You can rebuild trust after infidelity. There is hope. In fact, your relationship can even grow stronger because of the cheating. However, it will be a tough and painful road. Not going to lie.
Keep reading this article if you’re interested in learning how to move from the affair discovery through to repair and healing. I will discuss different types of betrayals and the effects these can have on your relationship. This is not meant to take the place of professional help. If you need support, find a professional.
The partner who has been hurt
When a couple enters counseling after an affair, undoubtedly there will be one member of the partnership who has been wronged. When trust has been broken on a deep and fundamental level, it can feel like the bedrock of your relationship has been ravaged by illegal fracking. It can be hard to move through the pain, anger, resentment and fear. The physiological effects of being cheated on can present like PTSD. That’s right. For some the impact of being cheated on can show up like PTSD (post-traumatic-stress-disorder), which we typically think of as impacting survivors of war. Especially if the affair is recent, it can be hard to imagine how you will move through all this pain and begin the process of healing.
The partner who cheated
On the flip side, the person who had the affair most often wants to move from the pain into the healing as quickly as possible. They want to return to “normal.” It’s very uncomfortable for them to see all the wreckage that they have caused in their relationship and family. However, if true healing is going to occur, you can not rush through your partner’s pain. There must be accountability and growth if the relationship will survive and thrive again.
What is a betrayal?
Simply put, betrayal is the breaking of trust. Trust can be broken sexually, financially, emotionally or otherwise. Trust runs deep and is a large component of what makes relationships with our partners feel safe and secure.
Types of betrayal
Before we go further, let me talk more about the different types of betrayal.
This is probably the most common form of relationship betrayal and it’s usually the type depicted in movies and novels. Often times this is referred to as cheating or infidelity and it can look different depending on what your relationship is like. For example, having sex with someone else may not be a betrayal in a non-monogamous relationship. However, the exact same scenario may be a betrayal for a monogamous couple.
Finances are often difficult for couples to navigate together. A financial betrayal is a breach of trust around money. This could look like lending money to your family without talking about it with your partner first. Or making a big purchase with joint funds that wasn’t agreed upon. If money is already a difficult topic, a breach in trust will make things even more challenging to discuss.
Emotional betrayal can look like going on dates, texting or creating an emotionally intimate relationship with someone outside your primary relationship. This can happen with friends, co-workers or anyone else you connect with outside your relationship. Again, this can feel very threatening and scary for your partner.
What to expect after a betrayal?
Healing a breach of trust in your relationship will not happen overnight. It takes time to rebuild safety and security. The first step is often having the courage to be fully honest about what has happened. It will take effort and time to repair. It is also important to understand the factors that led up to the betrayal in the first place. Has there been a breakdown in intimacy, communication or trust that led up to the problem?
The stages of repair
Below I will describe the process of affair repair that I use in couples therapy. It’s based on the work of Ellyn Bader and Pete Pearson from the Couples Institute. It may seem simple in concept, however each of these stages takes time, effort and courage to move through in order to truly get through the betrayal and reset the foundation of your relationship.
Phase 1: The Discovery
This is typically the moment when couples will reach out for counseling. One partner has usually discovered the affair or betrayal and it’s impossible to put the genie back in the bottle. Usually there are lots of big feelings going on and it’s an uncertain time in the relationship. Will you stay together? Will this be the end? How can you ever trust your partner again? It’s very important that there is a full disclosure of what happened, as it can be even more traumatizing if revelations drip out slowly over time.
Phase 2: The Repair
This is when the real work starts. During this period of affair repair, after the genie is out of the bottle, it’s time for accountability and growth. The person who has done the betrayal has made a unilateral decision to cheat. It’s not just the sexual or emotional piece of the betrayal that is so problematic. It’s the fact that one member of a team has gone behind the back of the other and trust has been eroded. The painful prospect of this happening again looms in the background during this time period. Until the unilateral decision is fully understood and the foundation of the relationship can be shored up, it’s unrealistic to ask for forgiveness.
Phase 3: Recommitment
After working through the accountability and having some level of growth, it may be possible to have a recommitment to the relationship from both partners. This probably won’t look like going back to “normal.” There have been dramatic shifts in the bedrock of the relationship by this point. However, together you can redefine what you want the relationship to look like going forward.
What does it look like to rebuild trust after infidelity?
