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SALT LAKE CITY — In the first two parts of this series, I went over tips for preventing emotional affairs and ways in which a couple can cope if an emotional affair does happen.
One question I have gotten from my clients over the years: “Is it even possible for us to have a good marriage/relationship now that this has happened?” The good news is that, yes, it is possible to have a good marriage and, in fact, the marriage can be made stronger and better than it was prior to the affair.
Affairs don’t happen randomly. There are always underlying issues that can be traced back. Although it may feel as though the affair happened suddenly and unexpectedly, there are and have been signs that the relationship was suffering in some way.
Although an affair leaves behind damage, it can also be the thing that wakes a couple up to the fact that there have been problems in the relationship that need to be addressed.
So how can a couple move forward and even thrive after an emotional affair?
1. Communicate frequently: the good, the bad and the ugly!
This step is also one of the steps necessary to prevent emotional affairs from occurring in the first place, which I covered in part one of this series. After an affair has occurred, this step needs to be revisited and is absolutely vital in maintaining a relationship and preventing future problems.
The fact is that there are certain conversations none of us want to have. In the first article, I referred to problems and issues in a relationship as the elephants in the room. I like to think of problems in a relationship as things that usually start small but then grow into something that can become unmanageable.
In other words, baby elephants grow up to be bigger elephants that take up much more room in the relationship. It sometimes feels easier to ignore the elephants, and doing so may be easier in the short term.
However, those elephants will continue to grow and it will take more and more energy to keep ignoring them. When they continue to be neglected and ignored, they start to take a major toll on the relationship, affecting how partners feel about the relationship and each other.
As difficult as it sometimes is, a couple must acknowledge the elephants, talk about how they affect each partner, and discuss possible solutions that will either make the elephant smaller, or eliminate it all together.
This has to happen over and over to strengthen and to maintain strength in a relationship. There is no such thing as a conflict-free relationship. Conflict is healthy and learning to appropriately work with conflict can make or break a relationship.
2. Create a new normal.
It is impossible to experience something as significant as an emotional affair and not have changes to the relationship and to both individuals in the relationship. Such an experience rocks the perceptions and beliefs of both people. It causes people to take a hard look at themselves (ideally) and the relationship. It is a painful process but can facilitate much needed and healthy changes in the relationship and in each partner.
Most of us have heard of post-traumatic stress following a traumatic event, and an emotional affair certainly falls into the category of traumatic. However, there is also something called post-traumatic growth or thriving that is just now becoming more recognized as a possible reality for people who have been through something traumatic. This can look like finding a new appreciation of life and relationships, finding meaning in life, and re-evaluating goals and priorities.
I have seen this present in several ways with the couples I treat, but usually I notice that if both parties are willing to do the work on themselves and their part in the relationship, they find more satisfaction and honesty in the relationship. It certainly takes work to find a new normal, but the new normal can be so much better than the previous normal.
3. Always treat your relationship like a brand new car.
Think about getting a brand new car and how you treat it. Usually when a person gets a new car, it is treated like a cherished object. He or she does not allow people to eat or drink in it. Trash does not make its way into the car and, if it does, it is promptly removed. The person will generally make sure that it is kept clean and washed regularly. Maintenance is of high importance as the new car is very valuable and the person wants to keep it as nice as possible for as long as possible.
However, over time that person may get lax and start eating and drinking in the car. Trash may find its way to the passenger side or back floor. Maintenance becomes less of an issue as it becomes a hassle. Washing the car and cleaning the interior becomes less and less of a priority.
I see a very similar pattern in relationships. Often people are very excited when a relationship begins. They put their best self forward and they are very mindful about their interactions with each other. The relationship is a priority over everything else and thrives because of this great care.
Over time, however, as both parties become more comfortable in the relationship, they may become less mindful and caring. This is where the breakdown usually starts happening.
In order to continue to thrive post-affair, it is vital that both people fully commit to treating the relationship as if it is new and shiny. In many ways it is. This is the rebirth of the relationship and an opportunity for a new start.
The key to keeping it good, however, is to keep treating it like it is prized and cherished. This will take both people being mindful and deliberate in their caring and nurturing of each other. It is something that each person will have to consistently work on for the rest of the relationship if it is to continue to thrive.
Participating in regular maintenance also includes doing a consistent check-up on the relationship. This will include both partners being willing to be honest and open with each other.
It is important that professional help is sought if it is difficult to work through these steps. If both partners are willing and committed to this process, it is possible for the relationship to thrive and for each person to become a better version of their pre-affair selves.
Anastasia Pollock, MA, LCMHC, is clinical director at Life Stone Counseling Centers. Learn more about her by visiting lifestonecenter.com or email email@example.com.