My clients in troubled intimate relationships are searching for answers. They often come to a session after spending hours online looking up solutions for their problems. Their search often comes up with damning criticisms and daunting expectations scattered among the good ideas. A few have come to an appointment with a diagnosis that promises a quick fix if the associated steps are accomplished.
Their seeking is promising, if sometimes misguided. They want to do something right or good. They want to feel better and repair something, not just cut off and do it all again somewhere else. Even better, they want to form a relationship with a caregiver, their therapist, who can help them sort out how the relationship went wrong and how they participated in the problem.
Several clients are rebuilding after an affair, either sexual or emotional, that broke their partner’s trust. Many people go directly to divorce after such an event, some accept sharing their partner, but quite a few try to work out a renewed, exclusive relationship. That is not easy. Injured relationships need to recover in many ways, especially when it comes to trust.
Recently I have spent months with people trying to rebuild, not always successfully. I woke up one night with a list forming in my mind about what they could do. The following list includes my dreams as well as some research into what everyone else is saying. Here are four basic ways back into a rebuilt love relationship.
Recognize the trauma
If something feels traumatic to you, it is. New relationship breeches trigger old ones. Some of your emotional reactions may feel overwhelming when infidelity is revealed. It will take time to settle down and more time to work your way into a new equilibrium.
See if you can get to the “table.” Everyone may be unhappy, initially, but there has to be enough talking and action for someone to think the process is going toward healing.
In this day of “alternative facts” getting to the table will likely include a definition of adultery. Is it penetration only? Is it just looking on someone with lust so you were penetrated in your heart? Is it lonely Gov. Cuomo touching inappropriately? Is it the surprising porn addiction you discover in your husband? Is polyamory OK as more people than ever assert? Arguing over the terms won’t solve the problem, but it might take some discussion to get to a common table to negotiate something new.
How did you get to adultery? You might want to take the quiz in “What Makes Love Last?” by John Gottman, who did extensive work on divorce prediction, marital stability, and recovery from infidelity. You may never get to a satisfactory answer to “Why?” The basic answer may not feel like enough. But the process will help you move through the trauma. As you do, some fundamental questions will need to be addressed:
- Are you interested in making amends? Or are you willing to leave your partner?
- Will you let go of the anger and resentment towards your partner and move forward?
- Can you imagine a future with your partner even though they betrayed your trust?
- Do you have adequate resources to help you recover, personally?
Get out or make something new
In therapy I consistently need to ask, “What are we doing here?” Would you like to build something new or are you content to keep seeking justice or maintaining your old patterns? Gottman’s “four horsemen of marriage apocalypse:” criticism and contempt often meeting defensiveness and stonewalling, are likely elemental to the old pattern. If you don’t want to take this opportunity to build something new with this person, you should probably admit it. I would not admit it too soon, but you’ll need to commit to be in if you don’t want to be out.
Therapy can help sort this out. But therapy won’t make you do something. The post-adultery relationship is a new relationship. Same people, new relationship. You might be building the relationship you should have built originally. More likely you are just getting to building a good relationship with the advantage of having a new urgency to do so. That is OK.
Many people say things like “There are two sides to a story” when it comes to an affair. The betrayed partner must have helped cause it. The victim often gets blamed in the U.S. I don’t think much restoration will happen if an endless argument about who is at fault is installed as a solution. If you sin, repent. The person who committed the act must take all the blame.
This is going to be difficult since the betrayer will be dealing with shame. The angry responses from the deep well of grief and loss from the aggrieved partner are not going to feel good and every time they emerge a natural defensiveness will arise. If you did it, stay calm and respond to this anger with another round of admission and asking for forgiveness until it is done. Get forgiven by your partner. God will forgive you, so start there. Your partner, however, is not God.
Betrayal gets stuck in my craw until I can’t stand seeing the person and I start assuming everyone will treat me bad. It can make me hardhearted. I need to forgive to preserve my soul. Even if you divorce an adulterer you will still be better off if you forgive them. “Will you forgive me?” must be met with “I forgive you” at some point. It may take a while to get there but this is the first step toward a new relationship.
