When couples are asked what are the five most important qualities that keep their relationship alive and thriving over 90% will include “trust” in their answer.
Trust is a big one. It means “to have faith or confidence in someone or something and to believe in the honesty and reliability of someone else”.
Today when we think of trust in a relationship we automatically assume we are talking about sexual fidelity and the trust that each partner holds in the other to keep sacred the sexual union. And indeed infidelity is one of the main reasons relationships end.
But trust does not only impact on the sexual. A wife may not trust the children with her alcoholic husband. One partner may not trust the other with money. In abusive relationships one partner cannot trust the other with their safety. When communication is poor in relationships both partners often can’t trust each other to listen.
Without disregarding the significance of these different perspectives on trust it is sexual infidelity that catches the attention of society and makes a great impact on relationships. It raises such questions as: “What happens when trust is gone due to sexual infidelity?”; “Does this breach of trust mean the relationship is over?”; “Can a relationship survive this betrayal?”; “If yes-how?”
These were exactly the questions that Lin and Craig were asking when they came to counselling.
Lin and Craig’s Story
When Lin and Craig started their counselling sessions they had known each other for 15 years and had been married for 12 years. Up until the birth of their last child Lin had worked full time as a paralegal and Craig earned good money as a corporate accountant. They enjoyed an active social life and were involved in a number of charities. With the help of a housekeeper and a part time nanny they had time for each other and for their then two sons.
Life changed with the birth of their third son. As this was to be their last child Lin wanted an opportunity to take on the role of full time mother. Craig although a little concerned about the finances supported Lin in her desire.
After leaving her employment Lin became totally engrossed in her new child and in her new role. She dropped all her social and charitable obligations while Craig continued his involvement in these organisations on his own. With time the concerns Craig had regarding the finances became a reality as the loss of Lin’s income was beginning to impact on the family lifestyle. To avoid any drastic changes Craig started to take on more work. Craig and Lin now rarely saw each other. Home and family were Lin’s domain and everything else was Craig’s. The two worlds did not meet. Without some significant changes this relationship was heading for a crisis. And the crisis did come in the form of an Affair.
Craig had taken on a new project which required a bit of travel with one of his female colleagues. The rest reads like a cliche. Craig feeling very much alone and unloved welcomed the company of his colleague who listened carefully to his story and then offered him affection, care and attention. Soon they were completely involved with each other.
Although not in love with this other woman Craig was caught up in the excitement of the romance and companionship this relationship offered. At no time did he think of leaving Lin and his family. And in truth he did not really think at all of the repercussions of this liaison until Lin found out about the affair. He then quickly ended it and went home to face the consequences.
Lin was in shock. How could this have happened? She felt betrayed and hurt and angry.
Craig was in shock. He really did not know how this happened. And strangely he also felt betrayed and hurt.
Lin and Craig began to experience a variety of emotions. At different times Lin felt anger, jealousy, anxiety, resentment, helplessness, hopelessness and an incredible sadness; while Craig manifested similar emotions with the addition of guilt and confusion. Both Lin and Craig were drowning in an emotional melting pot and needed a life saver to ground them and help them determine their next step.
Lin did not really want to end the marriage but she did not know how to work through the loss of trust and create a new equilibrium.
Craig did not want to end the marriage but he did not know how to regain Lin’s trust and he did not want to go back to the way it was.
An impasse had been reached in this relationship and both Lin and Craig were standing at the proverbial crossroads wondering whether they could salvage their relationship and slowly move forward together on one path, or whether they should just say it was all too hard, end their 12 year marriage and follow separate paths.
There are those who say that every relationship can be saved and that no matter how destructive the damage the relationship can survive and go forward. Whether this is true or not is a moot question, for at the end of the day it is up to each couple to decide whether or not they are ready to put in the hard work to heal their relationship.
It is up to each partner to seek answers within themselves to such vital questions as: “Do I still love….?” ; “Is this ‘love’ strong enough for me to stay in the relationship?”; “Am I committed enough to work through my pain?”
Every individual responds to an infidelity in their own unique way and there is no one formula to emotional recovery and relationship stability. There are however some common responses and reactions from those experiencing the after shock of adultery. It is from these generalities that some basic stages to relationship recovery can be noted. What follows is a framework created from the experiences of many couples finding their way forward after adultery.
How to find Trust and Rebuild the Relationship
- Blame, Recriminate, Accuse, Shout and Scream- then Stop
- The Truce
- The Talk: Part One
- The Talk: Part Two
- Daring to Trust
- The Contract
Blame, Recriminate, Accuse, Shout and Scream- then Stop
After the realisation of the affair the relationship can experience an emotional tidal wave of recriminations, accusations and blaming. In a desperate attempt to ease the pain of the betrayal the wronged party hurls out hurtful statements, some based on truth, others vindictive and cutting.
