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Affair Recovery: A Note to the Injuring Partner, Part 2

"We are all treading around, stumbling on each other's toes as we are learning to love." Sue Johnson

To the injuring* partner,

(*I use the word injuring to imply one who is or has inflicted pain on another, whether through infidelity, neglect, blame and criticism, or another form of relational hurt.)

You need a safe space, too. You need a space to process, to consider, to understand yourself. This post is less for the partner who experiences no remorse and is mindfully choosing to continue the behavior and more for the partner who feels unsettled, empty, and confused, wondering why you are still here, still wrestling.

Understanding yourself.

An injuring partner is often injured, in some way.

At the root of an affair is often an unmet need. I recognize that each affair is unique, and generalizations of such a tender topic can often dismiss each person's experience. And yet, I believe each of us is both unlike any other and universally alike, and I'm speaking to the pieces of us that are alike. Generally, a longing for emotional and sexual connection with someone other than your spouse highlights an inner, unmet need in your own soul. Hear me correctly when I say unmet need: I do not mean 'your spouse is not meeting your needs.' I mean there's something deep within that feels hurt, dismissed, alone, neglected, and insecure. Even boredom can signify the breach of relational intimacy and connection somewhere along the way, and the pain of disconnection can become unbearable. In an attempt to numb the pain, we disengage from the vulnerability of our emotions, and our marriage, to self-protect. We disengage with whatever provides the quickest relief, and in some cases that means an affair. I imagine that for some, there is a moment within an affair when you come face-to-face with the daunting thought of, "How did I get here?" I stumbled my way slowly, subtly into a pattern of betrayal and infidelity. Or maybe I made an impulse decision, a one-time encounter, and surges of regret fill my body and mind.

Numbing can often feel like hazily going through the motions until something jolts you: your own 'too far' behavior that you never thought you'd engage in, your spouse finding out, people speaking into your life, a Spiritual encounter. Something happens, and your left with the grave reality of your situation. Where do you go from here?

The first step, the hardest step, of understanding ourselves is beginning to engage our emotions. If an affair is an attempt to numb and hide, recovery is a process of feeling and exposing.

  1. We must give ourselves permission to feel. We all harbor fear surrounding our emotions in some capacity. Often, shame messages have diminished the place of emotions in our lives, establishing a belief that emotions are weak or irrelevant or even unbiblical. Sometimes, we fear that if we open the door to emotions, we will be stuck in them and have no way out. Often, we have coped without emotional connection for so long that we forget what it is like to feel. We must start with allowing ourselves to 'go there' emotionally.
  2. Become aware of and curious about your emotions, using bodily sensations as cues. Often, when we have numbed our emotions, we become detached from ourselves. We may not be able to name that we feel neglected, but we can recognize the pit in our stomach or the heaviness in our chest when that feeling arises. Begin taking notice of these bodily sensations and get curious around the emotions that accompany them.
  3. Start to process through the why of the affair for yourself. What need for intimacy, connection, and security was the affair meeting for you? When did these needs begin to develop? What boundaries were not set in place? In what setting are you most vulnerable? Instead of continually shaming yourself, begin getting curious around the why and how of the affair.
  4. Seek connection with trusted, safe people. Shame thrives in isolation. Shame tells us that we are disgusting in the sight of God and others. It tells us that exposure would crumble us, and so we must continue on in secret. It tells us that we are unworthy of reconciliation with our spouse. While there are grave consequences for an affair, shaming ourselves only creates a cycle of isolation, behavior, shame, isolation - you get the picture.

Owning our Part and Rebuilding Trust

For renewed trust to form, we must acknowledge and own the part that we have played, and continue to play, in our partner's pain.

  • Once we are able to own our part, a thorough, honest, and sincere confession and apology must take place to move towards reconciliation. We must be willing to recognize and admit the grave impact our decisions and behaviors have had on our spouse, family, and community. We must also be able to recognize the impact they will continue to have as we work towards healing.
  • We must be patient with our spouse as he or she is learning to trust, forgive, and feel safe again. Sue Johnson says, "Intentional long-term deception undermines our sense of our partner as familiar and able to be known." An affair, especially a long-term one, threatens the basic safety in a marriage. Rebuilding that sense of 'knowing' takes time, honest conversations, and a commitment to the healing process.
  • Put in place a relapse-prevention plan with your spouse.
    • Acknowledge areas of weakness in yourself and in your marriage and be willing to admit when these areas are triggered.
    • Get in community, establishing support and accountability for your marriage with those who are able to sit in the pain with you.
    • Practice honesty, assertiveness, confrontation, and repentance with your partner.
    • Put boundaries in place concerning relationships, settings, personal triggers, masturbation and pornography, and down time.
    • Continue building connection in marriage through emotional, sexual, and spiritual intimacy.

Ultimately, I believe that affair recovery is best done in the context of a therapeutic relationship. If you are struggling through an affair alone, I encourage you to find a therapist to walk with you on this journey of healing.