No marriage gets through life unscathed. You can always count on some hurt feelings, emotional injuries that rear their ugly head on occasion, but nothing (nothing!) is as painful as uncovering an affair. Both the injured and the injurer are hit by a tsunami of thoughts and emotions; often left drowning if they are not guided through a recovery process to get them back on their feet by a therapist who knows how to work with this very specific issue.
As we say in the mental health field, if couples counseling is not for the faint of heart, guiding a couple in the aftermath of an affair is like navigating a battle ground: You have to do triage, first aid, some CPR, and stop the bleeding for a long time before you get to the more heartfelt conversations about what this all means and how the couple wants write the next chapter of their relationship. And you can write the next chapter together!
In fact, many couples not only recover from an infidelity, but they choose to create more meaning for the next chapter of their relationship.
Until then, here's what you can expect from the therapy process:
be patient with the process:
Regardless of what you want from the outcome, especially if there are children involved, you must be committed to process the affair, which is different to being committed to staying in the marriage. With that being said, depending on the type of betrayal that took place, the duration, the proximity in time and space (how long ago and with whom), and the foundation of the relationship pre-dating the affair, you are looking at several months to a year of work. You really have to be committed to the process of working through all the destruction to rebuild you marriage. If you've had an long term affair over months/years, think about the energy it took to navigate both lives. This won't be as demanding as what you had to do then.
Be open and pro-active with disclosures:
During the crisis phase, as the injurer, it will be critical for you to step out of your shame in order to be able to attend to your partner's pain. This is part will require you to be open to answering your partner's questions honestly. There is nothing worse than the drip, drip, drip of information. Because every time you aren't being truthful about the whole affair, the betrayed partner is re-traumatized. It's like taking 5 steps back every time, making it a steeper mountain to climb. Also, as the injurer, you have to be ready to be transparent about everything proceeding the affair disclosure, even if that means sharing your passcodes, calling when your partner needs reassurance, and disclosing if/when the person you had the affair with gets back in touch with you. You do NOT want your partner to "find out" anything on their own, because again we're back to square one minus 10.
The shock of uncovering an affair is a form of trauma:
Many of the feelings, thoughts, behaviors, and symptoms of finding out about betrayal mimic trauma symptoms. As a result, like trauma victims, he/she will need to get all the facts, process his/her feelings, before beginning to form a coherent narrative of what happened. During that process, there will be flashbacks and reminders of the affair -- a song on the radio, a scene in a movie, an scarf that was worn during that time.... Both partners must be ready that it is not a linear process, but that eventually when the reminders appear, it will become less intense and less frequent. Everyone has a different way of processing a traumatic event: some will compartmentalize, others need to process and re-process to gain clarity. Be ready to adapt to which ever strategy your partner needs into to work through his/her trauma.
Surround yourselves with supportive friends:
Uncovering and getting through the toll of infidelity is mired in shame, which leads to isolation. You cannot get through this alone, especially when the only person who's in it with you is just as helpless as you are. You must reclaim a part of yourself that preceded the affair (and at times, even the marriage). You will need 1 or 2 friends whom you trust deeply to give you the support you need without adding more fuel to the fire. Also think about those things, activities. hobbies that made you you before all of this. You need to reclaim the old version of you and access the parts of you that you liked about yourself.
recognize your relationship vulnerabilities so that this doesn't happen again:
Once you are past the crisis stage, you will shift from the detective questions to the investigative questions about what the affair meant to you, your partner, and your marriage. This is a time of reckoning about your marriage and the vulnerabilities that may have predisposed those painful events to occur. Sometime, while the injured was the victim of the affair, he/she isn't always an innocent bystander. Other times, it doesn't matter how perfect of a partner the injured was in the marriage, the injurer was not honest with you nor with him/herself to ever remain faithful and committed. During this phase, a lot will be unpacked about each of you and the marriage you thought you had. These conversations will come significantly less from a place of anger, and more from a place of hurt, pain, and yes, individual vulnerability.