A common reason that people seek couple counselling is at the revelation of an affair.
The knee-jerk reaction is to ask the person who betrayed to leave and end it there, but many couples choose to try counselling first and see if healing may be possible. And yes couples can absolutely come back from affairs, but it does take work and it does require making some changes.
Trust is such an important foundation for a healthy relationship, and so rebuilding trust is crucial if the couple is to go forward after an affair. The pain of betrayal affects couples who practice ethical non-monogamy too, when agreed upon boundaries are transgressed feelings of pain, jealousy, shame, anger and sadness are natural. Sometimes there is also a feeling of relief, as the person who was betrayed realises that their intuition or ‘hunches’ were actually correct, and the person who betrayed can come clean and doesn’t have to keep up the exhausting process of lying.
When couples come to me for therapy after an affair has been revealed, there is a process that needs to take place over the next weeks and months.
Affairs don’t happen in isolation, and there may be things that the betrayed partner was doing before the affair that the person who betrayed may want to address.
But the first step is putting the focus on the person who was betrayed as it can be a massive shock to come to terms with all at once. They will need time to understand what has happened and to ask as many questions as they need,. However, I encourage the betrayed partner to be careful in their questioning. It’s totally understandable to want to know details, but once you know something you can’t ‘unknow’ it, and many people have been traumatised by images in their mind about what their partner has done behind their back.
So absolutely find out things like who, how often and where, but ask yourself, is it really helpful to know how the affair partner’s body compares to yours? Or which positions your partner most enjoyed with them?
Once you understand what has been happening, then it is really important to try not to pick at it like a scab that is trying to heal.
Instead of rehashing what happened over and over, if you want to move on and have a chance at continuing the relationship, the person who betrayed needs to share how and why the affair happened. It’s not always because the relationship was stagnant or that sex hadn’t been fulfilling in the primary relationship, there are many, many reasons people cheat. But the person who betrayed owes it to their partner to try and work out why it happened, if they decide they want to commit and continue as a couple.
This work of really dissecting why an affair happened and then choosing if both really want to stay together is powerful.
So many couples live on autopilot. Taking each other for granted but not putting in much effort. An affair can sometimes be a wonderful opportunity to live more intentionally, to prioritise the relationship, to rekindle a passionate sex life, to grow together rather than apart.
I often say to my clients that an affair can be a wound that festers and continues to infect their happiness, but if they choose to move forward together and commit to working on things, it can be a battle scar that is a symbol of their strength.