Affair discovery is one of the most traumatic things that can happen in a relationship. Many people who have not experienced infidelity do not understand how earth-shattering discovery can be.
For the partner involved in the affair, their private fantasy world is shattered. Once the secret is out, there can be extensive consequences. It may spread beyond the confines of the primary relationship to family, friends, coworkers, even strangers. For the betrayed partner, discovery may call every belief they had about themselves, their partner, and their relationship into question. Both partners experience a shift that changes the world they thought they knew.
As the involved partner, there are several things to consider if you wish to heal after discovery. One of the most important elements of recovery is honesty. But how to release the truth without destroying hopes of reconciliation?
If you do not give the truth, your partner will create it.
In my practice, I see couples in every stage of infidelity recovery. The crisis stage usually follows discovery. I call it the “data gathering” stage. In this stage, hurt partners tend to be haunted by the affair. They may think about it from the moment they wake to the moment they go to sleep. Many cannot find peace even in their dreams. Some wake in the middle of the night with anxiety, anger, and sadness.
Asking, begging, or demanding the truth is often an attempt to ground themselves. It’s a way to find reality again.
Betrayed partners may have active and vivid imaginations. If they do not have the answers they seek, they will create them. Hearing the truth, even when hurtful, allows them to release worst-case scenarios. Think the truth is bad? They likely imagine much worse. The truth will hurt, but it will probably be less hurtful than their assumptions and thoughts about what happened. Releasing the truth provides the cognitive space to rebuild trust over time.
A couple wishing to recover from infidelity does well when they agree to work through the trauma to build a new, stronger relationship. Part of the rebuilding process involves destruction of beliefs and falsehoods that plagued the relationship in the past. Many betrayed partners will ask the same questions again and again and (perhaps unconsciously) compare responses. Each confirmed truth is a brick in rebuilding trust and goodwill. It serves offending partners well to see these questions as a sign that the betrayed partner is invested in healing.
Offer answers before they ask.
Unfortunately, many involved partners adopt the belief that answering only the questions that are asked minimizes the damage. This idea may make recovery more difficult as it sends a message that the involved partner is holding back. Recovery tends to be more effective when the truth is released in a stream rather than in a trickle. Free-flowing truth, even when painful, will (eventually) help to rebuild trust.
The truth must come out, and the sooner the better. Involved partners may do themselves and their partner more harm as they release truths in small doses.
Some couples find it helps to set aside a predetermined amount of time to answer questions. This allows both partners to prepare. The involved partner can help the recovery process by initiating. When asking questions, the hurt partner may be less likely to be overcome with the buildup of anger.
Revealing the truth early may mitigate the deeply painful stories the hurt partner creates in their mind. The truth must come out, and the sooner the better. Involved partners may do themselves and their partner more harm as they release truths in small doses. Many hurt partners increase their investigation efforts when they sense information is being withheld. The truth is necessary to heal, or at least most of it. I caution involved partners to be mindful about vivid details of sexual experiences, as those can do more damage if the hurt partner hasn’t asked for them.
Avoid being defensive.
If a hurt partner wants to stay in the relationship, they want to rebuild trust. Many involved partners find this difficult to believe when the hurt partner acts out of anger or other emotions. The hurt partner does not want to be hurt. They want to believe in love, their relationship, and their partner. When they experience lapses of emotional control, it is important to remember they want to heal even when it seems otherwise. An angry or defensive response to a hurt partner may make recovery more difficult. This does not mean an involved partner should accept abuse; no one deserves to be abused. An involved partner who is able to see through the surface anger to the real hurt underneath can express the empathy needed to recover.
Defensiveness, counterattack, avoidance, or blame send a message to hurt partners that the relationship is still in danger. It tells them the involved partner isn’t committed to working toward resolution. These messages damage the chances of recovery. A hurt partner may behave in ways even they cannot believe. Allowing them grace as they work through this trauma assists in laying the groundwork for a successful recovery.
Honesty is paramount for healing in the wake of an affair. The simplicity of honesty does not make being honest any easier, however. Being honest may seem counterintuitive; why would you want to add fuel to a raging fire of hurt? The answer: to show the goal is to restore trust and heal. Yes, revealing the truth can be painful. It may seem sadistic to reveal things you worked so hard to protect your partner from. But your relationship may depend on it.
For help with affair recovery, contact a licensed therapist.
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