“The cruelest lies are often told in silence.” — Robert Louis Stevenson
There is no bigger paradigm shift that a relationship experiences than in the aftermath of disclosing or discovering an affair. The betrayal cuts deep and shreds not only the trust between the couple, but often the ability to trust one’s own judgment and the agreements that we believed defined our lives. Less than a third of all couples who encounter the experience, which is more than half of all of us, actually heal the experience. Many couples never get beyond the initial crisis that the affair creates, choosing to leave the relationship with their wounds intact and the rest of the relationship in tatters.
Often this knee jerk response is a result of fear and ignorance. The pain and instability it creates feels all-consuming and we don’t know how to navigate the process. Considering how prevalent the experience of affairs is, there has been little education about the process of recovery that can renew a relationship and even spark a whole new level of physical intimacy. Culturally we are trained to vilify the betrayal and rarely consider that the affair may not represent pathology in the relationship but rather be an essential wakeup call that offers an important opportunity to redefine and renegotiate what your monogamous relationship and commitments mean to each of you.
Dr. Tammy Nelson, author of Getting the Sex You Want, is leading the way on the research on affair recovery for her new book, “The New Monogamy”. In our recent interview, she shared, “Often affairs are like viruses, in that they are opportunistic and they feed on a part of oneself that is kept underground, unknown even to oneself. ”
Affairs are one of the most important wake-up calls, too. But we don’t have to always jump to our initial response of trashing the relationship from the moment of discovery. The recovery process is rich with the opportunity to really see aspects of your partner and depths in your relationship of which you were probably unaware. Processing the crisis requires establishing emotional safety and an agreement to not make any immediate decisions. It is a time that demands the courage to address the painful effects of the affair to the relationship while allowing the room for the volatile emotions that need venting. Because an affair is an erotic injury to the relationship, it has to be dealt with in the erotic lives of the partners. Reclaiming your sex life is critical to recovering from an affair.
Taking the steps to reconnect intimately can feel like pouring salt on an open cut. This is especially true if your attempts to understand the affair are demanding a full disclosure of events. The more time spent on the detective work of who, what, where and how the affair happened, the more painful will be the attempts to re-connect. Opening up and dealing with the insecurity and uncertainty of this fragile time can become quickly impossible if the meaning of what happened gets overrun with its details. Learning to ask for what you really need to know in your heart and not your mind is a big step towards discovering a path towards a newly defined relationship — whether it be reconciliation or separation.
Successfully working through these painful passages depends on developing a whole new level of empathy. Empathy exists between people in the field out beyond right and wrong. It takes and holds both partners’ experiences equally and creates a kinship of shared humanity. Asking questions that allow both partners to focus on why the affair happened and what it meant to each of them is an entirely different kind of discussion. Having the courage and curiosity to want to know what your partner learned about his or her self with someone else and what it felt like for them to feel like they were betraying you even as they had their own needs met is where a new intimacy can be born.
Beyond the guilt, shame and anger that classically defines the experience of infidelity lies an untapped depth of knowing another person’s erotic needs and desires and being able to learn to reveal your own. It is rich with sexual energy that can actually reinvent the monogamous contract you are grieving. Seeking forgiveness or even granting it mentally or verbally will not end the affair; there will always be someone else in the bedroom until both partners re-engage intimately with a new shared understanding and agreement about the sharing of their erotic selves.