For couples that have endured an affair and decide they want to rebuild their marriage, the big question that looms is ‘How do we get back what we lost?’ Or better yet, ‘How do we build a new or better marriage than we had before?’ A big part of rebuilding a new marriage is rebuilding the trust that was lost as a result of the betrayal.
I wish there was a simple cookie-cutter approach to the trust rebuilding process, but of course there isn’t. Affairs leave deep wounds and the healing process takes time and will be different for each couple. There are, however, some key components I believe apply to just about every couple’s road to healing.
Ending the Affair Partner Relationship
If the goal is to reestablish trust between you and your spouse, the relationship with the affair partner must end. This might seem obvious, but you’d be surprised how often it’s a stumbling block. Sometimes it’s because the betrayer isn’t ready to end the affair (more on that in a minute). But other times, it’s because of their enormous guilt and desire to protect the affair partner. It drives me crazy how often this happens! If you want to rebuild a relationship with your spouse, you can’t be more worried about the well-being of your affair partner than you are your spouse! You just can’t.
A complete – and often abrupt – separation from the affair partner is generally the best way to end the relationship. Your spouse may be tempted with the thought of “just one last conversation… for closure”. Always a bad idea. Instead, it might look like a letter from both of you to the affair partner clearly stating the relationship is over and no further communication will be had.
Sometimes, however, separating from the affair partner can be more complicated, especially if your spouse works with their affair partner. If either your spouse or the affair partner can change jobs, that’s the best option. That usually takes time though and may not even be an option at all. For instance, when your spouse owns the company and hired the affair partner. I’ve seen it, folks. So, whether leaving the job is or isn’t an option, the key word is boundaries.
Together, you and your spouse must negotiate and agree on what exactly these boundaries are. Perhaps it’s ‘no contact at all’ with the affair partner. Of, if the two must still work together, the boundaries may be no time alone, specific topics that will/won’t be discussed, or what time you will leave work each day. Each of these boundaries is to help ensure the affair does not continue and to help you rebuild trust.
But what if your spouse is unable or unwilling to end the affair? Truthfully, there isn’t much you can do. Until the limerence ends and your spouse makes a conscious decision to end the affair, there is no rebuilding the marriage. But what you don’t want to do is to encourage sneaking around and lying about it.
Ending the affair is a key piece of deciding whether to work on the marriage. If your spouse is not yet willing to end the relationship, consider discernment counseling for you both while your spouse decides what they want to do. Ironically, though it’s incredibly painful as the betrayed spouse to know the affair continues, this too can also ultimately help rebuild trust because the lying and deceit has ended.
Once an affair is discovered, the betrayed spouse is usually reeling with questions, and worry, and suspicion. The affair happened in the little absent moments of time and now they want to account for every single one of them. They may want to see texts, and phone logs, and exactly where their spouse is throughout the day. The spouse who cheated, though he or she may understand this at first, often comes to resent this extra level of intrusion. One of the ways to address this – and to rebuild trust in the process – is for the couple to negotiate and agree to a certain level of transparency in the relationship for a specified period of time. The two keys to an effective transparency agreement are that it’s temporary – generally not more than a year- and that the both of you agree to its terms. You may want full access to phones, texts and emails. Your spouse may agree to leave work at exactly 5:30 pm each day and if he/she can’t, there is a set communication protocol in place. Or, you may ask your spouse to send a photo of where they are. The onus will be always be on the spouse that had the affair to abide by the agreement as any deviation will cause more doubt and mistrust.
Making Promises You Can Keep
For the spouse who cheated, making promises – promises you know you can keep, and that you will keep no matter what– is another key component to rebuilding trust and helping your spouse heal. When I have a client who is really needing to rebuild trust, this is one of the things I ask them to do. You’d be surprised at how it can help a spouse heal and begin to trust again.
I had one client who promised he’d have the trash out on the curbside by 8pm the night before trash ran, every week. I told him if the time comes that he’s on his way to the ER, he’d better have someone to call to wheel that trash bin out to the curb for him! At first, he thought I was kidding – I wasn’t. I told him not to promise anything he couldn’t commit to doing without fail. He agreed to do it if I thought it’d help his wife heal. Several months later when his wife was in my office, she said “You know, I know it’s small and it sounds crazy, but every night I drove home and saw the trash bins out in front of the house, I could instantly feel my gut release.” As silly as it seems, the trash cans at the curb helped this woman to heal… because there was never a good enough excuse for them not be there and because every week they were there, just as he’d promised they would be.
Committing to Couples Therapy
I would be remiss if I didn’t include couples therapy on my list of key components to rebuilding trust. It can take as many as 3-5 years to fully heal from an affair. To try and go at it alone, without professional help from someone experienced in the nuances of affair recovery, will make the recovery process even more challenging. Do your research and find a therapist who has walked this road with many clients before you and who can appropriately set your expectations for what the process may look like for you.
Books to Read
And finally, I want to encourage you to read. As you might imagine, I read a lot of books related to my line of work. A bunch. And, I’ve read many related to this topic specifically. Of those, two are ones I routinely recommend to clients working to heal the rupture to their relationship caused by an affair. If you haven’t done so already, read Getting Past the Affair by Snyder, Baucom & Gordon and Not Just Friends by Shirley Glass PhD. Both are practical step by step guides for the affair recovery process that will compliment your work with a therapist.
Affair recovery is some of the toughest work a couples therapist does. It’s also some of the most rewarding. To help a couple ripped apart by infidelity to heal and knit together a new, stronger marriage are some of my highest professional highs. If this Affairs series has struck a chord with you and your marriage has been shattered by an affair, I hope you’ll reach out and let us help you too.