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Monday, January 27, 2014

Miraculous Mondays: Can Our Marriage Be Repaired After An Affair?


Thought for the Day: Even after years of working in the field, it is still hard to watch couples struggling with the impact of an affair on their marriages. The sense of betrayal, loss of trust, hurt and anger are unavoidable emotions for the person whose spouse has cheated. The guilt, remorse and self-deprecation of the transgressor also go with the territory. When they come in for therapy, after an affair they are often unsure whether their marriage can be repaired or whether they want to fix it. After I hear what has transpired and get a history of their relationship, here's what I tell them before starting in couples therapy, based on what I have learned from working with couples who have been in their shoes.

First of all, I do not know whether they will be able to repair their marriage. The goal of therapy is to help them discover whether their issues can be resolved or whether they will choose to part ways. If they have children, I always recommend taking the time to try to fix their marriage. If they cannot they will be better prepared to speak with their children about why they are splitting up and honestly say that they tried to fix things before giving up on the marriage. It may take a few months of therapy to know whether the marriage can be salvaged. I ask them to work for 3 to 6 months in therapy before they make any decision. Usually, the problems that lead to the affair have been brewing for years. It will take longer than a few months to resolve them, but, in a few months, they will know whether it is moving in the direction of reconciling their differences or not.

Although I try to give them my assessment of whether I think they will be able to work things out, I also tell them that I can never be sure. I have seen couples who seem to be compatible who are unable to save their marriages. On the other hand, I have seen couples who could barely sit in the same room, that I would have bet my license that they would not stay together, who are still married. In the worst case scenario I have ever seen, not only had there been an affair, but it had been with a minor teenage relative and a child has been sired. The husband was willing to end the affair with the now adult relative, but wanted to have a relationship with the love child. I have also seen clients whose spouse would not come for therapy, that I assumed would part, but been thanked by the nonparticipating spouse for saving their marriage.

I don't have a crystal ball, but from my years of working with couples, it appears that four things seem to be the best indicators of whether a couple can overcome the impact of an affair on a marriage.

First of all, both parties truly still love their spouse, are willing to break off the affair entirely and work on their marriage. The hurt party may question their sanity and feel angry, but still have some loving feelings for their spouse. If either of them feels that they never really loved their spouse, but got married for the wrong reasons, they may not be able to avoid divorce court. The spouse who had the affair may have mixed feelings and be confused about their feelings for the person they had the affair with, but their desire to fix the marriage is stronger than the pull of the affair. They must, ultimately, recognize that an affair is not a "real love" relationship, but a fantasy "catch as catch can" clandestine relationship often based on lust rather than real love. Although it may have felt more exciting or loving, it was not exposed to the real life challenges of children, finances, and normal family life. Often affairs start to become a burden when real life issues start to creep into the relationship, like demands for more time.

The second necessary ingredient appears to be the ability to forgive. This ability appears to be most common in couples who have strong religious backgrounds,. However, they do not have to be religious to have this personality trait. If you tend to hold grudges, you may not be able to forgive your partner's transgression.

The third, and most important variable, is the ability to share responsibility for the affair. This may seem counterintuitive. The person who has been cheated on needs to accept that they could have had an affair, too, if the problems between them had continued to fester. This is the hardest fact for the hurt partner to accept. They often say that they would never have erred, but in reality, when a marriage is not working anyone, even very religious people, can and do have affairs.

Finally, if the spouse who had the affair is not willing to be totally transparent and on probation for as long as it takes to rebuild trust, it will not work. This is always difficult since the hurt party usually needs much longer to heal than the transgressor would like.

There are many more variables that play a part in marital therapy, but these are some of the prerequisites for starting to repair a marriage after an affair.
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