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Surviving an Affair

By Samantha De Bono

I don't know if you've ever experienced an affair first hand, maybe you've cheated, or perhaps you have been cheated on, but if you haven't, then let me tell you, the aftermath aint pretty!

Cheating can unearth the most devastating emotions all over the couple. That shit rains down like nothing else that hits a relationship. Couples go through all sorts of troubles, relationships stagger under the weight of a number of difficulties, but infidelity seems to be the ultimate trauma.

Having said that, statistics appear to reveal that over half of couple decide to try to salvage things rather than let the relationship go and in essence that's a good thing.  However, the healing isn't an overnight success and even the most dedicated couple can feel as though they're drowning under the weight of what's happened.

It's easy to think that the cheater has an easier time and that the hurt party is the one suffering the most.  That's not always the case.  The cheater can become overwhelmed with guilt and yet has difficulty conveying that to their partner. Resentment on both sides builds quite rapidly and distance becomes a safe space when trying to avoid a hostile environment. 

Being Heard:

First off, when an affair is first discovered, it is important that the hurt party articulates their pain and upset to their partner. This is a toe curlingly difficult time for the person who has cheated, because they have already got a pretty good idea of the trouble they have caused, but suck-it-up they must! This part of the process is for the hurt party to be heard. 

When a person finds out their partner has been cheating, they are caught up in a sea of emotions, they don't know whether they're coming or going, they feel hurt, anger, hatred, love, pain, fear, vulnerability, confusion, loss and many more overwhelming emotions that push them and pull them all over the place.  What is important is that they try to find the words to express what they're going through and it's highly unlikely that it's going to be an hour and then over and done with.  This stuff will come up for the weeks ahead and it's the responsibility of the cheater to listen.  Not listen to an onslaught of abusive language and behaviour, but listen to the feelings of their hurt partner.

A hurt partner needs to grieve and it's of course normal for the cheater to try to urge their partner to move on and get over it because it's so uncomfortable to sit in all those highly inflammable emotions, but unfortunately, when someone cheats, they have to accept that their actions have brought this down on the relationship and if they are to remain in their marriage, then this is all part of the process.

Part of the reason the hurt party tends to stay immersed in their pain, is because they cannot believe their partner has caused them so much pain and also that their partner doesn't seem to get the fact that they can't just move on from it and return to the pre-affair relationship.


In my work with couples I often hear the hurt party say "you haven't even apologised" when in fact, I can bare witness to the fact that the cheater has indeed apologised many times, but the hurt party isn't hearing it.  That's because a mere sorry just doesn't cut it. The relationship is in tatters, the couple are on the verge of ending all they've worked together for and "sorry" is just way too trite to cut any sway here.

The hurt party needs to believe that their partner really gets it! So how can that be done? The cheater feels at a total loss because they can't prove it will never happen again, they aren't believed when they say sorry and they can't rebuild trust overnight.

How to Apologise:

Once the cheater has listened without being defensive and has really heard their partner.  The cheater writes a letter to their partner. Not just an "I know I hurt you and I'm really sorry..." letter, but a letter that paraphrases and empathises with everything the hurt party has said. It's helpful if the letter can tell the hurt partner how the cheater intends to endeavour to put things right. This will go some way in showing the hurt party that they have been heard, understood and believed.  The letter is not about the cheater, it is about the hurt party.  The cheater is writing a letter about their hurt and wounded partner TO their hurt and wounded partner. 

Fake Forgiveness:

Another aspect of infidelity I see often in my work is one where the hurt partner fears the end of the marriage and so rushes into a sort of fake forgiveness.  They often take a great deal of the responsibility just so their partner doesn't leave.  This is enabling behaviour and often results in the cheater cheating again at some point in the future because they never truly took on board the devastation they caused.  If you have been cheated on, I'm not saying you shouldn't look at your part in the break down of the relationship, but I'm saying you do need to go through the grieving process and your partner does need to acknowledge the pain you're in.

Responsibility for the Breakdown:

In line with the paragraph above, it is important that even if only one person has cheated, that both parties look at their own part in where things started going wrong. The cheater must own up to the fact that there's no excuse for cheating, no matter how bad things got, there was always another way to work things out. The hurt party must own up to the fact that the relationship was in a bad place and each party has a part to play in that, no matter how minuscule that might be.

The Path to Recovery:

Once the couple is on a path to recovery, it is necessary to set some ground rules that are non-negotiable. For example, if during the affair the cheater took their mobile everywhere with them, it might be a good idea to agree that mobile phones are accessible to both parties all of the time.  If during the affair the cheater was writing and receiving messages, then a possible new ground rule would be to agree that the hurt party can read future messages.  This will ease insecurities which will lead to a rebuilding of trust and confidence.

Returning to Sex:

One of the most difficult parts of getting back on track, is sex.  It's normal for the hurt party to feel as though the 'other person' is in the bedroom and fear that their partner is thinking of the other person whilst having sex with them.  The unfaithful person fears that their partner is going to struggle with intimacy and often becomes distant or distracted by worry and this is often interpreted by the hurt party as disinterest and a lack of attraction.  After a partner has slept with someone else, it will take time to rebuild the physical part of the relationship, but talking to each other about their fears and insecurities without blame or anger, but with their hopes and desires for the future of their relationship, will eventually lead to physical vulnerability, sharing and trust.

Myth and Fact:

Is it true that "once a cheater, always a cheater"? in short, No.  Obviously there are 'players' out there, but from what I have seen as a Couples Counsellor, most cheaters are truly sorry for the hurt they've caused and want desperately to get their marriage back to a healthy happy place. I think what is important to recognise is empathy.  If a cheater is not interested in acknowledging fully the pain they have caused and what they need to do to put their partner's insecurities to rest, then trying to make the marriage work afterwards, could well be a hiding to nothing. 


After an affair or cheating, nothing feels normal for quite some time.  But in reality, a vast majority of long-term relationships go through an instance of infidelity.  This is not unique to your relationship, it's just that most people don't talk about it, mainly because they don't want to revisit the pain of that time of their lives now that they have come through the other side of it and the stigma of infidelity weighs heavy on couples. 

The Up-side:

After the meteoric trauma has subsided and life is looking like it is returning to something that resembles the relationship they wanted, it's worth knowing that many couples come through this stronger that ever and even feeling closer than they did before the affair.  The process of recovery builds an honesty that most couples didn't realise was possible before this and I've even heard couples say that strangely if it hadn't been for the affair they wouldn't be as good as they are today. Sometimes it takes something big to shake us up and make us realise what we have and how prepared we are to fight for it.

Letting it go:

There comes a time in the process that the hurt party needs to release their grip on the relationship and allow it to stand alone.  This is a scary time for the hurt person because they will fear that their partner will do it again if the leash is loosened. There is no evidence that the relationship will revisit this place again if the adulterer has listened and heard, empathised and paraphrased their partner's hurt and ground rules have been respected and kept in place, if the hurt party has acknowledge their role in the breakdown of the relationship too and both parties have committed to proving their willingness to re-energising the relationship. 

After an affair, the couple will go up and down, round and round on a ride that runs a gamut of emotions. One minute they will feel hopeful and excited about the progress they've made, the next they'll feel they've gone back to square one. However, if they do manage to stay on the ride with all its twists and turns, they can come off eventually a much stronger, united couple.