The betrayer in their defence and in an effort to protect themselves from this emotional tirade may respond with their own accusations and justifications. Not wanting to be solely responsible for the adultery they blame their partner for behaviours that led them to stray.
In midst this emotional slinging match demands for explanations as to “why did this happen?” and “how could you do this to me?” are shouted frequently with no clear explanations or satisfactory answers.
Couples exhaust themselves with their shouting and screaming. They may believe that the louder they shout the accusation the less painful it will become.
This experience is horrific, and not every relationship will expose itself to this emotional torture, but many do. For many couples the betrayal is merely the culmination of emotional deprivation they have been experiencing for a long time. The betrayal has given both parties permission to explode and express ALL hurts that have been suppressed. It is an emotional cleansing that will hopefully clear the space for newer healthier emotions.
Whatever the dynamics of this initial emotional response to the adultery eventually with time emotions are spent, all parties are exhausted and it may be time for a Truce.
In the case of Craig and Lin the shock of the adultery was overwhelming. Lin had been so cocooned in her world of children that she was oblivious to any signs of unhappiness in her relationship. And in her defence Craig had never voiced any criticisms or complaints.
For the first little while after Craig had confessed everything seemed to be normal in the household. There was no discussion and both Craig and Lin continued their routines as if nothing had happened.
But on one of those rare evenings when they were alone together after the children had gone to sleep and were watching some program on television, Lin suddenly turned around and vented all her hurt emotions at Craig, calling him names and accusing him of monstrous behaviour. Craig now too suddenly snapped and responded in kind. In one breath he was apologising for his actions and in the next breath he was blaming Lin for freezing him out of the warmth of the family home and forcing him into adultery.
What followed for Lin and Craig were endless days of emotional chaos. For the first time in months Lin and Craig were spending more time together. They were using this time to yell and scream at each other, retreat and go silent, and then yell and scream some more. No matter how painful their situation they needed to be with each other and in a perverted way were trying to reconnect.
Eventually their energy was totally spent and they were ready to move out of this stage. It was time for a Truce.
To revive a relationship requires a lot of work and attention, and both Lin and Craig were totally exhausted and were struggling with even the simplest of their daily activities. Their yelling and blaming had worn them out and they desperately needed time out from the battlefield that had become their relationship. They both acknowledged that they were tired of arguing and of throwing painful statements at each other. So a truce was called.
As in any conflict the purpose of a truce is to temporarily cease hostilities between contending parties with the hope that eventually a peaceful solution can be reached. For Lin and Craig the conflict was not resolved as yet, and it was very possible that they would be at each others’ throats again before a final resolution was reached- but for now a Truce.
The terms of a truce are determined by the individual participants but there are some basics tenets:
- A time frame- How long a truce do you want?
- Terms of Engagement- Rules for communicating during the Truce
- Individual demands-Specific requirements imposed by the participants on each other to enable them to feel safe during the Truce
- Any strategies required to implement the individual requirements (not always necessary)
Lin and Craig decided that for a period of three weeks they were to have a Truce.
Between the three of us the Terms of Engagement were set. There was to be no fighting, no name calling and no negative interactions between them. If Lin and Craig could not be civil to each other they would just say nothing, and if necessary remove themselves from the situation.
They were not to talk about the adultery and if possible they were not to actually think about their relationship but just try to be in it. There would be plenty of time for thinking and talking later.
As agreed they imposed some demands on each other that they felt would be helpful in carrying them through the three weeks.
Lin required Craig to be home every night for this three week period unless there was a legitimate reason for him to be away. Hopefully this would begin to ease her insecurity that had emerged since the affair.
Craig in turn insisted that there be at least one day a week for family activities. Craig had felt that he had lost his family and was now wanting to reclaim it.
Both stipulations were accepted by the relevant parties and there was only a need for a brief discussion on strategies to implement these demands.
Lin and Craig entered the Truce with trepidation but also with a sense of relief, and they were able to travel the three weeks without any new conflicts.
Once a truce is successfully completed the relationship is ready to face some additional crucial questions: “Do both parties want to stay in the relationship?”; “Are the partners ready to move forward?”; “Is their relationship over?”; “Are they ready to Recommit?”
For a couple to make the decision to work through the affair, to re establish trust and to rebuild their relationship requires a lot of hard work and emotional stamina. Why would you put yourself through all this pain and work without good reason? And this is exactly what both partners need to look at next. Before initiating any more dialogue on the state of the relationship couples need to decide whether or not they still want to stay together and recreate their relationship.
And so begins a journey into the past and into the history of their partnership. Both parties are asked to return to the beginning of their relationship and to remind themselves of what attracted them to each other. They are encouraged to revisit the values, visions and hopes that they had shared, and to re experience the love that they had felt for each other. They are invited to remember the highlights of their life together and the events that are unique to their ‘story’.
