Mending A Relationship After An Affair

Many things – financial crises, the death or severe injury of a child, differing career trajectories- can put a severe strain on a relationship. But there is nothing that causes the intense emotional pain that is triggered by the discovery that one of the partners has had an affair. This is because infidelity undermines the very foundation of the relationship: the trust between two people, and their sense of what they knew about each other. Add to this the feelings of disregard and the gut-wrenching doubts infidelity places in the mind of the victim, and you have a toxic stew of raw emotions that is virtually unparalleled in human life.

Numerous experts, however, note that an affair is not always the end of a relationship, nor does it have to be. Others note that some relationships can’t –and perhaps shouldn’t- be saved. If we are to try, as Sarì Harrar and Rita DeMaria, Ph.D. explain in The 7 Stages of Marriage, there are certain steps that a couple can take toward rebuilding the mutual trust and respect that is essential if a relationship is to endure.

One of the most controversial of these, however, is the question of disclosure – what and how much the offender should tell their partner about the details of the affair. It’s a thorny issue:

Many experts themselves are divided on the real usefulness of 100% full disclosure.

As one expert on relationships stated, “In addition to identifying the motivation underlying the affair, it is essential to candidly discuss the details of what happened.” The thinking here is that revealing the whole truth, while painful, is necessary when trying to move forward. A cheating spouse who hides the details of the affair likely believes that telling the truth will only lead to more problems. However, concealing the details of the affair often leads to lingering questions, which if not addressed, are unlikely to go away on their own.

However, another source sagely notes that knowledge comes with a price, “It’s so easy to become obsessed with each and every small detail. But, I can also tell you that it’s very easy to get lost in these details so that they do you more harm than good. These details can become images in your head that become almost impossible to erase and they cause you more pain than is necessary.”

Most likely, if the relationship is to heal, there are probably things you should know and have a right to know. But there are also things you may not need to know and, and perhaps, would actually be better off not knowing. Further, not everyone wants to know all the details (although many do). While some people feel a need to know everything their partner did during an affair, others don’t need this knowledge in order to move forward. The desires of the partner on the subject need to be taken into consideration.

The reasons the victim may have for wanting to know these details.

While many counselors advise that full disclosure is essential to rebuilding trust, the victim’s reasons for wanting to know can also be an issue. Among the reasons people may have for asking for details are:

  • I am so stunned, I need to know how far you went with this
  • I want to know the true enormity of your transgression
  • I need to assess how far gone you are…so I can determine whether there is any sense in even trying to put this back together

These are, many experts would say, valid reasons. However, if the unspoken part of either of the first two is “…so I can use it as ammunition against you later,” then it is neither valid nor helpful. If you have already experienced the ultimate betrayal of a cheating partner, then you don’t need “more ammunition;” and plotting either how to get it or use it is not a step towards repairing the relationship.

Other motivations, such as a desire to strip the other from the ability to have secrets, or to expose memories and eliminate privacy, also don’t contribute to the rebuilding of a relationship. Both are power plays guaranteed to cause more harm than good. Both are forms of revenge; and experts agree that there are no actions to get back at a cheating partner that will erase the negative emotions a person may be feeling after being cheated on.

Experts agree that if a relationship is to be saved, rebuilt and restored after an affair, honesty is an essential element of the mix. After all, a lack of honesty certainly contributed to the affair. But complete honesty about why an affair occurred, and complete openness on how to work together to fix it, is, in the end, more important than the specifics of what happened during an affair.

If your relationship has been damaged by an affair, Capital EAP counselors can help you find the right balance. We urge you to call us if you are grappling with the issue of infidelity, or any relationship issue. We’re here to help.