NYC Psychotherapist Blog

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Wednesday, September 23, 2009

Learning to Trust Again After an Affair

In the last article I introduced the general topic of  Learning to Trust Again - Coping with Betrayal.

In this article I would like to focus on a particular topic related to learning to trust again: Finding out that your spouse or partner is having an affair.

Trust is the foundation of any relationship:
Trust is the bedrock of any relationship. Without trust, few relationships survive and those that do survive in some form are often filled with suspicion, recrimination, anger, resentment, and sadness. There are few things more shattering to trust in a relationship than finding out that your partner is having an affair. Regaining trust, once it has been breached, is a major challenge.

Learning to Trust Again After an Affair

Partners who discover affairs often talk about their feelings in terms of "before I found out about the affair" and "after I found out about the affair":
The feelings associated with the discovery of the affair become an emotional dividing line for the spouse who feels betrayed. 

Typical comments are "Before I found out about the affair, I thought we were happy and that we'd be together forever, but after I found out about the affair, I felt like my whole world was turned upside down" or "Before I found out about the affair, I felt so secure in my marriage, but after I found out that he was having an affair, I felt like I didn't know my husband any more, I didn't know myself, and I questioned everything after that" or "Before I found out that my wife was having an affair, I thought I was such a lucky guy to have such a great wife who loved me, but after I found out that she was cheating on me, I felt like a fool."

Discovering infidelity has become more common with the advent of cell phones, email and other forms of communication that have been developed in the last 10 or 15 years:.
Spouses can find out about affairs inadvertently by stumbling upon the information by accident or, if they're suspicious, by actively searching telephone numbers and pictures stored in cell phones, looking at cell phone bills, reading their spouse's email, listening to their spouse's saved telephone messages, looking at a computer browser's history or finding other common telltale signs of infidelity. Once the spouse discovers signs of infidelity, it then becomes a question of what to do about this discovery.

Emotional reactions to discovering infidelity vary, but there are some common reactions:
Shock and denial are two common reactions: "This must be a mistake," "I must be imagining things--he would never do this," "There must be some other explanation." Anger and profound sadness are also common reactions. Many people confront their partners with whatever they've found, often hoping that their partners will give some explanation that will confirm that it's all a mistake. In most cases, this is no reflection on the intelligence of the spouse who has discovered the information. Most often, it's a deep wish, in the face of everything, to preserve his or her own emotional security as well as to save their relationship.

If the spouse having the affair lies about it, the betrayed spouse might go along with it, colluding in the lie, at least on the surface. But often, deep down, he or she really knows that it's a lie. Another common reaction is for the spouse to say nothing to the partner and to continue to "monitor" the situation by snooping and policing the partner's activities until he or she has gathered enough evidence to confront the partner. For other spouses, it becomes a matter of evening the score by going out and having their own affair. This is usually a misguided attempt to get revenge and to feel that they're attractive and sought after by others. Not only does this not work, but it makes the situation worse.

Whatever the initial reactions might be, both people have decisions to make:
If the partner continues to lie about the affair or blame the spouse, if there are no feelings of remorse, most relationships don't last. Trust cannot be regained under these circumstances. At the very least, the partner needs to admit that he or she made a mistake, feel genuine remorse about it, and end the affair for there to be any hope of regaining trust in the relationship. Then, the couple can decide individually and as a couple whether they want to pick up the pieces of their relationship and try to put them back together again.

For some couples, once trust is shattered, it's so damaging that even if they both decide to work on their relationship, they can't get passed what happened. For them, it becomes a very painful emotional crisis in the relationship that cannot be overcome.

Even if they move on to other relationships in the future, if each partner doesn't work through what happened in the relationship where there was infidelity, they often carry this emotional baggage into their next relationship in one form or another or it becomes so damaging that they're unable to have new relationships.

Without the benefit of working out these issues in psychotherapy, spouses who felt betrayed in the prior relationships often have difficulties trusting in future relationships. This can result in their mistrusting their own judgment, mistrusting others, closing themselves off emotionally and, in some cases, isolating themselves and deciding to remain alone. Or, they can carry their emotional wounds and feelings of betrayal into the next relationship. They might continually look for signs of infidelity where there are none and ruin an otherwise good relationship.

If the partner who cheated moves on to other relationships in the future without any self exploration about why he or she was unfaithful in the prior relationship, he or she runs the risk of cheating again in the next relationship. So many factors might have contributed to his or her infidelity, including growing up in a dysfunctional home where one or both parents were unfaithful to each other, fear of getting close in his or her primary relationship, a lack of empathy for his or her partner, and so on. Working through these issues in either couples counseling or individual psychotherapy can help prevent a repetition of these same mistakes over and over again.

For other couples, regaining trust is a challenging process but, over time, they're able to rebuild and regain the sense of trust, step by step, in their relationship, usually with the help of an experienced psychotherapist. In other situations, a couple might establish somewhat of a truce, but anger and suspicion remain. In those situations, the affair might temporarily recede into the background, but it's still there, just under the surface as a point of contention, waiting to be resurrected in other arguments.

Each relationship and each person in the relationship is unique, and it's hard to say with any degree of certainty what enables one relationship to survive infidelity and another to end:
Often, couples who survive infidelity have a sense that they've invested too much emotionally and they have too much at stake not to try to work it out, especially if they have children. They're willing to look at the dynamics of their relationship to understand how each of them might have contributed to their problems. 

Some couples even come out of this experience with a stronger commitment to their relationship. If the spouse who feels betrayed can forgive and if the partner who had the affair does some soul searching and genuinely recommits to the relationship, the affair might become a part, albeit a painful part, of their history and they can move on to strengthen their relationship.

Couples who are in crisis can benefit from participating in couples or marriage counseling with a licensed psychotherapist if they seek help early on:
An experienced psychotherapist can help couples in crisis to either work through the crisis or to decide to end the relationship in a healthier way than they might be able to do on their own.

Often, the key to working through problems in a relationship is not to wait until it's too late. This might sound self evident, but many people don't realize this or don't recognize the period of time in their relationship when couples counseling would be optimal. It's not unusual for couples to come to marriage counseling as a last ditch effort when one or both of them really know that it's over. Or, they wait too long and one of the partners wants to save the relationship and the other partner really knows deep down that it's over but doesn't want to appear uncooperative so he or she goes along with the counseling for a while, but it's really too late.

Getting Help in Therapy
If you've discovered that your partner has been unfaithful or if you are the one who has been unfaithful, regaining trust in your current relationship, future relationships and in your own judgment is challenging but, with professional help, it's often possible.

About Me
I'm a New York City psychotherapist, hypnotherapist and couples counselor. 

I have helped many individual adults and couples to work through times of crisis in their relationships to regain trust and confidence.

To find out more about me, visit my website: Josephine Ferraro, LCSW - NYC Psychotherapist

To set up a consultation, call me at (917) 742-2624 during business hours or Josephine Ferraro, LCSW - NYC Psychotherapist.