Is it possible to rebuild trust in a relationship after an affair? Dr David Perl, specialist couples psychotherapist and founder of LoveRelations, believes this is one of the biggest challenges a couple faces.
“Over a third of the couples who come to LoveRelations are seeking help after the discovery of an affair” says David. “Sometimes the affair or infidelity isn’t just sex with another person. More and more we hear from partners reeling from the discovery that their partner uses pornography, is on a hook-up app, has webcam sex. Our modern digital age blurs the boundaries of what’s actually cheating and what’s not.”
The intense feelings of shock, hurt and betrayal are no less if the infidelity is a one-night stand or a long liaison with a co-worker or family friend. When an affair is discovered or revealed, the betrayed partner often finds himself or herself in a maelstrom of feelings.
“This is what we call the crisis phase,” says David. “The betrayed partner is expressing a mixture of anger, sadness, shock and deep loss of all he or she believed was solid.
“The partner who had the affair comes to therapy often with remorse, guilt and a desire to repair, but also with a sense of “how much apologising and explaining do?” The feelings of this partner are just as mixed and conflicted as the partner who feels betrayed.”
The crisis phase is the first step of recovery from infidelity. If a couple is to move beyond the hurt, blame and anger, the way in which the crisis phase is handled can make a real difference.
Ruth Perl, specialist couples therapist and co-founder of LoveRelations, says: “Couples therapy provides a safe space for these difficult feelings to be aired and contained within a safe space. It can be hard for a betrayed partner not to attack and blame and to believe that this hurt and mistrust will ever recede. For the other partner, witnessing their spouse’s hurt and rage can be unbearable.”
She says “In a LoveRelations session, we create a containing space where all these conflicting and powerful feelings can be aired, but we encourage a couple to leave a crisis session, leaving those feelings in the therapy room. Endless expression of hurt, anger and remorse, will allow no space for recovery of any sort.”
“We encourage couples to make no major decisions in the crisis phase. This is not a time to decide whether to stay or leave, although strong feelings often make us believe that any course of action is better than none.”
“If the relationship is to repair and reform, it is vital that the reasons for the affair are looked at honestly – with both parties able to state what it is they did or did not do, that brought the relationship to this crisis point.”
Ruth says that the crisis phase is also defined as the point when the so-called betrayed partner is hungry for information about the affair or infidelity. “Was he or she younger than me, more attractive, better in bed? What did you do, how did you do it, how often?”
“The demand for information seems forensic and all-consuming. The betrayed partner demands detail after detail; the other partner is often caught in the dilemma of knowing that each new detail heaps another hurt on to an already hurting and angry partner”
“This is the bit of the crisis phase which deserves careful handling,’ says Ruth. “The disclosure part of the crisis phase can be gruelling and agonising for both parties. We recommend that this is done in the presence of a trained and experienced therapist, who can contain difficult truths being spoken about, and the fall-out of further hurts and anger.”
David Perl, who has over twenty years’ experience working with couples in crisis, maintains that total honesty is the only answer at this stage. He says: “Many partners believe that they are sparing their partner more hurt by holding on to various bits of the affair – perhaps how long that it had been going on, that infidelity had occurred when the other partner was pregnant, tending a sick relative, during an anniversary or time of “specialness” as well as crisis – that sparing these very painful details will somehow spare further hurt.”
David is adamant that three things need to happen in the crisis phase, as well as all the expression of strong feeling: First and foremost, he maintains, the partner having the affair or betraying their spouse must commit to ending the affair or stopping the behaviour which constitutes the infidelity.”
“Contact must be severed,” he says. “No texts, no emails, no innocent meeting up. If the affair has involved cyber sex, or dating apps and sites, these must be deleted and the partner needs to make a commitment not to re-engage.”
Secondly, a full and honest disclosure needs to happen. “This can feel excruciating, and the temptation to tell half or partial truths is greater than he discomfort of revealing all those hurtful details,” says David. “However, trust can’t grow from half truths and unanswered questions. More pain and hurt and anger is inevitable, there’s no short cut”
“Expertly facilitated couples therapy allows this to be done in a safe environment. The individual sessions offered at LoveRelations helps partners process all the hurt and anger which unfolds. This is never a pain-free process but it can be worked through with an experienced therapist.”
“The third aspect often goes over-looked,” says David. “This is about boundaries and containment. The couple has to agree to put the questions and the disclosure “on hold’ till their next session. No one can withstand the high level of emotion for a long time, nor can they function in their day to day domestic or family lives if there isn’t a agreement to contain the questioning and disclosure.
