The frequency of infidelity in marriage does nothing to assuage the shock and loneliness in its wake. Regardless of which side of an affair you occupy, you are likely to feel alone in it. And seeking help surviving infidelity may not even register with a starting point.
Cheating has similarities across the board — signs and patterns you can watch for in yourself, your spouse, and your marriage.
But let’s say you didn’t get the memo until it was too late. And now you don’t know if it’s really too late.
Affairs are as unique as the people playing all the roles. They reflect individual and collective histories, circumstances, needs, and development.
They are also remarkably textbook.
And yet, if you are the one discovering a spouse’s treason, the only thing “textbook” may be the lipstick on a collar. Everything else will seem deeply, excruciatingly personal.
Where, then, do you turn when your ally has become the traitor? How (and where) on earth do you find reliable, trustworthy help surviving infidelity?
There are things that lend themselves to a DIY effort, even when participating parties have differences in tastes and opinions.
But infidelity isn’t a Labor Day weekend gardening project. The quaked terrain is too volatile. And the tools necessary for recovery aren’t ones you will find in your shed.
The truth is, if you want to know how to save your marriage after cheating, you’re going to need expert help.
Even if your pain is so severe that you want to march straight to divorce court, you will still need help surviving infidelity. Sooner or later it will demand reckoning — if not in your current relationship, then in a future one.
And it will always demand reckoning in your own heart.
Why does the work of surviving infidelity warrant outside help? And how are you supposed to find it?
First of all, the emotions involved for everyone are complicated, fragile, vulnerable, and confusing.
Betrayers don’t always have “logical” answers for their behavior. And betrayed spouses are often surprised by the spectrum of emotions that come up for them.
The first criteria you should look for is couples counseling and not individual counseling.
If you are the betrayed spouse, your knee-jerk reaction may be to throw all responsibility onto your spouse. “You did this. You fix it!”
But you both know this isn’t a one-person job. You are two people trying to find your way back together across a chasm of painful emotions. And how do you even take the first step when trust has been sucked into the gulf?
Individual therapy does nothing to open conversation about the affair. It provides space for one person to share feelings, needs, and fears.
But it does nothing to create a safe place for both spouses to share and be heard in an effort to heal their marriage.
Dr.’s John and Julie Gottman have developed the Trust Revival Method, with three distinct stages of treatment: Atonement, Attunement, and Attachment.
The purpose of these stages is to carefully, methodically guide couples through delicate discussions about the affair, their own marital issues, and coming back together.
And you can accomplish none of this in individual therapy.
If your marriage is going to survive the betrayal of infidelity, both of you need to go into the details of the affair.
You also need to go into the details of your marriage — none of which caused or justify the affair, but which may need improvement.
Knowing what details are necessary and guiding couples through the discussion of them is a delicate balancing act.
And it’s not a process that two people with opposing needs and fears can handle themselves. It’s just…too…fragile.
Betrayed spouses, for example, are at risk of PTSD if their every curiosity is indulged. They may never be able to get pictures out of their heads or nightmares out of their sleep.
It takes expert guidance to provide an emotionally safe place where couples can risk trusting again. (Yes, even the cheating spouse needs to be able to trust that s/he won’t be forever punished for telling the truth.)
The truth of an affair is usually slow in its disclosure. And understandably so. Disclosing details about something so private — not only the what/where/how, but the why — is terrifying for penitent spouses.
Trust is re-earned at a snail’s pace. And there is nothing textbook about the process for either side, other than actions that need to be taken for it to happen.
Having experts who deal with this marital trauma every day gives your recovery protective guardrails. It provides structure, guidelines, rules of engagement, and lifetime tools for healthy communication.
And, if you have a husband-wife therapy team, you have what you will quickly find to be an essential balance of male and female energies.
You will also have the built-in benefit of learning healthy communication techniques by observing their own communication.
Finally, the element of time is critical to healing your marriage after infidelity.
Not only is it critical that you get to couples therapy as quickly as possible, but the time intensity of your therapy is also critical.
What do I mean by that?
When your marriage is in danger of ending because of something like infidelity, it needs critical care.
Both spouses need critical care.
If you’re going to a therapist once a week for an hour, then being dismissed for the next 167 hours….
Well, the math is its own answer.
You will go back into the throes of all the problems and heated, delicate discussions regarding your marriage and the affair.
How much will you realistically accomplish, let alone repair, in 45-60 minutes?
Chances are that more damage will be done and more pain and resignation will set in before your next appointment.
Research shows that learning in a time-intensive format, as in a marriage retreat weekend, has an exponentially expediting and permanizing effect.
Even if you continue with weekly couples therapy after an intensive weekend, the benefits to your marriage will be dramatic.
When you’re seeking help surviving infidelity, place your trust carefully.
Avoid exposing your marital problems to casual friends and on social media. Even tread lightly with family members, who will not be able to avoid a partisan response.
If you aren’t ready to give up on your marriage, despite the anger and hurt, choose your guidance wisely.
Seek the expert help that will get you farthest down the long road ahead.
And with hope.
Mary Ellen Goggin offers relationship coaching for individuals and collaborates with her partner Dr. Jerry Duberstein to offer private couples retreats. To learn more about working with Mary Ellen, schedule a ½ hour complimentary consultation.