You find yourself in a fraught situation: your partner has just learned about your affair. Feelings of panic, anxiety, fear, shame, and guilt overwhelm you. You aren’t sleeping well, maybe waiting for the other shoe to drop, worried that every conversation will lead to your partner telling you it’s over. You have some decisions to make: should you stay or leave the relationship? If you decide to stay, there are some realities you must accept—specifically, the repair process could take a couple of years. It will require a lot of emotional and behavioral work.
Think of it this way: repairing an affair is like trying to rebuild an investment account after having made a series of short-sighted trades that wiped you out. You feel pressured to save and reinvest quickly to recreate what you had, but just like with a financial investment, relationship investments cannot be rebuilt quickly. At first, your balance is zero. It is through your efforts that the balance in the account grows. Just as all of your spending decisions will affect how much you are able to deposit in your retirement account, the daily decisions you make about your relationship will result in how quickly you build up your relationship account.
The unfaithful partner must accept the reality of the slow repair process. Just when everything seems to be going well and you are hopeful that forgiveness will come soon, your partner may be triggered by a thought, event, or feeling and be thrown back into the well of anger and despair. Continue to think of it as an investment account. Checking the balance every day won’t make it grow faster. What does make it grow faster is making everyday choices that please your partner.
Love is behavioral—it takes attention, attunement, regular and healthy communication, compromise, and a willingness to play the long game. Short-sightedness in relationships is a self-inflicted wound. Do not cut corners by passing up chances at affection or emotional connection, or by rationalizing that unhealthy behaviors don’t count or won’t be noticed. When in the process of repair, the unfaithful partner must act from an understanding that everything he or she does matters. Your actions and words will serve to either help rebuild your relationship or contribute to its breakdown.
The partner in the process of repair needs to accept that he or she may be under the microscope. You will be watched, assessed, and perhaps feel like you are under surveillance. Before allowing this to upset you, remind yourself that you created this situation.
You may be wondering what really helps in rebuilding trust in your relationship. From my perspective, relationships are repaired mainly through small gestures. Trips to romantic destinations and expensive gifts may seem like obvious ways to increase trust, but they’re not. Trust is developed by engaging in trustworthy behavior on a regular basis.
To help you clean up your relationship mess, here are some suggestions that may increase trust between you and your partner:
- Cut out the secrecy. Your partner may want to have your passwords for your phone, banking, credit cards, and social media accounts. This may feel invasive and unnecessary to you, but to your partner, this gesture sends the message that you get it. Hurt partners often gain reassurance by engaging in the process of “checking.” Many hurt individuals greatly dislike the act of checking up on their partners because they genuinely want to trust you. Reading emails and text messages can make the hurt partner feel parental. It’s an uncomfortable situation for both parties, which is why it often stops shortly after it starts.
- Increase your availability. If your partner contacts you, make every effort to either answer the phone, text, or email back immediately. If there were frequent communication dark periods during your affair, your partner will respond to your unavailability with increased anxiety, which leads to lack of trust.
- If after ending the affair you are still contacted by the affair partner, tell your partner of the contact. You may resist doing so out of fear it could lead to a fight, but if he or she finds out later about any further contact between you and your affair partner, trust will be weakened.
- Be honest about why you chose to have the affair. One way to not make the same mistake twice is to understand why you made the choices you did. Sharing the truth can be and often is very painful, but it is a vital aspect of the repair process.
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