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Getting Past the Affair

There’s no single sequence of events or universal timeline that works well for everyone.  The specific steps may vary depending on the factors contributing to the affair, your beliefs about forgiveness, your partner’s behaviors, and consequences of the affair for you or for others —   such as your children.  The steps we’ll describe over the next few pages represent a process that fits for many people.  Not all of these steps may be relevant or essential for your own moving on, and the order of these steps may be different for you.  Use the following discussion to think about what events seem important to you for moving on.  Which of these have you and your partner already achieved?  Which ones still lie before you — and how could you help to bring these about?

Recognition.  Step 1 involves the offending partner’s developing a clear understanding of what happened and its consequences. Were you able to have a thorough and helpful discussion about the impact of the affair?  If you didn’t complete the exercises for that chapter or if important aspects of understanding the impact of the affair still seem not to be recognized or understood, reread that chapter or ask your partner to read and discuss the chapter with you.

Responsibility.  Affairs don’t “just happen.”  They involve a decision — either explicit or implicit — to cross the line and engage in a behavior that almost always has been defined ahead of time by the couple as not acceptable.  Couples can get stuck in the recovery process, and injured partners can find it particularly difficult to move past their hurt if the participating partner persists in declaring, “I never meant to hurt you.”  Although usually not intended as such, this statement conveys a continued failure to take responsibility for avoiding or actively resisting an affair.  Injured partners frequently can’t move on until the person who had the affair takes responsibility for his choices throughout the affair.

Remorse.  What would it mean if someone hurt you, acknowledged what she had done, recognized the painful impact, and took responsibility for her actions — but then had no feelings of remorse for what she did?  That person would seem insensitive and uncaring, if not spiteful or even cruel.  Declaring and showing remorse are ways of saying “It hurts me to know that I’ve put you through such pain.  Your distress is now my distress — even more so because I’m the one who caused you to hurt.”  Remorse goes beyond accepting responsibility for hurting someone.  To have remorse is to feel deep sadness, mourning, or even pain from the hurt you’ve brought to another person.

Restitution.  When you do something wrong and hurt someone you love, often there’s a desire to do something good to make up for the wrong or to make the bad feelings go away; these are acts of restitution.  Although nothing can undo an affair, there are many things that someone can do to demonstrate feelings of remorse and perhaps reduce the distress of the injured partner.  For example, in responding to Wendy’s deep hurt from his affair, Ross told her:

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“I know that I can never make up for the terrible pain that I’ve caused you, and I will always feel horrible about that.  But I will try as best I can to show you my commitment to our marriage by being less selfish and treating you more kindly.  I know that it used to disappoint you that I spent much of my free time with my friends instead of with you, and I’m committed to changing that.  I used to ignore your needs for a break from the kids and time with your own friends, and I’m determined to make sure you have at least one evening each week to spend with your friends.  I can never undo what I did, but I can promise to do a better job of loving you.”

It’s important to distinguish between restitution and revenge.  Restitution is an attempt by the offending partner to balance the scales by doing important positive things.  By contrast, through revenge the injured person tries to balance the scales by retaliating with negative things toward the offending partner.  Revenge may feel satisfying in the short run, but it rarely promotes healing in the long run.

As an injured partner, you need to examine the extent to which making amends is important for you to move forward.  As a participating partner, it’s important to recognize that moving on past the trauma of your affair will probably occur sooner or more fully when you work at caring for your partner’s distress and nurturing your relationship.  This is important to do even if the injured partner doesn’t seem to acknowledge these efforts or doesn’t respond in a positive way.  You may have to persist at efforts to make restitution before things improve.

Reform.  It’s difficult to move beyond deep hurts unless you’re assured that the person who caused you harm has committed not to hurt you in that way again. Efforts by the participating partner toward reform include three steps:

1. Pledging never to hurt your partner in the same way again.
2. Addressing conditions that contributed to the affair.
3. Acting differently when confronted with similar situations in the future.

It’s not realistic for partners to promise never to hurt one another at any level or in any form.  But it is realistic to commit to avoiding certain hurtful behaviors — such as keeping secrets or engaging in inappropriate sexual or emotionally intimate relationships with others.  Pursuing reform involves addressing and minimizing the contributing factors that you and your partner have identified that previously placed your relationship at risk for an affair.  That includes not only addressing relationship issues such as levels of conflict or intimacy, but also continuing to work on individual issues (such as concerns about physical attractiveness or sexual adequacy) that contributed to having an affair. Promising to act differently is important to reform, but what’s essential is actually behaving differently when temptations or opportunities for affairs arise.  Evidence of reform helps to reestablish feelings of safety and trust that promote letting go of past hurts and moving on.

Taken from Getting Past the Affair by Douglas K. Snyder, Donald H. Baucom, and Kristina Coop Gordon. Copyright © 2007 Douglas K. Snyder, Donald H. Baucom, and Kristina Coop Gordon, published by Guilford Press. All rights reserved. Used by permission

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Getting Past the Affair