After the Affair – How to Forgive, and Heal a Relationship From Infidelity

There are many reasons infidelity occurs in a relationship. Ultimately it happens because of a lack of self-control and arrogance. It happens because there is a part of each one of us that wants to feel important and adored. And when the opportunity arises for us to feel that way, the excitement takes over and convinces us that we can keep it a secret and it won’t do any damage. Infidelity happens because we lie to ourselves. We tell ourselves that this won’t mean anything, and no one will ever know. It happens because one little moment changes the course of our lives but convinces us it won’t. There is a glimpse into something that is forbidden and exciting, something hypnotic that promises us something we think we need. 

This forbidden world seems like it is so far detached from our reality that there is no way it will impact our real lives. But it does. It becomes tangled without real life and things are never the same again. No matter the reason the affair happens, the emotional fallout will be brutal. Infidelity has the power to steal the very foundation a relationship is built on. It calls every aspect of our lives into question. It wears down the self-esteem, the sense of belonging, and the trust in both people in the relationship. However, infidelity doesn’t always spell the end of a relationship.

Does Being Unfaithful Mean You Aren’t In Love? 

In so many situations an affair isn’t about someone wanting to be in a different relationship but rather wanting the relationship they are in to be different. Nothing about humankind is black and white, and infidelity is no exception to the rule. Many people who have an affair are in love with their original partners, they aren’t cheaters or liars, and they certainly aren’t bad. They are human, and like all humans they make mistakes. Relationships are constantly evolving and changing, and sometimes that means that every human need is forgotten about. These needs include validation, connection, nurturing, affection, and love, although there are many, many more. 

Do All Relationships End After Infidelity? 

Infidelity is only one way that a relationship can be damaged, although it tends to be the one most likely to cause devastating breakdowns between two people. For some people, infidelity will mean the end. Other relationships will remain intact, although the relationship will never thrive and is just tolerated. In other situations, the act of infidelity can be a turning point in the relationship. It can present the opportunity for a couple to grow, both together and separately. It allows a couple to reconnect with one another more strongly and sustainably. However, this isn’t easy. It takes time, reflection, and brutal honesty. It takes a strong sense of commitment from both people.

What Causes an Affair to Happen? 

Ultimately affairs happen because some combination of three things occurred before the opportunity for the affair presented itself. First is the awareness that something is missing from the relationship, without an awareness of what that something is. Second is an awareness of exactly what is missing from the relationship, but a catastrophic lack of honesty and openness within the relationship. Third, repeated and unsuccessful attempts to be honest about the unmet need and unsuccessful attempts to have that need met within the relationship. As humans, we are meant to be connected to other people. And this is especially true with the people with whom we love and feel connected. 

We all have a basic need for love, validation, and human connection. While we can sometimes ignore these needs, they don’t disappear. When these needs aren’t met for a long time, we only have two choices. We will either let go of the need completely, or we will change the environment that we are attempting to have the need met.  

Our primal needs scream to be met, and it’s hard to walk away from an opportunity to satisfy those needs. Infidelity is a devastating act of betrayal. But it is often also an expression of loss or a need to feel wanted, loved, and desired.

Can You Heal From an Affair 

Healing from an affair is possible, however, it will require honesty from both sides. Healing from infidelity takes reflection. If you are the unfaithful one, you need to be honest about where things stand. Is the affair really over, or has it only been pushing into hiding? If it isn’t genuinely over, be upfront now. It will save a lot of heartache in the future. If the affair is over, your partner is going to need a lot of ongoing confirmation that you are being faithful. Your privacy is going to have to take a backseat to your relationship for a while. This includes texts, phone calls, information on how you are spending your time and who you are spending your time with. There are some questions that your partner might have.

  • When and how did the affair end? What will you do if he/she reaches out to you? 
  • How can you be sure you won’t go back to them? How do I know I can trust you? 
  • I don’t trust you, but I want to trust you again. How can you help me feel safe in our relationship again? 
  • What do you regret most about the affair? Would that regret exist if the affair weren’t discovered? 
  • How do you feel about how the affair has affected us? How do you feel about the affair ending? 
  • How did you convince yourself it was okay to let the affair continue? How do you feel about that now? 
  • What are your feelings towards the person you had an affair with? What do you miss about the affair? 
  • How do you feel about me right now? What do you miss about our relationship? 
  • What made the risk of losing our relationship worth it? How has that changed? 
  • What about our relationship is worth fighting for? What about me is worth fighting for? 
  • Do we both feel the relationship is worth fighting for? Why?

Moving Forward 

The only way a relationship can heal and move on is when the person who had the affair is willing to own what happened and show that they are remorseful for both the damage and pain that was caused and allowing the affair to happen. There needs to be a mutual commitment to protecting the relationship and letting the affair go. Both people in the relationship must want the same thing out of it. it doesn’t matter if the goal is to be together and raise children together, or to have a relationship of love and connection. As long as both people want the same thing, healing can happen. Sometimes it is better to end things while you are both in a good place before the relationship dies a slow death on its own.

