There are few things that rock a marriage more than affairs. Not surprisingly, there are few things, as well, that rock a betrayed partner to their core as much as affairs. I have seen some of the strongest men and women have their very foundation seem to fall out from under them due to the aftermath of affairs. As a result, they lash out, shut down, attack, become depressed, desperately try to win their spouse back, angrily throw their spouse out, become crazed, seek revenge, doubt their sanity, hate their spouse, become obsessed with their spouse, feel indifferent toward their spouse and every other possible response in between. In essence, affairs can turn a totally happy, sane person into a miserable, depressed madman or woman. Contrary to their loved one’s beliefs, all of these reactions are “normal.”
Helping a loved one through the emotional wreckage following an affair is not easy. Most friends and family members have the best of intentions. They want to “fix” the hurt and help their loved one mend. Unfortunately, in their effort to fix the hurt, they often cause more damage. So to all of you who are trying to help a loved one get through the pain of an affair, here is your cheat sheet. Follow it closely.
Things you need to know:
1. On average it takes 3-5 years to recover from an affair. Yes, you did read that correctly—3-5 YEARS—not weeks, not months—but years (and that is if the partner who cheated is willing to talk through the affair repeatedly, help their spouse through their triggers, be remorseful and have their life be an open book). During this time, your loved one is being triggered constantly at first. As time goes on, the triggers lessen, but still continue frequently (on special occasions, when their partner travels, in happy times, in hard times, at weddings, during sex, at restaurants, etc.). Tip: Realize they are likely triggered ten times more often then they ever let on and they are using a tremendous amount of strength to manage those triggers. Don’t get angry at the ones they’re letting you see. Tip: Do not tell them to make a decision, get on with their life or any other “advice” that is about them hurrying up with their pain. This kind of advice is more about your discomfort with sitting with their sadness than it is about helping them.
2. The longer the affair went on, the longer it will take to heal. If a loved one’s spouse cheated for a year or more versus a one night stand that will cause significantly more pain for a longer time. And the one night stand, in itself, causes significant pain! Tip: Don’t ever tell them to “just get over it.”
3. Affairs are not caused by the betrayed spouse. The only one responsible for the affair is the one who cheated. Period. No one has the power to make another person cheat. If the cheating spouse was unhappy s/he could’ve demanded you discuss it, get into therapy, separate or even divorce. Tip: Never blame your loved one for causing the affair. Don’t ask questions like, “Well, were you a good wife/husband?” Put the blame where it belongs and keep it there.
If you have a loved one who’s spouse cheated on them, your job is to sit with them in their pain. Don’t try to get them to rush through it, move on, forget about it, forgive, not forgive, stay, leave or any other thing you want. If it’s a couple you are friends with—give more support to the one who was your friend and be a rock for them. If it is your family member who was cheated on, give your family member the support first and foremost. Do not demonize the spouse who cheated and do not act as if what they did was fine. The person who cheated will have their family and friends to help them through their side of healing—it’s your job to help your family/friend to heal theirs.
Challenge: Do not underestimate the damage of affairs. The pain cuts far deeper than anyone speaks about and is far more difficult to heal than you can imagine. Be a shoulder for your loved one to lean on. Listen, be curious, loving, compassionate and most importantly—be patient. They will come through this –in their time frame, not yours.