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SALT LAKE CITY — The first article in this series covered how to take preventative steps in order to avoid vulnerability to one or both partners engaging in an emotional affair. But what should you do if the emotional affair has already taken place?
Emotional affairs create wounds in relationships that sometimes seem impossible to heal. My clients who come to therapy seeking help for recovery from emotional affairs often report feeling blindsided and heartbroken. Trust is broken, and both partners are left feeling helpless and confused.
Recovery from emotional affairs can be a long process. The good news is that an emotional affair doesn’t have to mean the end of the previous relationship, and in fact I have seen couples build a better and stronger relationship than they had before the affair took place. However, certain steps need to be taken in order to heal the relationship.
1. Allow your partner to work through his or her emotions.
Once an emotional affair is exposed, even if it ended long ago, it is new to the partner receiving the information and will take time for them to process through the emotions that are inevitable. Often, I will see partners in this situation at very different points in their emotional processing. For the partner who engaged in the affair, he or she has had time to process what happened. The other partner, however, has just begun to process the information and will need time.
Being patient with each other is vital if the relationship is going to be saved. The partner who has learned of the affair will need to feel and experience emotions fully in order to start the healing process. Trying to hurry this process along is a mistake because doing so will prevent deep healing from happening.
2. Have a discussion about expectations and boundaries.
There is no doubt that an emotional affair changes a relationship. The silver lining in such a difficult situation is that the affair can facilitate communication between partners about their expectations of the relationship and each other. When I've seen a couple in therapy reeling from an emotional affair, there has generally been lack of communication and connection, usually on a physical and emotional level, in the relationship before the affair occurred. For the most part, couples have lost touch with each other on many different levels, and this is an opportunity for them to find each other again.
The discussion about boundaries is a must. As a person works through the knowledge that a partner has engaged in an emotional affair, there may be physical or emotional boundaries that need to be put in place in order to create safety, which is an important part of healing. Boundaries about contact with the other party involved in the affair should also be discussed. In an ideal world, the other party and person involved in the affair would cease contact, but this is not always possible, especially if the affair occurs with a co-worker. Limiting interaction and deciding as a couple what any interaction, if necessary, will look like is vital to rebuilding trust.
3.Identify the chinks in the armor of your relationship.
Chinks in the armor can be many things including lack of communication or miscommunication, emotional distance from each other, lack of sexual and emotional intimacy in the relationship or not knowing your partner fully. This list is certainly not exhaustive and will look different for every couple.
In my professional experience, I have found that if both people in a relationship can take some responsibility for the relationship and its weaknesses, healing is much faster and more efficient. It is easy to think that the culprit or “problem-causer” is the partner who had the affair. This thinking can cause defensiveness and precipitate issues that existed in the relationship prior to the affair. It is paramount that both partners look at their relationship and avoid placing blame on each other. Looking at one’s ownership can be empowering and can lower defenses and facilitate communication. Identifying and repairing the chinks in the armor will make the relationship stronger and will likely prevent future issues from occurring.
4. Seek help individually and as a couple.
Seeking assistance and guidance from a professional can give both parties support and a road map to guide them through healing. The most effective combination I have found is for a couple to engage in both individual and couples therapy. Individual therapy will help each partner to work through the emotions related to the affair and help each to identify how specific behaviors or thinking have impacted the relationship and made it more susceptible to problems. Couples’ therapy can be a good place for both parties to discuss difficult, high-emotion issues, including the affair itself and the impact on both partners. Couples’ therapy can also be a place to negotiate boundaries and expectations.
Having support from loved ones can also be helpful. A word of caution: If you find that your loved ones tend to put down or verbally bash your partner, you may need to re-evaluate whether that person is going to be helpful to you in your healing process. Partner bashing is often not helpful in trying to rebuild a relationship. Seek someone who can be at least somewhat objective and be a sounding board for you as you work through the process of healing the relationship.
5. Have patience with the healing process.
The process of recovering from an emotional affair is neither fast nor easy. An emotional affair will bring forth major issues that already existed in the relationship and will cause both partners to re-evaluate themselves and the roles they play in the relationship. Each partner will heal at his or her own pace and this must be respected.
The good news is that healing is very possible. In the third part of this series, I will cover how to thrive in your relationship as you move forward from an emotional affair or any other type of hardship.
Anastasia Pollock, MA, LCMHC, is clinical director at Life Stone Counseling Centers. Learn more about her by visiting lifestonecenter.com or email firstname.lastname@example.org.