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Staying WHOLE after an affair

Written by Cecilia Ding, Associate Marriage and Family Therapist (AMFT#136122) and U.S. Certified Self-Growth Coach. This blog and others can also be found on Cecilia's website, ceciliading.com.


Affairs are often seen as the fatal blow to a marriage. They can come at any stage

of a relationship. It can come during the anticlimax of initial passion, stem from

the boredom of daily routine after many years, result from the fatigue of raising

children together. Somewhere along the way, familiarity have transformed into

disconnection. In the quest for the intimacy essential to everyone’s sense of

belonging, you lose sight of each other and set out in search for new emotional

stimulations.


Whether it is an emotional or physical affair or both, it doesn’t have to be the end

of a relationship. Many say this is a deal-breaker. It certainly can be a death

sentence if neither side is willing to do the hard work of reconciliation(or if the

relationship posed physical danger to either party before or after the affair).

However, when something this painful occurs, it can equally lead to a

transformation for the relationship as well as the individuals involved. Often the

affair is only the symptom of what was wrong within the relationship. It serves as

the ultimate alarm for the healing to begin. It is not for everyone. The trauma can

be overwhelming. Seeking an alternative path can seem easier than staying with

the pain. The relief from the separation, however, can only be temporary if the old

patterns are perpetuated into new relationships. It will take the ultimate courage

to face the consequence of this emotional wound with your partners. Boosted by

the history of the love existed within the relationship before the affair, both the

perpetrators of the affair and the victims of it can find a deeper sense of love by

waging brave inner battles.


For the courageous few, here are some milestones each relationship marred by

affair must achieve in order to come out stronger together:


1. Witness the Pain: The person who has broken the trust must first own the

responsibility and acknowledge the pain caused regardless if they feel

they were “driven” to the affair due to mistreatment(One caveat: if this

mistreatment is physical abuse, then the person must seek safety first

and foremost with or without an affair). Only the person betrayed has felt

seen for his or her wound can the relationship start to build trust again.


2. Heal the Wound: After the pain and damage of the affair has been

acknowledged, both must have periods of healing. Both partners, if

sincere, would have suffered. Whether it is pain from guilt or the pain

from loss of trust. The process is different for everyone, just as the time

needed will vary for each. Healing in this case mean keeping some

distance. Loyalty will demand some silence. Not reacting to the ups and

down of moods will be difficult but necessary. Persistence will be key.


3. Observe the Past: Once enough temporal and emotional distance have

been established, the affair must be examined. The help of a competent

couple therapist would be invaluable in this process. Opening the wound

is traumatic and can, if not properly done, create new trauma that further

damage the relationship. A safe environment and a balanced view from a

mental health professional would be crucial for an open dialogue. While

the person who committed affair has to bear the responsibility for the

betrayal, both parties must remain open to sharing the responsibilities in

repairing the relationship going forth. This is a pivotal point in the

recovery and is possibly the longest phase. It is not just suturing the

wound of the affair but also uncovering all that caused pain for each

within the relationship, before and after the affair.


4. Love yourself: If step 3 is progressing along smoothly, which usually

means 3 steps forward and 2 steps back, you are slowly getting over a

crisis. You are still unsure if the relationship will survive, but the pain is

not as palpable on a daily basis. The safety alert in your body will begin

to take some time off from the fight/flight mode. As both parties begin

to adapt to a new reality and seeing each other in a new light,

transforming the relationship with ourselves will be a crucial component

for the healing process. The individual is the fundamental unit of a

relationship. If there is a void in the love one has for the self, it will

inevitably compromise the quality of the relationship. You cannot change

the way you relate to each other unless there is a new way of relating to

yourself. Create time and space to love yourself in whatever form rings

true for you.


5. Evolve together: Once you like yourselves better and can reduce the

baggages the old selves have brought to the relationship, you are truly

ready to re-connect with each other. This will not be simply recovering

what you had lost from the affair. This will be reinventing your

relationship: rediscovering things about each other and creating new

connections. This is truly the beginning of a new romance that will

deepen the love for each other. The renewed connection will be based

on the things that had always been there but are only now visible

because the new way you relate to each other. At the same time, it will

also be founded upon the changes in each of the partner along the

recovery journey. This is what makes all the hard work in steps 1 to 4

more than worth it.


These milestones are just the beginning. Relationship must be maintained

regardless if you had been through an affair or just maintaining intimacy in a long

term relationship. As you go forth into this new life, you must make time for each

other, especially if you have kids. You must treat your partner as the priority in

your lives, even if the bulk of your time will be devoted to work and raising

posterity. Ultimately, recovering from affair is a hero’s journey. After all

said and done, there is no guarantee. You must be willing to invest yourselves

whole-heartedly in steps 1 to 5 without certainty of outcome. At the end of this

hero’s journey might not always be reconciliation. If you are willing to put in the

effort, one thing the journey can guarantee is that you can still find love within

yourself for all things and people around you. That love will allow you to remain

WHOLE within or without the relationship.

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