Can a relationship survive infidelity?
This question is one that I get asked by almost every individual or couple I have worked with that have experienced infidelity in a relationship, and the answer is yes…and no. Any answer to the question depends on a number of things; while we can’t predict the outcome of any decision we make, we can make choices, commitments, and investments to increase the odds of the outcome we would like.
A relationship is like a home.
To overcome infidelity, a relationship in some ways must cease to exist. While some couples decide to permanently separate, what we will be addressing here is a ‘death and rebirth’ of a relationship. If you think of a relationship as a home, there are several things needed for a home to weather a vicious storm: secure foundation, strong walls, a durable roof and so on. In thinking of a relationship as a home, we can consider infidelity as a vicious storm. Even the strongest homes can be devastated by tornados and hurricanes. When directly impacted, the aftermath of the storm leaves the home in shambles. Parts of the home, such as the foundation, may be salvageable, but ultimately the home will need to be rebuilt in many ways. Rebuilding the home the exact same way wouldn’t quite make sense, therefore, a new construction plan is necessary. This is why relationships do not survive infidelity; they must collapse, be grieved, and rebuilt (if reconciliation is the desire). Is this possible? Absolutely. Is it easy? Absolutely not.
How can a relationship survive infidelity?
While there is no manual or perfect recipe to provide the most desirable outcome, there are things many successful individuals and couples do that are helpful:
1. Couple’s Therapy – This is essential in guiding the relationship in the right direction. Having an outside individual who deeply cares about the values, intentions, and goals of the couple is essential in navigating the aftermath of infidelity. The therapist can help take inventory of what needs to be kept to rebuild and what needs to be changed. At Arise Counseling, this includes teaching the couple about the negative cycles in their relationship, and helping them create new, positive cycles that work and create connection.
2. Individual therapy – Individual sessions are just as important as couples’ sessions. At times, each partner may share the couple’s therapist as their individual therapist; this can create a helpful and collaborative process. Each partner may also choose to seek out their own individual therapist which is equally as helpful. Individual therapy gives each partner their own space to process, grieve, and have support moving forward.
3. Communication boundaries – Many questions emerge after an affair; usually the victim of the affair floods the other partner with questions as a safety and coping method. However, the flooding can trigger anxiety, shame, and anger in the other partner, creating an unproductive experience that continues in a loop. Creating communication boundaries is essential in the process. For example, some couples choose to set a time each day for questions and processing such as each evening between 8:30 and 9:00 pm. Creating a set time each day with a time limit can be very helpful. Communication boundaries also includes the way each partner talks to one another. Additionally, seeking guidance from a therapist can be helpful in establishing communication boundaries.
4. No rash decisions – You do not have to choose to stay or leave the relationship. Committing to working on the relationship to see if reconciliation is possible does not mean one is committing to stay in the relationship. It’s important to make sure both partners are in the healing process and healthy before deciding to leave or stay in the relationship.
5. Coping mechanisms – For each partner, there will be a variety of feelings and reactions. Fear, anger, sadness, grief, and so on are constantly cycling through each individual; therefore, finding healthy, productive ways to manage the waves of emotions is essential to overcoming infidelity. In a separate post, we will address several coping mechanisms that clients have reported were instrumental in their healing process. If you are a partner of a sex addict, check out this post for helpful resources.
6. A support system – This may be one person, an ISA or COSA group, or several friends. In any manner, support is imperative to overcoming infidelity whether one stays in the relationship or leaves it. Having a support system will decrease feelings of isolation and help hold you up during the difficult moments of rebuilding.
7. Patience with “taking steps back” – Just like muscle memory, humans slip back into old behavior patterns. When one partner demonstrates an old behavior pattern (such as a white lie) it may trigger an old behavior pattern in the other partner (such as name calling). While this can feel extremely discouraging, it is a very normal part of the process of rebuilding and in fact, can provide a helpful opportunity in moving forward by further exposing the negative cycle.
8. Remember the goal – It is very easy in the healing process to get caught in the old, negative cycles of the relation and forget the goal: heal and move forward. While you may not have decided if you’d like to recommit to your relationship or not, getting caught in old, negative cycles will not move one forward if they are not overcome. Additionally, taking one step each day towards the goal is imperative; this may include daily journaling, a phone call to a support person, a therapy session, etc. Each day take one step towards the direction you’d like to go.
9. Self-Care – In the aftermath of infidelity, it is easy to stop taking care of oneself because the amygdala (fight or flight center of the brain) is triggered and tasks such as taking showers, eating full meals, going for walks, and so on don’t seem as important as finding safety. However, if we fail to take care of ourselves and lose responsibility for our well-being, the healing process will be impaired.
10. Healing is about YOU – Often partners measure healing or recovery by the actions of the other partner or if the relationship is going “good” or “bad.” Measuring internal progress by external factors can create skewed views. Additionally, it can create the urge to want to control what is beyond yourself…this can be frustrating and ultimately stunt progress. Focusing internally and measuring success by your own progress will foster validation, motivation, and overall healing.
By no means are the 10 previous points an exhaustive list of healing after infidelity. More so, trying them all today won’t necessarily change how you are feeling today. However, a periodic practice of these 10 points can help an individual or couple progress in the direction they’d like to go. Healing after infidelity is not easy, but it is possible. If you feel stuck and lost, you have come to the right place. We are here to help you move forward and heal. Please feel free to contact us for additional support or resources.