If you reserve your forgiveness until you feel you have exacted justice, you are not really at the table of rebuilding yet. The table is all about reconciling and rebuilding. Forgiveness does not mean we are done. But it does mean we are beginning.
Learn improved ways to relate
There is no linear path or prescribed method for rebuilding after adultery. We are all different and our relationships are unique. There are a lot of ways to rebuild better. So the following elements that came to my mind and came through research are not in a particular order. At some point I think they all need to be exercised, however.
Grieve. The old relationship died. The betrayed partner, especially, but the betrayer also, will grieve for what is gone or what was desired. Grieving takes as long as it takes. We usually need to decide we have had enough and move on.
Wait. Everyone is re-calibrating. They are seeing things in new ways. They are changing and growing. All these things take time. The plant won’t grow faster because you are frustrated with it. Waiting is also how we hear from God and trust the work of the Spirit. If we try to control the future we will only achieve what our limited capacity can achieve.
Listen in a new way. The relationship probably had some habits that did not work. We need a new curiosity and some new understanding. Listen to understand; give the gift of understanding.
Let go. Suppressing the past as if you do not matter will not work well. Acting like everything is fine is not sustainable. But we do need to let the past go, let the sinner go free after they have repented, let our feelings mellow, let our view of ourselves and our relationship change. Letting go is elemental to trust in God; we are not in control of the world. Letting go is essential to love, otherwise your partner is subject to judgment, which is intolerable.
Accept each other. Most people ease into newness and you should accept the relationship you presently have if you want it to grow, not hold out for the ideal you don’t have. Accept one another as God accepts you is key to togetherness.
Attune. Your therapist can help you with this. But there are any number of self-help books (like the one I already mentioned) that can get you started. Attunement is the desire and the ability to understand and respect your partner’s inner world. This cannot be done completely, but the attempt matters. Sharing vulnerabilities stops either partner from feeling lonely or invisible. Marriage is God’s gift to our maturation. Everyone needs a way to communicate that allows for safety – no “You” messages, enough space to allow each other to do what they can without criticism or stonewalling.
Work day by day, stone by stone
We like to say “trust the process” these days. We generally don’t trust it, since we can’t tell where we are going. I think we all need to trust God, since none of us knows what we are doing. Here are a few ways to stay in the incremental process of new growth.
Receive the good given. The good you have needs to be good enough. Looking over your partner’s shoulder for something better may have been the initial impulse that led to an affair. Looking beyond the repentance your partner offers to the ideal mate they never were and aren’t will subvert the process of building love with the one to whom you are committed.
Get right brain. The right brain is the seat of holistic health in our body. The left brain is more about correlating the evidence and keeping us on track. We are a left-brain dominated society, thus we have people who have served time in prison and are still refused jobs and the right to vote after they are released — endless “fairness” and no grace. You and your partner must not be left as an eternal judge and felon. The left brain internet never forgets, the right brain comes to a bigger picture by ignoring unnecessary facts.
Make small commitments. This is one way toward a new, fuller marriage commitment. We like to leap to the end of the process we imagine and often give up because “This is not working.” It might be the impatient way we work that does not work. Love is not a commodity to procure, it is the fruit of a wise life. Changing the way dishes are done could be revolutionary over time. Making a weekly time to consider the schedule could be life-changing. Creating an affirming ritual when someone comes home from work could loosen up tangled emotions.
Re-Attach. Or maybe you will be attaching for the first time. Our re-enactment of unfinished childhood attachment issues is integral to marriage. Your therapist can help.
Symbolize the progress. For some people ceremony cements what is new. You write a card that is about repentance or forgiveness. You go on an anniversary trip that is designed to be a new step. You put your wedding ring back on or buy a new one. You go on a pilgrimage and throw a stone into the sea that symbolizes your past.
These ideas can also apply to the friends we have cut off or the churches we have divided. Even those difficult family systems that seem so impossible might change! Underneath all these practical responses to injured trust is love. I think love has a deeper source than my own capacity. Marriage is a radical re-enactment of being created in the image of God as male and female. How we connect in love is as deep as creation itself. So whatever we do to work that out, it is good. Sometimes it may mean moving on from a relationship that is too broken to repair or from a person who can’t get to the table. But many times it means being healed by a deeper love than that which was broken.