How Can You Mend A Broken Heart? (Affairs-Part 2)
Dr. Lynn Margolies
When you hear that another politician cheated on his wife, your first thought may be “It doesn’t surprise me.” Followed by, “How can she stay with him?” But no marriage (or gender) is immune, and up to 45% of marriages know this. In fact - most marriages not only survive, but even thrive beyond affairs.
Crisis forces us to mobilize - or face even greater pain, and thereby offers newfound opportunity for growth. When marriages approach destruction, the painstaking work of self-evaluation and behavior change seems worth it. Nevertheless, even after wounds are healed, trust violations leave behind a crack in the foundation of the relationship with the potential to reopen.
Of course, prevention is always easier than cure. Prevention involves awareness of risk and proactive thinking about what situations and mind-set could put each of you in harm’s way. Other protective action involves collaborative steps to minimize exposure to risk, increase awareness of the beginnings of temptation, and plan ways to resist.
Grudges, unhappiness/walling off, neglect and secrecy are common dangers to marriage. Relationships are easily taken for granted but require active attention, positive input, and care to stay alive. Unhappiness in either partner needs to be taken seriously and addressed with an active problem-solving approach. Talking openly does involve risk, but it is secrecy which destroys. If unhappiness is not resolved, it becomes walled off and insidiously contaminates the marriage, leaving it vulnerable to attempted escape through affairs or other acting out.
When trust is violated by having an affair, it shatters the underlying sense of safety in the relationship which, when in place, offers an intangible stabilizing shield. The secrecy involved in conducting an affair operates as an accomplice to carrying it out. Secrecy and betrayal are the hallmark of affairs and the central source of damage to the relationship.
Rebuilding the shattered foundation of the marriage is a prerequisite to working on longstanding marital issues. The key elements are: accountability, reparation, and restoring trust. Accountability means acknowledging responsibility for one’s own actions and bearing the cost. Included in taking responsibility is refraining from temptation to blame others. When a man (for example) has an affair, his wife’s role in the failure of the marriage, if that is the case, cannot be addressed unless he “owns” his behavior and understands its consequences.
Reparation involves understanding the need for making concrete concessions towards restoring trust and good faith. Reparation may include openness to scrutiny without defensiveness. This isn’t the time to assert “right to privacy” issues. Making amends includes honoring specific requests within reason that offer objective assurances, for example, allowing his wife access to his cell phone.
With credibility now at a deficit, the involved partner must now earn back trust, even when this feels discouraging or thankless. Trust is re-established gradually through unwavering reliability in doing precisely what is promised. Even minor infractions can re-open mistrust and impede healing.
Beyond mending damage caused by the affair, healing involves understanding what unmet needs were filled by the affair. This includes facing unresolved marital issues and expectations of marriage. The wife, in this case, must now take responsibility for her role in the mutually created marital dynamics. Change in both partners is usually necessary not only to heal from the affair, but to break out of patterns blocking intimacy. Ultimately, gaining a more accurate and mature picture of love and sex - and how that evolves over time - helps relationships endure as they go through their natural cycles.
A challenge for the couple as the relationship proceeds in the aftermath of an affair is avoiding the trap of the hurt partner assuming a martyred stance and holding a perpetual grudge. Here - the husband, driven by guilt and fear of loss, readily takes on the role of underdog. Trying to make up for past mistakes, he instead ends up defeated and demoralized. This pattern creates a power imbalance and leaves the marriage in a stalemate, again at risk.
In order for the marriage to work, hurt cannot remain pervasive, or be expressed through “digs” or withholding affection. If mistrust remains, the wife must make explicit what’s needed to move forward. Ultimately she must decide whether she can and wants to risk trusting again. If she cannot, the marriage is not viable and simply serves as a destructive vehicle to express resentment and punish.
In a healed relationship, both partners understand their roles in the dynamics which provided the backdrop for the affair, and are committed to preventing recurrence. They no longer feel trapped, or in the marriage by default. Instead, they make a renewed commitment, actively choosing the relationship. Partners in marriages which thrive after an affair hold a gut level awareness of the reality of loss, channeling it into a healthy vigilance and active appreciation of one another.