Ask Adam: He Cheated — Now What?
I caught my partner of five years having an affair after peeking at his text messages. I am devastated.
He is apologetic but I don’t know if I can ever trust or forgive him. Am I crazy for still wanting him? Is there any hope for our relationship?
Where do we go from here?
Broken in Barcelona
Dear Broken in Barcelona,
The research shows that the majority of couples can repair after an affair.
The process of recovering from this crisis is similar to the process of recovering from any difficult emotional experience. You have to talk about it. A lot. On an honest, deep, and respectful level. This is how humans heal: we communicate.
Your partner must take responsibility for his actions. Part of that process includes discovering the underlying reasons why he had the affair.
He also needs to sincerely apologize and to do so repeatedly. He must keep listening, without getting defensive, about your feelings of betrayal.
For true healing, ultimately he will need to step into your shoes for a few moments and get a visceral sense of what betrayal feels like. This is called empathy.
Repair doesn’t happen with just one conversation. It has to occur over and over again.
It’s A Lot of Work
After a period of time your partner will want the conversation to end. He’ll get tired of hearing how he hurt you. He’ll get impatient with the process and want to move on. He may feel like he is being punished. However, if he wants to repair the relationship, he will need to tolerate the slow process of healing.
Your partner will need to practice the art of patience and understanding.
Your challenge, as the partner who has been betrayed, is to practice expressing your feelings again and again. You’ve got to identify your range of feelings and then communicate them clearly and respectfully. Attacking your partner and seeking revenge won’t move the process forward. You need to become more fully aware of the details of your feelings and expect that they will be heard.
Here’s the bottom line: we all want to be heard. It may be the most important experience we are seeking in a relationship. So relationship recovery is a listening process.
None of this is easy territory. It is best done within what therapists call a “strong container.” This could be a couples counselor’s office or it could be on your living room couch with the phone turned off, plenty of eye contact, and a shared commitment to the rules of good communication, such as no interrupting.
Often the crisis of an affair becomes an opportunity to look at and improve some of the ongoing issues within the relationship. It’s commonly the wake-up call that gets both partners motivated to do the scary work of improving their communication.
Affairs, just like untreated addictions or poor self-care habits, are methods of attempted escape from the worthwhile and challenging work of looking at what is really true about ourselves, our childhood experiences, and our relationships. They represent “acting out” of feelings rather than directly facing them with courage.
When we escape with any of these behaviors, we can expect to hurt ourselves and the people we love. Exploring our underlying, more vulnerable feelings is the essential recipe for healing our relationships. This is the road you will need to travel together.
Adam D. Blum, MFT is a licensed psychotherapist specializing in relationship and self-esteem issues for gay men. Adam offers services in his San Francisco office or by Skype and phone worldwide. Visit his website to subscribe to his e-newsletter and his free guide on building gay relationships. Follow him on Facebook and read his blog. Send your questions for possible publication to [email protected]. (Questions may be edited.)