How can we cope with the aftermath of an affair?

Affairs rarely have just one cause, and they don’t always happen because of unhappiness or dissatisfaction in a relationship. It’s vital that you both understand the real reasons why it happened.

Understanding why the affair happened

Your relationship, your individual stories, the pressure of your lifestyle and your beliefs are all factors that can help understand why an affair has happened.

It’s also important to understand two things:

  1. Since you can only preserve your own fidelity and can never prevent infidelity in another person, you can’t take responsibility for someone else’s infidelity.
  2. A happy fulfilling relationship is not an insurance policy against infidelity, although it can be a helpful deterrent.

If your partner had an affair, to come to terms with why it happened you will need to talk about their vulnerability to an affair – what was happening in your lives and in your relationship before they first came into contact with the other person, how might your partner’s lifestyle have contributed (e.g. working away from home), what beliefs did you both hold about fidelity?

Part of the process is being honest with yourself about your own vulnerabilities to an affair and why these might have been different to your partner’s.

This can be very painful and can take a lot of time, but unless you know what went wrong, you won’t be able to change things in the future. Be patient. It takes time to rebuild trust that has been broken.

What helps to mend a relationship?

  • The unfaithful partner must end the affair, once and for all.
  • They should be transparent about their future actions, share information about schedules and movements and disclose any interactions with the other person.
  • It might be necessary for a short time to share privacy controls such as passwords, since it could be impossible for a deceived partner to trust without this level of openness.
  • Talk it through.
  • The whole process may take months or longer. Often, the unfaithful partner wants to draw a line under events and not talk about them, or a faithful partner is reluctant to ask questions in case the answers are too painful. It’s important to tell the story of the affair and why it happened.
  • Set a time limit for your discussions, and don’t talk when you’re tired. You could end up talking for hours and hours and go round in circles.
  • Agree to discuss future challenges too, don’t just hope they’ll go away. Talk about the future threats to your fidelity, like crushes or friendships that could cross the line.
  • Commit to a new future together. Both of you must do this and mean it.
  • Find time for each other, take an interest in each others’ lives and feelings, and resolve to be honest with each other in future, even if it means taking a risk.
  • It can be hard to restore a sexual relationship after an affair. Be patient with each other and talk about any emotional barriers. Give some thought to how a satisfying sexual relationship can alleviate some of the pain, but remember patience and honesty are the key.
  • Consider some relationship counseling. Find your nearest Relate and get in touch.

Long-term effects of an affair

Only you can decide what to do after an affair, and whatever you decide will not be easy. Many affairs cause havoc in a relationship that is already dogged by problems, but they can provide an opportunity for a positive change too.

Unfaithful partners can work out how their former behavior led to giving themselves permission to have an affair – and resolve to change. As a couple, you can make changes to your lifestyle and ensure it supports a faithful relationship in the future.

Make sure that you’re open and honest with each other about your wants and needs. A crisis like this can also make you confront complex issues like gender politics and beliefs you might have both absorbed from society about faithful relationships. It is possible to create a new, stronger relationship in the wake of an affair, but the cost can be very high.

An affair can also have destructive effects on your family. Children, in-laws and friends may all find themselves caught up in events, and perhaps having to take sides.

Permanent barriers can be created. Even so, an affair does not always mean the end of your relationship. With hard work, commitment and patience, it may be possible to come through this crisis changed, but also stronger.

The key message is to understand why the affair happened, rather than run away from the reasons. Whether you stay together or part, it’s crucial to gather some insights into what went wrong. Do this, and if you remain together you will have a deeper understanding of yourselves. If you part, you will know that you had the courage to face the truth, and will be better prepared for future relationships.