Let’s use the analogy of building a company to illustrate this concept. You and your partner have built a company together over many years. That takes trust, time, effort and passion. The person who has cheated has been simultaneously investing in another company across town without letting their co-owner know. In order for trust to be rebuilt in this example it will take transparency, accountability and time for things to improve. I will turn the question back to the person who cheated: what are you willing to do in the name of transparency and accountability?
How long does affair repair take?
It’s different for every relationship. However, typically the deeper the betrayal and pain, the longer the healing will take. It’s crucial that both partners are in a place where they are willing to take risks, move into uncomfortable territory and have honest, authentic conversations. If you’re the partner that broke the trust, you have to make space for the hurt feelings and repair. Don’t rush it. The healing process has the potential to bring you closer than you ever were before.
Is it actually possible to heal after cheating?
Yes! I have worked with many couples as they move through a betrayal, rebuild trust and create a relationship that is stronger than either of them imagined at the beginning. However, it takes a ton of hard work and real, honest conversations.
Can couples counseling help with affair recovery?
Couples counseling can be a powerful vehicle for change and growth after an affair. If you’re interested in learning more about how to rebuild trust after infidelity, reach out to set up a free video consult. I work with couples online in California and Colorado and I have an office in Denver, Colorado.
When there has been a betrayal in your relationship, it can take hard work and time to rebuild trust. You may even be questioning if you want to rebuild trust and forgive. Let’s slow it down and explore this topic in more detail.
What led to the betrayal in the first place?
This is an important question. There are likely many factors that contributed to this breakdown in trust. By slowing things down and removing the blame, you can begin to understand what happened. It will be important to explore this in more detail to prevent it from happening again in the future.
Do you want to move past it?
Sometimes there are things that happen that are too big to recover from. When thinking about a betrayal, it’s important to ask yourself if you want to recover and try to rebuild trust. This will be different for everyone. If the betrayal is too big or goes against your core values, it may be time to leave the relationship.
Forgiveness can be really hard. If you decide that you want to work through things and move toward forgiveness, be kind to yourself. It’s going to take strength and courage. According to Mahatma Gandhi, “the weak can never forgive. Forgiveness is the attribute of the strong.”
Fred Luskin, PhD, director of the Stanford University Forgiveness Projects, has written a seminal text about the science behind forgiveness, Forgive for Good: A Proven Prescription for Health and Happiness. Luskin based the book on the findings from six research studies he has conducted and various workshops he’s run on forgiveness over the past 20 years.
Forgive, Not Forget
By forgiveness, Luskin is not referring to forgetting. There are things that happen to each of us in relationships that are unforgettable, they’re deal breakers. If something happens and it’s a deal breaker for you, it’s time to end the relationship and look for other alternatives. But that doesn’t mean your life must be ruled by the power of resentment.
Luskin provides a simple 9 step plan for forgiveness backed with science that aims to improve your mental and physical health. I’d recommend checking out his book to learn more about that plan if you’re interested.
When we’re in an intimate relationship with someone we’re opening ourselves up to suffering and pain. When you let down your armor and get close to someone else, they will inevitably hurt you. If they’ve hurt you in a way that’s a deal breaker, it’s time to move on. If not, think about what you need to heal and ask for it.
Luskin uses a phrase he calls the unenforceable rule, which refers to the concept that sometimes we hold onto resentment because we want something or someone to be fundamentally different than they are. If your partner cheated, or chews with their mouth open or won’t put the toilet seat down, you can’t force them to be different than they are. You can request change, but ultimately you can’t control someone’s behavior or actions.
As frustrating and vulnerable as this concept may be, it’s also empowering. You do have a choice when someone hurts you. You have a choice to end the relationship or learn how to grieve the loss, tolerate the uncertainty and remember the good in the other person.
If you’ve decided you want to forgive and you’d like to work through the betrayal, here are some steps to consider.
- Keep calm. If you become activated or triggered, your frontal cortex goes offline and it will be next to impossible to stay emotionally engaged and make progress. If you notice that you’ve become activated, take a break. Go for a walk. Try some deep breathing. Calm yourself down and then reengage in the conversation.
- Stop the blame. When you’ve been hurt, it can feel good for a moment to assign blame on someone else. I promise it will only feel good for a moment and then it will fuel the cycle of anger and rejection. This will be a difficult cycle to break but it’s crucial in order to make progress on forgiveness and healing.
- Listen. We learn as kids to take turns and that is still a crucial skill to remember in relationship with others as adults. Listen to your partner. Let them speak without interrupting. This is very easy to say, but much harder in practice. However, it’s a crucial skill to enable more intimate and connected conversations.