You’re afraid to look, but there’s a nagging feeling you should. Your relationship with your husband has grown distant in the past couple of years. You don’t go on dates anymore. If you have sex once a month, that’s a lot.
You give in to temptation and search for him on the Ashley Madison hack list, expecting to be relieved when you find he’s not there. You enter his information, click search, and hold your breath.
You can’t believe it.
Since the identities of millions of members of Ashley Madison—a site that facilitates infidelity under the motto “Life is short, have an affair”—were revealed, therapists (myself included) have received numerous calls from people who found partners on the site. But they’re not the only ones seeking help; Ashley Madison members anticipating being found out by their partners are also reaching out.
Couples face an arduous challenge after the discovery or confession that one partner has cheated. Trust, the foundation upon which relationships are built, falls into a sinkhole.
I’ve witnessed excruciating anguish from couples affected by infidelity. Shock, denial, grief, rage, guilt, shame, fear, remorse, and self-loathing are common responses. Sudden death has befallen the relationship that existed before the infidelity.
In the therapy room, partners say things like:
- “I can’t believe this is happening. My entire world has imploded.”
- “I wake up thinking this is a bad dream, but it’s not.”
- “Does this mean our entire marriage was a lie?”
- “I don’t know who you are.”
- “I’m so ashamed. I wish I could take it back.”
- “I didn’t mean to hurt you. I never thought you’d find out.”
- “I hate myself. I never thought I’d be ‘that person.’ ”
Many people maintain that if their partner ever cheated, they would leave; that is, infidelity is a deal-breaker. Yet when it happens, decisions about separating are not often so simple. Finding out you’ve been betrayed doesn’t mean your love for the person evaporates. And if you have children, choosing to separate or divorce is a more complicated decision.
Couples in marriage counseling because of infidelity begin a long road to recovery. In the first session, I tell them the statistics are against them. In her book, Not “Just Friends”: Rebuilding Trust and Recovering Your Sanity After Infidelity, Dr. Shirley Glass states that only 35% of marriages survive an affair. I also let them know that coming to therapy shows courage and hope, and that couples can and do recover if they commit to the work it takes.
The marriage a couple had before infidelity wasn’t working; a new relationship must be forged one day at a time. It must be deeper, more authentic, and more intimate than the previous relationship. The new foundation will rest upon growth resulting from the painful journey of communicating about the affair and what happened to the marriage, with the therapist as a guide.
This process is not for the faint of heart. It takes tremendous strength to walk this path, especially when others around you may be asking why you haven’t left yet. I have tremendous respect for couples who take this journey.
Here are five keys to saving your marriage after Ashley Madison (or any affair, for that matter):
1. Work with a Trained Marriage Therapist for at Least Six Months to a Year
Find a therapist who has been trained in and specializes in working with relationships and infidelity. Couples must talk through the details of the affair; its impact on the non-affair-having partner; and the remorse of the partner who cheated. Then there is the task of figuring out why the affair happened:
- Why did the partner look outside the relationship?
- What was the meaning of the infidelity?
- What was missing from the marriage?
- What baggage from each partner’s past contributed to the distance in the relationship?
- How intimate was the emotional and sexual connection?
- What will ensure that the connection will become deeper and more authentic over time?
2. Stop Perpetrating Further Hurt Upon Each Other
One of the hardest parts of the recovery process is to cope with pain expressed as anger. The non-affair-having partner may feel justified in expressing intense rage at his or her partner in session and at home, and expect the affair-having partner to just take it. Of course feelings of anger must be expressed, but doing so in a destructive or abusive way perpetrates more harm.
Partners must find constructive ways to release rage, talk about their feelings, and use self-soothing techniques when they feel their anger is escalating. Deep breathing, taking a timeout, talking with an individual therapist, journaling, or physical activity are just a few examples to lower the physiological responses of anger.
3. Dig Beneath the Anger to Find the Hurt, Sadness, and Pain
Anger is the easiest feeling to express; it elicits a sense of strength, control, and power. However, anger is a fraud. Right beneath its surface is pain, hurt, and sadness.
When a person expresses intense anger, I ask, “What are you sad about?” Inevitably, the person wells up with tears. A remorseful partner can more easily empathize with hurt and sadness than anger. Therein lies the deepest connection.
4. Practice Effective Communication and Conflict-Management Skills
Using the skills of listening, expressing empathy, being assertive, and managing conflict is vital in this process. A relationship therapist can coach couples on these skills. These are the tools that will serve to build more authenticity and depth in the new, post-affair relationship.
5. Harness the Patience of a Saint
Couples who engage in this work must have more perseverance and determination than they’ve had before. Rebuilding of the new relationship happens one brick at a time. In this day and age, where people expect immediate gratification, the challenge can be daunting.
Recovering from infidelity isn’t easy, but it is worth the effort. You can discover a relationship, a connection, an authenticity that you’ve never had.
“More marriages might survive if the partners realized that sometimes the better comes after the worse.” —Doug Larson
The preceding article was solely written by the author named above. Any views and opinions expressed are not necessarily shared by GoodTherapy.org. Questions or concerns about the preceding article can be directed to the author or posted as a comment below.