And then they are asked to reflect on all of this and decide whether there is enough love and positive regard for each other in their memory bank to allow them to recommit to the relationship and build a new life together.
When Craig and Lin returned to counselling after their three week truce tension was still evident but there was a lessening of the harshness and bitterness that had been so evident before. They were now asked to take a trip into their past and review their years together. They noted that their history was full of challenges that they had overcome together, of periods of joy and laughter, and moments of hurt and pain.
As they shared this experience they were able to make a brief connection with the love that had accompanied them through their life and until recent times had clearly been present.
Individually they journeyed inward and sat with these memories and the feelings they evoked, and individually they decided whether or not they had a good enough reason to stay in the relationship.
They both concluded that the “good” outweighed the adultery and all the other unpleasant happenings in their time together. They both believed that the foundation of their relationship was strong and that they could with the support of each other create a new life together.
They both decided to commit themselves once again to their relationship and to the work that was required for healing and growth.
They were now ready to Talk.
The Talk: Part One
Even though it may be months since the affair ended and life has calmed down somewhat since the Truce and the Recommit the memory of the affair may still be strong and accusations and recriminations may be simmering just below the surface. Part One of The Talk is therefore aimed at addressing the leftover feelings raised by the affair and answering any questions hindering the healing process.
Both partners are given one final chance to express any negative emotions they may still be feeling about the affair. However unlike in the Blaming Stage there is no emotional blood bath and hurling of accusations. With the assistance of appropriate communication skills each partner owns their feelings and no matter how hurtful speaks with regard towards the other and with respect for the new relationship that is emerging.
At this time as well an opportunity is created for the betrayed party to ask those difficult questions about the affair that have been haunting them since this painful journey began.
Not all those who have experienced infidelity have a need to know the details of the affair. They do not want to feed their imagination more specific images and are ready to walk away from the whole experience. Others however feel that the details may help them understand what has happened. For some what they have imagined may be far worse than the reality of the situation so some comfort may be gained by knowing this. And still for others they may discover that their worse fears are true but can now begin the process of acceptance and healing.
Careful consideration should be given as to whether or not it is important to discuss the details of the adultery, and despite those who believe that this is necessary to avoid the ghosts of the affair emerging at a later date, there is no right or wrong way to go.
For Lin and Craig the decision to Recommit meant no more recriminations. They felt that they had vented their negative thoughts and emotions and were ready to move on. For them there were no emotional negative leftovers.
However Lin did have some questions about the affair and used this Talk as an opportunity to pose them. Her self esteem had been shattered and she needed some answers to help her reclaim her identity.
Although it was strongly recommended that Lin avoid questions that compared her to the other woman she could not help but ask. In some situations these questions if answered honestly can lead the relationship back into troubled waters and can really test a fragile Recommitment.
Lin and Craig’s relationship was not as fragile as some and was able to weather the honesty of Craig’s responses. It had not been difficult for Craig to end his affair as there never was a question as to whom he truly loved. This however is not the case in a good number of situations and so once again caution is urged when the Talk focuses on the details of the affair.
It can require much tact and diplomacy while still maintaining honesty and authenticity for a relationship to manoeuvre its way through Part One of the Talk readying it for the insightful exploration of Part Two.
The Talk: Part Two
By the time the relationship has reached this stage both partners are pretty tired and may be wanting a break, but some crucial work still remains.The relationship needs a service to determine what is wrong with it followed by a tune up to make sure it can operate at optimum capacity. The focus is now on answering these two questions:
- What went wrong?/Why did this happen?
- How can we stop this from happening again?
What Went Wrong?/ Why did this happen?
There can be any possible reasons for an affair. And it is not necessary for a relationship to be in bad shape for an affair to creep in and upset the status quo. Some cheaters simply love the excitement and rush they have when romancing a new person, others believe that extra marital flings keep the passion alive in their relationship, while others feel that they are missing something and so find themselves straying from home.
By the time couples reach this Talk stage it is more than likely that they have a pretty good idea as to what went wrong in their relationship. It is time now to give voice to these reasons in a calm and respectful manner. As with the Truce Rules of Engagement are introduced to encourage effective, productive communication.
To begin both partners are given an opportunity to express what they see as the reasons for the infidelity. Through discussion they begin compiling a list of the issues that contributed to and allowed the affair to happen.
During this Talk emotions may once again begin to flare and so it is quite important to ensure that couples adhere to the Rules of Engagement, set safe boundaries and remember their desire to Recommit.
Once all the issues are out on the table and the couple agrees that these unresolved problems are the source of the instability in their relationship and the foundation for adultery, partners can now brainstorm suggestions on how to resolve these issues and thereby prevent an affair from happening again.