“We’re not encouraging partners to shut down their feelings or to pretend that this crisis isn’t happening,” says David. “Our approach is to look at the affair in all its difficult detail in a safe, contained environment, and then left alone till the next time”
After the crisis phase comes the understanding phase. Ruth Perl describes this as “the “why” rather than the “what””. She says “if the crisis phases is about what happened, the second phase is about understanding why this happened.
Ruth also maintains that couples can still be unclear as to what they want to do. “Understanding the reasons for the affair or betrayal is a process. It’s only once the process has occurred and time and space allowed, can either party begin to think clearly. But understanding the reasons why the affair occurred is an important part of making the “where do we go from here decision”.
David Perl says: “The understanding phase may not be as highly charged with emotion as the crisis phase, but it can be just as painful. The partner who has cheated is called to take full responsibility for his or her actions. We frequently hear men and women admit they jeopardised their primary relationship “just because he/she was there” or “I wanted to feel excitement, validation”. Sometimes the betraying partner is acting out a particular sort of sex, a fantasy, fetish, different gender perhaps, in a way they believe they can’t incorporate into a relationship based on love, respect and domesticity.”
“Reasons for the affair or infidelity are rarely straightforward” says David. “Furthermore, both parties need to look at their part in allowing this to happen. It can be really difficult for a man or woman whose partner has cheated on them to want to look at how they might have contributed to the affair, but this they need to do, if a proper understanding is to be gained.”
David says: “Sometimes the betrayed partner wants to hold on to the blaming. He or she may be so hurt and angry that they refuse to accept that they play any part in the loss of connection between the couple.”
“Who wants to admit that their career, children, friends, caring for the house, has got in the way, when they have been hurt and betrayed? This is a very delicate bit of the understanding phase – it’s not about the betrayed partner making themselves wrong. It’s about both parties reflecting with rigorous honesty, how they may have contributed to disconnection that’s now occurred in their relationship”.
Ruth Perl says: “one of the most common things we hear is “I stopped making the effort to keep the sexual aspect alive.” It’s expressed in different forms, and it’s not the sole reason why people have affairs, but it’s frighteningly common.”
She says “some partners are amazed, angry even, that they should have to “work” at this aspect of their relationship. One of the things we encourage all couples at LoveRelations to consider, whatever the issue that brought them into therapy, is how do they nurture the physical side to their relationship?”
“For many couples, the more established the relationship, the more attention they both need to pay to the sexual side of the relationship. We don’t suggest that this makes your relationship immune from betrayal or hurt. We just see from our experience that couples who flourish work at the emotional and the sexual connectedness in their relationship.”
The “understanding phase” might be an acknowledgement that the sexual side to the relationship has waned. Sometimes couples will report that the emotional closeness has gone.
David Perl says: “sometimes the reasons are complicated. One man we are working with talks about turning fifty and fearing redundancy. His affair was about trying to hold on to some sort of youthful power.”
“Another woman at LoveRelations admits that after ten years of motherhood and a full time career, her affair began because a man was paying her attention, taking her to lunch, showing an interest in her.”
“The understanding phase is a vital part of rebuilding,” says David. “No relationship recovers with understanding alone but it’s the first step. We often say to couples “Here’s what went wrong: what are each of you able to do to mend this broken aspect of the relationship.’
David says: “And at this point we’re moving to the recovery phase. The recovery phase is dependant on both parties being able to say: “here’s what went wrong, here’s what I did or what I failed to do which led to this, and here’s what I’m going to do to ensure this doesn’t happen again.”
“It’s not always plain sailing in the recovery phase,” says David. “Often old hurts and resentments will surface again. We often hear the betrayed partner say “why should I make all this effort….” or the partner say “I can’t make all this effort when I’m constantly being questioned and accused.”
David says: “The recovery phase needs to be underpinned by a commitment from both parties: the partner who has committed the infidelity must now offer total honesty and transparency. He or she must make their timetable open, share honestly about their whereabouts, be where they are when they say they will be. This isn’t about control or atonement, it’s about making a commitment to restore trust.
“For the so-called betrayed partner, he or she must make a commitment to stop blaming, asking accusatory questions or using punishing behaviours. This is not about pretending that all is forgotten or forgiven, but about making an energetic commitment to move the relationship forward.
Does the recovery phase lead to forgiveness or to restoration of the relationship? David Perl says not. “The relationship can never, nor should it ever, be the same again. But the hope is, after the crisis and the hurt and anger, that both partners can begin to communicate more deeply with each other than they did before.”
As the renowned author and psychotherapist, Esther Perl, says: “When a couple comes to me in the aftermath of an affair, I often tell them this: Your first marriage is over. Would you like to create a second one together?”