What Are the Stages of Affair Recovery?
If you’ve cheated or been cheated on, you’re not alone. According to Psychology Today, “about 20 percent of men and 13 percent of women report that they’ve had sex with someone other than their spouse while married.”
Why do people cheat? It can happen for a range of reasons, like feeling neglected, growing bored, or simply one partner falling out of love with the other. Often, it’s not easy to even figure out the root cause or causes, making affair recovery a tricky endeavor—and one that’s best left to a qualified marriage or couples counselor.
While people’s reasons for cheating may be complex and difficult to untangle, there’s hope. The aftermath of an affair is a rollercoaster of painful emotions that can have devastating, long-term effects if not handled appropriately. Once you understand the stages of healing after infidelity and find the right counselor to help you navigate them through your unique situation, recovery should start to feel like a real possibility.
Note: we use “marriage” and “couples” counseling interchangeably, as we’re here to support any committed relationship that is in distress. We hope you can find this information useful, regardless of legal status or how you personally label your relationship.
How Do You Start the Healing Process After an Affair?
Even though it can cause deep feelings of betrayal and hurt, infidelity does not have to mean the end of the marriage or relationship. That being said, getting past the initial trauma can feel overwhelming in the early stages after an affair has been discovered.
The best advice in the immediate aftermath of affair discovery is to work past the urge to lash out, which typically only makes things worse. Instead, it’s important to take a breath, give each other some space, and avoid making any rash decisions in the moment.
When you’re ready to begin the process of mending the relationship, you’ll want to bring a couples therapist into the conversation. Especially if they specialize in affair recovery, a counselor will be able to help guide you down the path toward reconciliation and healing. The best part? “When both partners are committed to real healing, most couples survive and many marriages become stronger with deeper levels of intimacy,” according to Mayo Clinic.
Even for couples who have decided to split after the discovery of infidelity, working with a specialized clinician can help people overcome the damaging, long-term emotional and mental distress that follows.
What Are the Stages of Healing After an Affair?
The five main infidelity recovery stages, which run parallel to the general stages of grief, are denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance.
- Denial: In this stage, both partners struggle to make sense of what’s occurred. For the cheater, this might mean being surprised by their own error and the hurt they’ve caused. For the partner who’s been cheated on, this stage involves processing the initial feelings of betrayal after an affair. A counselor will help you to better understand the reasons the affair occurred, a crucial first step in the healing process.
- Anger: Understandably, the partner who’s been cheated on is going to be in a great deal of pain, with feelings of anger, embarrassment, and a drop in self-worth. The cheater likely feels some guilt and shame, too. Anger, often considered a secondary emotion, is likely to have its roots in deeper feelings like hurt and confusion. Working with a counselor helps to ensure that discussions remain civil and that each partner can work through their thoughts and feelings in a safe, judgment-free environment.
- Bargaining: During this stage, partners are likely to question various circumstances and possible causes behind the affair. Left to their own devices, many people internalize the blame, thinking things like “If only I had (or hadn’t) done [X], maybe this wouldn’t have happened.” It can result in a series of negative thoughts that ruminate in your mind if you’re not careful. When you work with an affair recovery counselor, they’ll help to make sure each partner feels heard and understood—and that neither partner falls into any sort of unproductive blame spirals.
- Depression: As betrayal’s full impact comes into focus, depression tends to follow. What does it feel like? It feels like hurt, sadness, and doubt. You can begin to doubt yourself and others. It can even feel hopeless and like the past was a lie. An affair recovery counselor understands how to navigate these proverbial seas of pain and can help couples to keep lines of communication (and healing) open. This way, neither partner is left to dwell too long in this stage.
- Acceptance: While no quality counselor will tell you to just “accept” what happened or to “get over it,” their job is to help determine what healing looks like for your unique situation. This stage is more about reflection and potential forgiveness than it is about finality or closure. Part of acceptance can also be accepting what was broken in the relationship before the affair, and creating a tailored plan with your therapist to make sure the next stage of your relationship journey is stronger and more vibrant.
For a deeper dive into each of these stages and how to work through them, this Gottman Institute article is a great resource.
What Kind of Trauma Does Cheating Cause?
The intense feelings of betrayal that follow infidelity define a particular type of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) known as post traumatic infidelity syndrome. Symptoms of this disorder can include:
- Rumination and recurring thoughts
- Traumatic recall (flashbacks)
- Emotional numbness
- Avoidance, isolation, and withdrawal
- Anxiety and depression
- Erosion of trust
It’s important to note that the list above is not necessarily complete, but goes to illustrate the wide range of effects infidelity can bring about. Working with a qualified marriage counselor is the best way to explore and begin unpacking the effects of trauma. A counselor will also help you build a better, more sustainable future through the development of better communication, trust, and intimacy. Gaining insight and creating a plan with a specialist will help keep you and your relationships with others from being defined by a traumatic affair.
How Long Does It Take To Recover From Infidelity Trauma?
While every couple and every marriage is different, experts generally agree that it takes “months, even years, to successfully rebuild trust” after infidelity. Trauma is a tricky, tricky thing, and everyone experiences it differently. Some people are predisposed to feeling deeply hurt in certain situations, while others might have more resilience or an ability to “move on” more quickly.
Working with a marriage counselor who specializes in affair recovery helps with this process by:
- Understanding and validating each partner’s feelings, needs, and priorities
- Finding common ground between partners
- Setting clear expectations for the recovery process
- Helping to determine root causes and appropriate solutions
- Creating a safe environment for vulnerability and sharing
- Identifying what boundaries should be set after infidelity to rebuild trust
Affair Recovery Starts With a Single Call—to Well Marriage Center
At Well Marriage Center, our affair recovery counselors are ready and waiting to help couples start the healing and reconciliation process and work toward rediscovering their love.
We take a strengths-based approach to affair recovery, one that’s designed to rebuild trust and help couples reconnect, get back on track, and develop strategies to help ensure that you can stay on track. It doesn’t have—and shouldn’t—feel hopeless!
Even for couples who do not choose to stay and work on their relationship after an affair, a specialized counselor can help one or both partners unpack, heal, and plan for their futures, so the baggage of affair trauma doesn’t snowball into longer-term issues.
Every journey begins with a single step, so get in touch with our team today.