The Emotional Crisis of an Affair and How to Heal

Dr. Richard Nicastro, PhD, explores the challenging work of post-affair recovery.  The  trust and hope required for healing to occur in the aftermath can be challenging to find in the transitional period for both partners.

Change in a relationship is inevitable after an affair. There is the immediate crisis that follows the discovery or revelation, and that typically includes shock, disbelief, and emotional upheaval. Whether the discovery of the unfaithfulness comes after a period of suspicion that something was amiss, or whether it seems to come from out of the blue, it can be the most devastating thing to a once-healthy relationship.

If you are the betrayed partner, you may get denials and excuses from your mate when you confront him/her with evidence of the affair. These denials might make you question your previously clear conclusions to such a degree that you may feel crazy and may start to doubt your ability to recognize truth. The combination of your partner’s denial of any wrongdoing and your own wish to undo the painful reality that you’ve been cheated on paves the way to self-doubt.

But at some point, if healing is to occur, the unfaithful partner must admit to the affair.

A new world order: Post-affair agreements

The healing journey after an affair is not linear, and no couple’s journey is exactly the same. As the months pass, there may be periods of greater hope and connection followed by periods of despair where you question whether the marriage/relationship can be saved.

You, your partner and the relationship itself are all in transition during the period after an affair. And transitions, under the best of circumstances, are unsettling and demanding. The reality that was once familiar and stabilizing no longer exists. The person who you turned to for comfort and grounding is now unrecognizable, a potential source of emotional danger.

At its core, post-affair healing is the re-establishment of trust and hope; and just as importantly, it invites opportunities for greater self- and other-discovery.

Affair-recovery transitions

Hyper-vigilance and suspiciousness

In order to stabilize the massive insecurities that can hijack healing, the channels of communication between you two must be opened in ways that perhaps they’ve never been open before. The insecure spouse/partner may now be in a hyper-vigilant mode of relating; i.e., consumed by suspicions over the whereabouts and trustworthiness of the partner who cheated.

Insecurity and a lack of trust can lead you to question absolutely everything. And when insecurity and mistrust are caused by the betrayal of the person you relied upon more than anyone else, it is easy to understand why you’d be flooded with questions about what happened, why it happened, and whether it will happen again.

If you’ve been the victim of an affair, you’ve likely asked questions like these:

“Did you love her? How often did you see him? How could you so easily lie to me? Who are you talking to at work? When are you getting home? Why didn’t you text me right back? Who just called you? Has s/he [the affair partner] contacted you? Do you miss/think about her? Why did (or didn’t) you…?”

This level of hyper-vigilance is clearly painful (the angst of mistrust can become psychologically debilitating). Adjustments need to be made to address the lack of trust that now pervades the marriage/relationship. Ideally, these adjustments (for instance, more frequent contact while apart) are an important part of the affair recovery process.

As a foundation of trust is slowly rebuilt, insecurities and the hyper-vigilance fueled by these insecurities will often start to wane. Large doses of patience are needed during this transition time.

”I’ll do whatever it takes…”

The spouse who had the affair can feel great remorse and guilt over his/her actions. The pain caused by the infidelity and the reality that the marriage/relationship might end sound the alarm that real change is needed. The contrite spouse/partner is often ready to make it right, prepared to pay for his/her transgressions.

For some this is a transition of compromise, a period where repeated selfless acts are designed to show the wounded spouse/partner that there is no limit to righting the wrong and reclaiming what was taken away by the betrayal.

It’s important to note that total compliance of this sort cannot last forever. When compliance turns into submission as a long-term adjustment to the post-affair relationship dynamic, authenticity and mutuality are sacrificed. Resentments can build within the partner who is continuously abandoning his/her needs in an effort to make amends.

This doesn’t mean that there shouldn’t be a transition period of greater compromise and selfless sacrifice. But a master-servant outcome is not a solution and will ultimately backfire. Ideally, the long-term change that defines the relationship will be fulfilling to both partners.

Circling back

The relational healing that occurs after an affair is often messy. As you try to make sense of what happened and struggle with whether or not you can learn to trust again, intense arguing, further wounding, and defensiveness can all come in to play. Couples are often surprised by how long (and how unlinear) the affair-recovery process actually is.

As healing occurs, there will be increased stretches of time when it feels like life is finally getting back to normal. This, of course, is a good sign. It speaks of forward movement. Then, seemingly out of nowhere, the wounded spouse/partner may be overcome by intense emotions triggered by something that reminds her/him of the betrayal. This sort of “backsliding” is common. And it should be expected so that you don’t get blindsided by it.

Too many couples misinterpret the periods of circling back as a sign that their relationship is beyond repair. An arbitrary period of time is often used as evidence that the relationship is hopeless. As one husband stated, “It’s been almost a year and she woke up from a dream about her [the affair partner], and we had a horrible weekend because of it. We’re never going to get over this!”

After this husband voiced his frustration, he was able to see that significant strides had been made and that the process of circling back to feelings/reactions he thought had been resolved are actually opportunities for further, more complete healing.

During this difficult transition period, information and understanding about the healing process, as well as your recommitment to your marriage/relationship, can all help to keep you moving forward.