It did not take long for Lin and Craig to itemise what they saw as the reasons for the affair. Their list was not very long but it did pinpoint an area of unmet needs as being the source of Craig’s unhappiness and his subsequent adultery. And Lin was able to identify the lack of support she felt from Craig in her role as mother as a contributing factor.
Both Lin and Craig were now able to brainstorm different ways to satisfy both their needs and to re establish a relationship based on respect.
After much discussion, negotiation and action planning Lin and Craig felt more confident that they could take steps forward moving away from the adultery. They were more comfortable with each other and felt they had a solid set of strategies to keep their relationship on track. They were now ready to tackle the big issue: Daring to Trust
Daring to Trust
As we said earlier once there has been a betrayal in a relationship and a loss of trust it can be very difficult to find that trust again. But it is very important to take steps to do so or all the work put into the relationship so far may become void.
This is a one step at a time process. Each day the betrayed goes to bed at night without any suspicions regarding their partner adds to their trust bank. But there are also some specific actions couples can take to help ease the doubts and anxiety that accompany a lack of trust.
To begin with the life of the partner who has strayed becomes an open book. There are no hidden nooks and crannies in which they can hide any aspect of their life. There is no secrecy or privacy, everything is transparent.
As harsh as this may sound this complete exposure may be very necessary for an initial period. The betrayed party in the relationship is quite vulnerable and needs all the help they can get to be able to trust again. If they have a bird’s eye view of all that is happening in their partner’s life they may be able to abate their fears that their partner is once again cheating on them.
A loss of trust may not necessarily only impact on the betrayed, as there are different ways in which trust may be abused, and so it is quite possible that both partners in the relationship may need help in finding the trust necessary to move forward.
With a team focus partners can now discuss ways that they can help each other through this initial period in which trust is at a minimum. Each partner upon the request of the other can offer suggestions on what their partner can do to make it easier for them to feel safe and capable of trusting once again. For the betrayed these may include extra phone calls from their partner during the day, sexual abstinence for awhile, a temporary break from other activities, better communication, or more time spent sitting and talking.
For the adulterer they may need more affection, they may want to be included in certain activities or they may want to be excluded from events that they find intolerable. Trust in these situations may have been broken by a lack of attention and consideration and also needs to be regained.
As in all stages in this process of relationship recovery any discussion that takes place is bound by the Rules of Engagement, respect for the individual partners and for the relationship itself.
No time frame can be placed on how long it takes to regain trust, but if no progress is being made after an agreed upon period of time it is probably necessary to re examine the relationship and make some more changes.
By the time Craig and Lin had crawled through the shambles of their relationship and were moving forward they were acutely aware that now more than ever they needed to be patient with each other and respectful of each other’s vulnerabilities.
For an initial period, until there was some more healing, Lin needed to be able to call Craig at any time when he was not at home, and she wanted him to call her when there were any changes to his plans.
Craig in his turn needed Lin to begin including him in family decisions and activities. He didn’t trust that Lin would allow him back into the warmth of his family and he needed reassurance from her that this would happen.
Lin and Craig were no longer emotionally abusing each other and had been able to engage in productive conversations aimed at gaining clarity as to why their relationship had gone into crisis. With the understanding of what had gone wrong they had worked hard on identifying what their needs were and what their relationship required to avoid any future meltdowns. They then had proceeded to plan strategies to meet these needs. With a careful respect for the fragility of their relationship they had worked together at finding ways to nurture trust as both parties slowly began to heal.
Only one thing remained to be done: The Contract
Although this sounds very legalistic and unromantic a contract at this point in time can be very useful in setting boundaries and guidelines. The contract serves as a reminder of the commitment that the couple has made to the relationship. It symbolises all the emotional toil, pain and hard work that the relationship has endured, and embodies an intimacy that the couple has shared as they have slowly moved away from adultery to a renewal of their relationship.
On a practical level all the stipulations, demands, strategies and techniques that have been discussed and refined are now incorporated into a contract format. By signing the contract both parties agree to play their part in implementing the strategies aimed at relationship recovery and the prevention of future crises.
Lin and Craig viewed the contract as a serious document and spent a whole weekend together in designing one that reflected their new found respect for their relationship and for the steps they were to follow to keep their relationship on track.
With the signing of their contract they reaffirmed their commitment to move forward – with no looking back. They had had plenty of time to dwell in the pain of the infidelity. They had weathered the crisis that had brought them to counselling, and with their contract to guide them there was no need to ever again talk about the adultery. And so they agreed to lay the infidelity to rest and to never resurrect it.
The story of Lin and Craig and how they moved forward out of the emotional chaos created by adultery is just that- their story. Every relationship is unique and how couples weave their way through the fallout of adultery is determined by the details of their events. With clarity, strength and determination they can create their own ending to this painful time in their life.