a healthier and closer way. This is a time when a trained therapist can help the partners identify patterns of behavior in the relationship that weren’t working before and give each person skills to deal with them differently.
Let’s look at a hypothetical example of a common scenario we see in infidelity recovery. Marcia and Tim have been married for 10 years and have two young kids. Marcia’s main focus in this life stage is on meeting all the needs of the children, and there isn’t enough time for her to also focus on her romantic relationship with her husband. Tim doesn’t have the emotional maturity or skills to identify his need for more connection or to take the lead on it himself. Tim is unfaithful to Marcia in a misguided attempt to meet his own emotional needs. He then feels intense guilt and shame for his actions and confesses the infidelity. Tim knows he wants his marriage to continue, and he finds a marriage counselor to help.
After the strongest emotions have been unpacked during stage one of Marcia and Tim’s counseling, their therapist guides them into stage two. The counselor helps them learn to identify their emotional issues as they are happening, instead of coasting along without connection through their relationship. They acquire new skills of asking for what they each need, and slowly build back trust in the partnership. Together, Marcia and Tim rebuild a stronger marriage where everyone’s needs are met in a healthy and productive way.
Although this story has been generalized and simplified, this kind of result really does happen for thousands of couples who have worked through infidelity recovery with Well Marriage Counseling. Infidelity is a huge hurdle for couples to cross, but with the right support and willing participation of both partners, it is absolutely possible for relationships to come out stronger on the other side.
Our therapists get letters from couples months after their therapy journey has ended, telling us that affair recovery was the gateway to a fuller, better relationship. That it was the “shock to the system” that made them really come together and ask the hard questions about if they should stay together and what they wanted their relationship to look like in the long run.
This isn’t true in every case, but if both partners know they want to try and save their relationship and are willing to come to therapy and put in the effort, there is a lot of hope for healing. At Well Marriage Counseling, we are a relationship positive space and will work with you to save your relationship if that’s what both parties want. We have seen firsthand the positive results that are possible with the right kind of help, and we want to help you get there too.
Does Infidelity Pain Ever Go Away?
For the partner who has just discovered their spouse’s unfaithfulness, the rollercoaster of emotions can be overwhelming and debilitating. You might find yourself asking questions like:
- How long does the shock of infidelity last?
- How do I stop obsessing over being cheated on?
- How do I let go of pain caused by infidelity?
The answers are that the pain caused by this betrayal will take time to lessen and will always be part of the story of this relationship. But it lessens significantly as time goes on. The shock and disbelief will last a relatively short time, typically during the first discovery stage. Then, as a person moves into the reaction phase and processes their feelings with a therapist, they can come to terms with the infidelity so that it no longer is the defining feature of the relationship or their own, personal life story.
The long-term infidelity effects have been likened to a ball, bouncing inside a box. At first the infidelity has huge power and energy, and bounces off the walls causing pain almost continually. But over time, it lessens and only bumps into a wall occasionally, until it finally stops altogether. The ball will always be inside the box, just like the affair will always be a part of the relationship story. But it will eventually lose most of its power to hurt, and the relationship will no longer be defined by this cheating.
What Is a Good Way to Start Healing After An Affair?
Getting help from someone experienced in affair recovery is a good first step. Going through the trauma, PTSD, and harmful emotions of an affair is a big deal, and getting the right help matters. Infidelity and affair recovery is one of the most common relationship and marital challenges we encounter at Well Marriage Center, and we have helped thousands of couples work through it and come out stronger on the other side. Even if ending the marriage is the final decision of the couple, having the care and support of a knowledgeable therapist can help both partners find the healing they need to move forward separately.
Although the pain of infidelity can feel insurmountable, there is hope for a brighter tomorrow. Contact us today to begin your healing journey. You can also read more about this on our blog or find a therapist near you.