By Danielle Braff Chicago Tribune
WWR Article Summary (tl;dr) Can a couple rebuild after an affair? While psychologists are quick to agree that not all marriages are made to last forever, and certainly some should be disabled after an affair, there are many that can be repaired post-infidelity if both partners are willing to put in the work.
There once was a man who had an affair, and he loved the woman more than he loved his wife, said Janis Abrahms Spring, clinical psychologist and author of "After the Affair," speaking about her clients.
The man sought therapy because he decided to save his marriage for the sake of his religion and his family.
"But he was resentful. He was angry that he had to give up the person and said he loved her more than he loved his wife," Spring said.
After two years of therapy, the man finally turned to his wife in the session and told her that he loved her and was where he wanted to be.
"And she looked at him, and she said, 'It's not good enough,'" Spring said. "'You've hurt me so deeply.'"
Statistics on affairs run rampant, some showing that 30 to 60 percent of all married people will have an affair at some point.
And the statistics for those who stick with their partners post-affair are even murkier. But psychologists say it can be done, even in the most dire situations.
For the man who said he loved his mistress more than his wife then two years later, after therapy, realized he really wanted the woman he married?
"They're still together," Spring said. "I told them, 'Maybe this is as good as it gets because this is the way it works.'"
Often, when we get back together again, it's not because of these grand feelings of love, but it's because there are other reasons to get back together again, she told them. You've learned to be there for each other in ways that matter.
"This is what love is, not the quick pitter-patter of the heart," Spring said.
While psychologists are quick to agree that not all marriages are made to last forever, and certainly some should be disabled after an affair, there are many that can be repaired post-infidelity if both partners are willing to put in the work.
The first step is to start talking, said Marty Martin, licensed clinical health psychologist and director of the health sector management MBA program at DePaul University in Chicago.
"To rebuild trust will require open communication, clear expression of feelings, articulations of genuine remorse and forgiveness, and developing a plan outlining the best case, the most probable case and the nightmare case," Martin said.
He estimated that this dialogue will take several weeks to several months, and should be facilitated by a therapist who specializes in affairs rather than a therapist who specializes in divorce.
During therapy, it's essential that the person who is hurt must be able to forgive, said Andrew Brimhall, a licensed marriage therapist in Greenville, N.C.
"Once we've gotten burned, we have a hard time trying to risk vulnerability again," Brimhall said.
So if a person brings home flowers to try to make a nice gesture, you could either see this as a nice gesture because your partner is working hard toward restoring the relationship, or you could see it as trying to cover something up again.
"They can view it through skepticism or fear or hurt," Brimhall said. "Then the person who feels like they are trying to restore things might feel like they can't do anything right anymore, and it cycles through a negative dynamic."
The person who had the affair must be open and willing to talk about anything that the injured partner needs to discuss, Brimhall said.
"Often the person who had the affair has guilt and shame about it, and wants to move past it as quickly as they can. They say, 'Why are you bringing it up again?'" Brimhall said.
The problem with suppressing it, however, is that it builds inside and will eventually blow up and will come out in a negative way. On the other hand, if you constantly discuss it and accuse your partner in a negative way, this isn't good either.
The healthy way to talk about the affair, and this can make the relationship stronger, is to allow the injured spouse to have reassurance and validation whenever they need it.
"Acknowledge that it's a bad day; ask for love and reassurance," Brimhall said. "The partner needs to be able to sit in the pain and not run away from the shame and provide the reassurance."
The length of time it takes to move past the affair and to trust and love fully again can vary depending on the couple and the degree of deception, Brimhall said.
"If it was a one-night stand versus something that was going on for two to three years, it will require less healing process, but it also depends on how willing they are able to engage in the process," Brimhall said. "Most of us don't like being vulnerable and feeling out of control."
He had one couple who had an extensive affair but worked through it in two to three months because they did the work they needed to do. But he's had others that took six months to a year because they had to do a lot of work to get back to a good place.
First, the pain, fear and anger will shrink to a manageable size, and then it will stop being a constant presence in your life, said Mira Kirshenbaum, therapist and author of 14 books, including "When Good People Have Affairs."
No matter how long it takes, however, it's key that the person who had the affair doesn't ask the injured partner, "'When are you going to get over this'" or "'The way you keep harping on this, there must be something wrong with you,'" Kirshenbaum said.
You'll have to remember that, after the affair, this isn't about you anymore: It's about being there with someone you've damaged.
"If you can't hang in there as long as it takes to heal, there's no reason ... to ever trust you," Kirshenbaum said.