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The discovery of an affair often triggers significant stress. The betrayed spouse usually faces anger, pain, broken trust, and a host of other challenges. He or she often experiences traumatic symptoms that parallel post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). This results in reliving the event, avoidance of activities and people, forming negative self-beliefs (e.g. I did something to cause this) and heightened anxiety. Furthermore, these symptoms usually last for months and even years.
As a result, many couples simply have no idea how to respond and end up living in relationship purgatory where they feel lost and hopeless, or they divorce. However, there is evidence that more and more couples are staying together in an attempt to work through infidelity.
With the help of recent research studies, here are three tips to help you heal your relationship in the aftermath of an affair:
1. Talk about what happened
In a landmark study, Peggy Vaughn found that couples are more likely to stay married when they thoroughly discuss the whole situation. This may seem counter-intuitive, because many people believe talking about what happened only makes things worse. However, the offending partner's willingness to open up and discuss what they did is extremely important. Telling the truth is hard; Vaughn's research is proof of its importance. A whopping 86% of couples that discussed the situation consistently were still together in her study.
Discuss with your spouse about what happened, and do it often. The more open you are about what happened, the more you will both understand why the affair happened. Use those discussions to make goals on how to repair your marriage.
2. Answer questions
One mistake couples make after an affair is ignoring what happened. This response does not work. Couples should rebuild trust by asking questions and answering honestly. When this does not happen, individuals in the relationship tend to fight, feel disconnected or both, because there are so many unresolved issues.
Regarding the importance of answering questions after an affair, Vaughn found that the idea of answering questions makes many individuals feel scared or afraid. The offending party may think, "The truth will only hurt her or him more." Or the offended party may think, "Do I really want to know. What if I can't deal with what he or she has done?"
Answering questions is difficult, but it is necessary. Here are a few examples of good and bad questions to ask:
Details (where, who, when)
How did this happen? This requires the offending party to analyze their own behavior and identify how they allowed themselves to cross boundaries. Regardless of the answer to this question, the answer will always be a justification for unhealthy behavior. Therefore, the offending party should identify their own thinking errors (e.g. I allowed myself to flirt, thinking it wouldn't go too far) rather than blame their spouse (e.g. You weren't there for me.)
Is it over? How do you know it is over? What steps have you taken to end the relationship?
What steps will you take to prevent this from happening again in the future?
The reason these questions are not helpful is that they create powerful and deceptive emotions that hurt the betrayed partner more than help. Stick to helpful questions and ask them to help nail down the reasons for the affair.
3. Be patient with the process
Those who are betrayed often ask, "How long will I feel this way?" In the beginning, triggers come often and in many ways. As time progresses, six months to a year, the triggers become less frequent (if the cheater is answering questions and working on their own healing). After a year or two, triggers become even less frequent, and when they come, there is a greater awareness of how to resolve them.
So yes, HEALING TAKES TIME.
To help the healing process avoid these damaging questions and statements:
I know I am a bad person, so you should just divorce me.
These comments are the opposite of being patient with the process. If true healing is going to occur, it is important to get to the roots of the problem so the wound can be cleaned out. Please don't try to put a Band-Aid on a deep infected wound.
Healing after an affair is possible, but it will be hard and painful. Be patient and follow these tips on a daily basis, and one day you will find room for forgiveness.
Bloom specializes in providing online inspiration, support, and education for women who desire to move forward from the grief and trauma associated with betrayal and unfaithful relationships. Click here to watch the video.