If You Decide to Stay Together – Forgive and Move Forward 

Before the relationship can begin to heal, and forgiveness can be achieved, both parties in the relationship need to understand how the affair came to happen, and how they both contributed to the problems. This isn’t excusing the person who chose to have an affair. Instead, it is a way to space for the relationship to grow. By putting your energy into an honest exploration of the motive behind the affair, you will be aware of what changes both parties need to make. this process is going to be painful, it’s never easy to hear where you might be failing the person you love. Remember, this isn’t about blame. This is about being aware of what is happening and how each person in the relationship is feeling. If you are the one who had the affair, you must be looking at the relationship with courage and an open heart. 

Think about what you were getting from the affair that you weren’t getting from your relationship. You can’t blame your flaws, as this will not fix things in the relationship. Be true to yourself and your partner. It can be helpful to look into psychotherapy as a way to help you look within yourself and answer some of the harder questions. If you were the one who was victimized by infidelity, remember that your partner and one they had an affair with knew something you didn’t know. They knew what your relationship was lacking and what was fuelling their relationship. You need this information to rebuild your relationship

There are some things you and your partner can explore together, either with the help of a therapist or on your own. Consider what the affair gave that your relationship wasn’t. How did the affair make you feel different than how you feel in your relationship? Consider the differences and similarities between your partner and the person you had an affair with. What does each of you need to be different in the relationship to feel more validated and appreciated? Be honest with one another. Ask yourself if you can be what your partner needs. More importantly, ask yourself if you want to be that person. 

Once you understand what caused the affair, you will be able to assess whether you are going to be able to meet your partner’s needs. While it would be nice to say that all relationships can be fixed after infidelity, that’s not the case. In some cases, the hurt overrides the desire to try, in others, the needs just can’t be met. Ultimately it is most important, to be honest with yourself and your partner. There is nothing worse than fighting to save a relationship to find out that you are the only one fighting for it.

How to Move Forward, Forgive, and Develop Closeness 

First, a note to the one who had the affair. 

Now is your time to guard the boundaries of the relationship. Learning about the affair is traumatic for your partner, and that trauma is going to be experienced over and over again. Every time there is a gap in the knowledge of your relationship, your partner is going to feel all these emotions again. This includes a text that goes unanswered, a call that goes to voicemail, your being home late, or anything that doesn’t make sense. These feelings of panic, anger, fear, sadness, and suspicion aren’t going to go away until the trust has been restored in your relationship. It has become your job to help your partner feel safe in your relationship again. 

This means that you are going to have to be completely accountable for your actions, you are going to have to be completely transparent. Remember your partner doesn’t want to be suspicious and paranoid, but this is what your affair has done. Your affair has taken your partner’s loving, trusting heart, and turned it into a suspicious, broken one. But the trust can be rebuilt. You must be the one to make sure that there are no secrets in your relationship. If the person you had an affair with contacts you, tell your partner. 

Show your partner you are being open and not hiding anything. There is going to be a time where your partner is going to be constantly looking for proof that the affair isn’t happening anymore and that they can trust you again. Help them find it.

Now a note to the one who was betrayed. 

First and foremost, forgive yourself. Forgive yourself for feeling confused, angry, hurt, and hateful. Forgive yourself for not knowing what was happening, for not seeing the signs. Forgive yourself for ignoring the signs if you did see them. Let go of any shame you might feel. Whether it’s for leaving, for staying, or for how you feel about what has happened. None of the shame belongs to you. Every single relationship goes through struggles that will make it or break it. Forgive yourself if you feel you missed something. Forgive yourself for the affair. Your relationship includes two people. If your partner needed something that you weren’t providing, it was their job to let you know. 

To give you the chance to fix things. Surely there have been times that your needs went unmet too. You deserved to know that something wasn’t right. You deserved a chance to fix things in your relationship. You have this chance now. Now you know what is missing in your relationship and what your partner needs. Be honest with yourself about whether you can provide it. Reach out to a psychotherapist if you need help digging deep into yourself. If you aren’t going to be able to meet your partner’s needs, it is okay to end the relationship. It doesn’t mean there is anything wrong with you. it just means you and your partner aren’t meant to be. 

Right now, you are going through a trauma, and you are allowed the space and time you need to cope with that. Give yourself the time to forgive and start to feel okay again. Whether you are going to try and save the relationship or not, you deserve the time you need. remember to be kind of yourself. You deserve kindness. An affair is going to redefine your relationship. It is going to end what you have; it has to. There is too much hurt and anger for it not to. 

But that doesn’t mean that you can’t rebuild a new relationship with the same person. If your relationship is worth fighting for, you will find a way to make it work. You are going through the process of grief for what you thought you had with your partner, and that is okay. The heartbreak you feel right now, won’t always be this big. Some days you are going to wonder how you are going to get past this, and other days you are going to feel in control. All of this is okay. You are allowed to feel and to grieve. 

An affair is a traumatic time in a relationship, but it doesn’t have to be the definition of the relationship. Sometimes, good people make bad choices and hurt the people they love. But mistakes are an opportunity to learn and to grow. A relationship can be put back together in a way that is stronger, wiser, and more sustainable. Jousline Savra, a Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist in Toluca Lake, Burbank, CA is an expert in marriage counseling and family therapy. She has nearly 22 years of counseling experience helping couples attain emotional stability and enhancing their emotional connection. Give her a call today to schedule your couple’s therapy and get back on the road to healing your relationship after an affair.