The immediate response after discovering a spouse's affair is commonly disbelief, anger, sadness, loss or grief. It can take several years before the betrayed spouse is ready to even consider forgiveness, even if the partner who cheated begs for it. And through the cheating partner may immediately feel remorse and repeat "I'm sorry" over and over again, that apology may not get past the betray'ed partner's outer layer of hurt.
However, it is possible to move on and rebuild after infidelity. I have identified three distinct phases of recovery from an affair: the crisis phase, the understanding (or insight) phase, and the vision phase.
The Crisis Phase
The first phase of affair recovery, the crisis phase, happens when an affair is disclosed or discovered. The initial shock and deep betrayal can rock your confidence, and make you feel like everything you have ever known is collapsing. It is important in this phase of the recovery after an affair to recognize that this is a phase -- you will get through this. This really difficult time will pass, and you will move into another stage.
Don't make any decisions now about what to do with your relationship. Take care of yourself and your family and hold onto those major decisions for a while. When the chaos has slowed down enough for you to breathe and look around, you may start to think more about whether or not you want to stay together and start a new monogamy.
Initially after infidelity, it can be difficult for you to envision a new, shared future. The one person you turned to in the past for support when you were in pain is now the person causing you pain. It can seem as if there's no one to turn to. You may now think of your relationship as a liability instead of your strength. You may feel lonely and confused. You may long for the partner who always served as the support system in your life, and that time of innocence before you discovered the affair.
There is a time lapse in the grief process. The person who had the affair has known about the infidelity ever since it began. If you are just now discovering the affair, you are at a totally different point in the process than your partner is. You have only begun to catch up.
The Role of Grief
A grieving process is normal after an affair. As you move through the grieving process, many emotions will emerge, possibly including anger, fear, denial, and eventually acceptance. You can feel as if you are grieving a death, and in many ways, you are. You are grieving the old vision of your marriage or relationship. This is true whether you decide to stay together or move on.
Both partners must grieve their losses if they are to build a new marriage. Grief is triggered by the loss of the future you thought you were headed toward together. Whatever ideas you had about how you would grow old as a couple, retire, have grandchildren, rock on the front porch together, or travel the world, the affair has now challenged that vision of a shared future. Grief is a process of letting go of that vision. And, interestingly, grief has a way of making room for a different future if you choose to create that possibility going forward.
The Understanding (or Insight) Phase
The second phase of affair recovery is the understanding (or insight) phase, and you will recognize when you are entering this phase when you start to look at how the affair happened. This second phase of affair recovery comes after the crisis has ebbed and you are moving past your intense anger and confusion. Although it can be a difficult time, this phase will help you to experience empathy for each other and can give you hope for the future if you decide you want to stay together. You may still not know whether you want to make things work for the long run, but you will be able to do some of the work on your past to find out.
Understanding the affair and how it happened will help you to get clearer about what led you both to this point in your lives. This means you both need to explore the meaning of the affair. During this second phase of affair recovery, you may begin to wonder where your responsibility lies for what happened in your relationship. This is not about assigning blame, but a time to deconstruct the affair and the history of your marriage or relationship, to find out where the roots of the infidelity began.
Starting to understand the affair can answer many of the questions that you may feel are still unanswered. Some of your frustration may be relieved at that point, and you may be ready to make some decisions about your relationship going forward.
Moving Past Blame
If both partners are willing and ready to move into healing, you will notice a shift happening. Instead of feeling polarized into the good spouse and the bad spouse, the two of you will begin to realize that you each share responsibility for what happened in your relationship before the affair. There was most probably a dynamic in your marriage that contributed to the affair. When you start becoming aware of this shared dynamic, the recovery process becomes a shared experience between the two of you. The affair may even eventually move from being "his affair" or "her affair" to being "our affair."
When you start to feel this shift, it means you are moving into the next stage of your affair recovery. You are moving from the Insight phase into the Vision phase, where you are ready to look at a new future and a new monogamy, together.
The Vision Phase
When you reach the third phase of affair recovery, the vision phase, it is time to make some decisions about staying together, or letting go and moving on. Here you can decide about whether or not it is possible to create a new future together. To do this, you should be clear about what your new monogamy will look like. In my new book, The New Monogamy, there are distinct steps for developing that new relationship, together.
The New Monogamy challenges the common view that an affair has to mean the end of a relationship. Monogamy as we know it is changing in our world and in our culture. Our ability to remain monogamous is becoming more difficult in an age when cheating is easier than ever. Marriage as we know it will be totally different by the end of this century. The couples that manage to stay together and make it work will be the ones who decide to create fluidity and flexibility in their partnerships, and find ways to make monogamy work for them.