We hear it in girl power anthems every day on the radio. We gossip about it over lunch with our girlfriends.
“Once a cheater, always a cheater.”
We never envision ourselves staying with a partner who has strayed.
“Everything you own in that box to the left”, preaches Queen Bey. And of course, there are some women who shout that anthem and slam the door shut on a cheating guy and never look back.
A friend of mine once broke up with a guy just because she thought he *might* be hiding something (on the outside I was the model supportive friend, but on the inside I thought, “ouch…”).
If you are one of those ladies who has already packed her bags, this is not for you.
I know firsthand that for many of us, it’s just not that easy or uncomplicated. When we are in pain in our relationships and we dig deeper, there are (usually) no clear heroes or villains in the story. If perfect relationships were the norm, Taylor Swift would not be selling out arenas.
The truth is, there are many more women who try to stick it out and save their relationship after their man cheats than the larger culture would have us believe. It is one of the most common presenting problems that I see as a couples’ therapist. And these vulnerable women (and men! But this one’s for the ladies) always have two basic questions for me:
“How do we build trust again after this, and how long will it take?”
“Is this normal?”
The 3 Phases of Recovery From An Affair
The short answer to these questions is: it depends. Affairs come in all shapes and sizes, and every relationship is different. A one-time drunken make-out session at a party will take less time to move on from than a 6-month affair where heavy emotions got involved.
But we do know from research that there are three phases of recovery that couples go through when they make it through an affair.
My clients find it helpful to know that yes all of this hurt and confusion is normal, and yes there is a light at the end of the tunnel if you move through these phases together in a healthy way.
Here are the phases of getting over an affair, adapted from Tammy Nelson, Ph.D. over at the Huffington Post:
The Crisis Phase
Symptoms may include crying in the fetal position, yelling, or throwing shoes.
The Understanding (or Insight) Phase
Early signs of empathy a few weeks after you stop yelling. Maybe he’s allowed back into your bed. Expect to relapse back into the crisis phase if a hot girl walks by and he sneaks a peak (and try to forgive this lapse in judgement…really!?).
The Vision Phase
Symptoms include regained trust, little to no thrown shoes, and feeling ready to plan a future together.
But what do these phases actually look like? I’ve worked with dozens of couples trying to piece their lives back together after an affair, and here are six things I’ve learned that you can expect:
1. You will want to know everything in excruciating detail.
And you will just need to trust me on this one, you *do not* want to know every detail.
It is natural for us to go after this information, and we feel like we need to know in order to move on. But do you really want those painful images imprinted in your memory forever?
Future you will thank you for resisting the impulse to demand a play-by-play from him. Your imagination can and will be vicious and do most of the work for you anyway, but trust me, you don’t want to give it actual content to work from.
Instead: Get only the basic facts.
How long was the affair?
Was it “just sex” or were there emotions involved?
Then use all your strength to try to let those other details go. It won’t be easy, but the feeling of “I need to know” will fade over time.
You will inevitably feel the impulse to blurt out in the heat of battle, “did you have sex with her in our bed!?”
Just breathe. Call a timeout and reach out to a friend to vent.
2. You will open your heart too soon.
You love him, and you want to just move on from this. I know that when you’ve gone a few days without a screaming match, you will want to say “I forgive you” and declare your relationship healed.
But not so fast. The Crisis Phase is not completed overnight, and these early impulses to make the big decision to stay together (or breakup!) usually don’t stick, because the emotions are still running too high.
Instead: Know that these mood swings are normal. Resist the impulse to make big decisions right now. Accept that there will be days when you never want to get out of bed with him, and days when you just can’t stop crying.
3. You will look through his phone… A lot.
Trust me, it takes a long time to rebuild trust. There will be many days when you grab his phone every time he gets up to go to the bathroom and anxiously scroll through every text message.
You may feel entitled to every password and conversation thread from now until the end of time, but making demands that destroy any hope of privacy in your relationship is not the answer.
Instead: Accept that there will come a day when you will not flinch and look over his shoulder every time you hear his phone go off, even if that day is not today. A good partner will understand this and be patient.
Talk honestly with him about the realities of your mistrust, while assuring him that once he’s earned it back, your intrusive behavior will stop.
4. You will blame yourself.
At some point, you will realize that your relationship was probably not so satisfying for either of you just before the affair.
Here’s an important aside: If you’re reading #4 and you are still in the throes of the Crisis Phrase, you may be feeling like you want to throw a shoe at me, and that’s okay. Bookmark this article and catch up with me in a few weeks.
And we’re back…
Maybe just before the affair, you had been making a habit of withholding sex as a punishment. Maybe you were going through a life transition and were struggling with depression and anxiety.
While a cheater must always be held accountable for their actions, infidelity typically does not happen in a vacuum. But blaming yourself is not fair, and does not help anyone.
Instead: Resist the impulse to sink into shame. Begin to accept that you were not a perfect partner either in this first part of the Insight Phase, while still holding onto a healthy sense of dignity. No matter what, you are worthy of faithfulness.
5. You will realize both of you share some blame.
Here is where you start to have those difficult, heartfelt talks about what went wrong between you.
Maybe you were withholding sex as a punishment because he wasn’t making you feel appreciated, and he wasn’t making you feel appreciated because he felt like he felt like he couldn’t get close to you.
Maybe you didn’t feel supported by him while you were feeling anxious or depressed, so you began to isolate yourself and he didn’t know how to help you and started to withdraw (which, of course, would make you more anxious and depressed).
You will start to see how you are both responsible for creating intimacy in your relationship, and somewhere along the line you stopped being honest with one another.
6. You will make a new contract.
Not literally. But if you come to the Vision Phase and decide to keep your recovering cheater around for a while, you will both need to sit down and talk about what it means to start fresh. You need to be able to answer some hard questions:
What are the boundaries of our relationship? How will we create a safe space for honesty if our needs are not being met? Am I ready to truly forgive and move forward?
This means no more throwing shoes, no more reading through his text messages, and no more false starts. It also means it’s time to get serious about honest communication and working on your vulnerable bond a little bit every day.
This roadmap for recovering from an affair should of course be used with caution. Sometimes, moving on is the right decision. I have seen clients and friends give a second chance to men who truly didn’t deserve it.
However, I have also seen couples come out of the other side of an affair stronger for having gone through it, and together with their partner they learn how to care for and protect their relationship. As always, you will need to make the right decision for you.