Recovering From Infidelity: The Long And Winding Road

by Raymond Barrett

By Bill Herring, LCSW, CSAT, Psychotherapist

I’ve counseled many couples struggling to rebuild their relationship after experiencing the devastating consequences of infidelity. A person who has had an extramarital affair sometimes wants the betrayed spouse to “get over” the incident far too early in the difficult process of healing. This unrealistic expectation often reflects a difficulty tolerating discomfort (which probably contributed to the inability to resist having an affair in the first place).

Attempts to minimize the impact that such a violation of trust inevitably creates places undue pressure on the injured partner to prematurely forgive the betrayal before true healing has taken place. This past spring one of my new clients expressed the hope that the damage his infidelity caused his marriage would be significantly healed by Thanksgiving. My reply was “of what year?” I said this to provide realistic expectations from the outset of therapy that the process of rebuilding trust is long and slow, but well worth the great effort it requires.

I use several metaphors to help couples understand the process of time often required for fully recovering from infidelity. First, I introduce the idea of a tree which takes a long time to grow but which can be chopped down in a minute. No amount of propping the tree back in place will undo the damage that has occurred. It must regrow from the root. I also use the metaphor of a bucket of pennies: every time a person acts in a responsible, loving manner is the equivalent of putting a penny in a bucket. Eventually the bucket will be full (and worth a surprising amount). But if that bucket is knocked over all of the pennies spill out at once and the bucket is empty again. A betrayal of trust can deplete much cumulative goodwill from a relationship. When asked how long is required to recover from infidelity, my usual response is “longer than you want”.

I counsel couples to measure their growth in seasons rather than days, weeks or even months. This keeps people from expecting substantial change too early in the healing process. Significant negative impact of infidelity can be evident for anywhere between nine months to two years, while more complete healing often requires a much longer period of time. However, important progress toward healing can begin almost immediately with a committed couple!

There are many steps that can be taken to speed the recovery process. Counseling is often indispensable to provide a forum for both parties to find a way back to each other without causing even more damage to their fragile relationship. Greater accountability, empathy, and true emotional intimacy must develop for the relationship to grow stronger. A re-commitment to the relationship, greater communication, and conflict management skills need to be strengthened. The presence of supportive and emotionally safe resources for each person is often instrumental in sustaining resilience and hope for both parties.

I’ve helped many couples not just survive infidelity but grow stronger in their feelings for each other. Relationships can actually blossom to a much greater level of intimacy and emotional growth after both parties face the issues that betrayal forces both of them to confront within themselves. People can feel better on a superficial level relatively quickly, but some goals are best achieved over the long haul, and a fully restored marriage is one of them. The road may be long and winding, but the destination is achievable and well worth the journey.

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