Affairs happen – and there are ways to recover from them with your relationship intact and stronger.
But after the first few weeks of intensive affair recovery work, couples usually will ask me two very significant questions: How long will it take to feel better? And how long will the affair recovery process take?
The partner who didn’t have the affair usually asks me the first question, and the partner who had the affair most commonly asks me the second. The short answer to both questions is about six months to two years. If both partners are dedicated to the healing process, their progress is on the shorter end of this time frame.
Understandably, this lengthy recovery period is disappointing for my clients to hear about. They want to know why it takes so long. I use the word “recovery” in the sense that when there has been a wound, a process of treatment is required to help that wound to heal. In this sense, “Recovery” does not refer here to an addiction recovery 12-step model. I use the words “relationship” and “marriage” interchangeably in this article. Both words refer to a long-term, committed, exclusive relationship between two people.
I believe these two significant questions come up at just the right time. Every few weeks, as a couple rebuilds their relationship and their trust, more questions arise. As we keep the lines of communication open in therapy, we have the opportunity to address deeper and more significant questions. I say “we”, not “I”, because couples don’t look only to me for empathy and guidance – they also heal each other.
“When Will I Feel Better?”
The question “When will I feel better?” lets me know how much the client is hurting. The first few months of affair recovery work can feel like an endless stretch of really bad days. In sessions, partners learn how to talk about exactly what happened and when. This helps the partner who didn’t have the affair to regain their bearings, after having their world turned upside-down by affair discovery. But the information itself is very distressing, and at times, humiliating. So it can feel like one step forward and two steps back.
But in reality, large-scale positive change is occurring rapidly. The relationship is changing for the better, though it takes time to process what your partner is saying while adjusting to new ways of talking and listening to each other. And because trust has been broken, it can be hard to believe that you’re finally hearing the truth.
This leads to a lot of second-guessing of yourself and your judgment, which adds to the painfulness of the experience.
Yet in three to six months, improvement usually occurs in several ways. It should be easier to fall asleep and stay asleep through the night. It should be possible to think about, and talk about, things besides the affair. With the passing of weeks and months, life brings new events and concerns that need to be addressed. It can feel good to think about problems other than affair recovery, and to focus on what’s happening in your friends’ and families’ lives, instead of your own.
“How Long Will Affair Recovery Take?”
This question is very understandable because we’re all busy people, and therapy isn’t cheap. But this question concerns a lot more than time and money. Under the surface, the partner who had the affair could be subtly asking, “How long will I feel guilty?” or, “When will my partner look at me with trust in their eyes?”. These are such vulnerable questions that my clients seldom ask them directly.
When you’re longing to be loved and accepted again, but feel undeserving of your partner’s love and acceptance, and perhaps even ashamed, it’s a very hard place to be. I do everything I can in the sessions to show and demonstrate respect for both clients. Because regardless of who had the affair, both partners are entitled to their feelings, and both have needs and a voice. No one deserves to feel guilty forever. Working intentionally through the recovery stages does, little by little, build back your partner’s trust in you.
The Three Recovery Stages
In fact, there are three stages to affair recovery: Stage 1, The Body; Stage 2, The Heart, and Stage 3, Meaning.
An affair discovery is a crisis and an emergency, and you and your partner want the situation addressed immediately. We work through the affair recovery stages in order, so that you and your partner can process all of what happened, all emotions connected with the experience, and the meaning-of-life questions that affair recovery raises. We do this painstakingly so that you and your partner can heal, have a stronger marriage than ever before, and so you can shed any unhealthy relationship habits.
After the first few weeks of hard work in treatment, you will begin to notice positive results. Learning how to speak from the heart, and to connect better nonverbally, starts to pay off.
Stage 1: The Body
In The Body, several big things are accomplished within two to five months. We explore any health implications that the affair may have caused. Mood problems, physical injuries, sexually transmitted diseases and other communicable diseases come into play here, and need to be diagnosed and treated by a physician, and discussed in session. You also may want to reclaim your sexual partnership during Stage 1, a very important body experience.
This is a step-by-step process, starting with allowing the partner who didn’t have the affair to have all the time they need to regrow sexual desire for their partner. The regrowth period begins with re-establishing eye contact, mutual words of affirmation, and nonsexual touch. The person who didn’t have the affair needs to have all of their questions answered directly by their partner. Week by week in session, they have the opportunity to hear what happened and when, and what their partner was feeling at the time – straight from their partner.
This helps the partner who didn’t have the affair sense that their world is beginning to stabilize. It also reduces the need to spy or snoop for information, and the guilt and loneliness that come with spying. Answering your partner’s questions openly, honestly and in detail helps the partner who had the affair begin to dismantle the wall of compartmentalization that kept the affair going. Affairs are perpetuated in a hidden fantasy bubble. Speaking to your partner, in person, while looking into his or her eyes, and explaining exactly what happened and when, deflates the fantasy bubble.
This too is a week-by-week process. In session, as the couple ask and answer questions, they deflate the bubble a little more, until all the air has been let out. They learn to make a habit of being honest and real with each other about everything. All these Stage 1 activities clear the communication channels and lay the groundwork for rebuilding trust.
Stage 2: The Heart
Stage 2, The Heart, is all about rebuilding trust. This stage usually takes another three to six months. When two people first meet and fall in love, they build trust painstakingly over time, without even realizing how hard they’re working. After an affair, or a trust injury of any sort, a couple needs to rebuild trust consciously and intentionally in order to heal.
To do this, they both learn how to make Heart Statements, a way to share how you feel in your heart. Using Heart Statements is a skill that couples learn and practice in session for at least a month. Every Heart Statement has something to do with your own feelings about a situation, and the meaning that you derive from that situation. It’s not an observation of what your partner is doing or saying.
“I love you” is a simple and profound Heart Statement. “I miss you when you stay out late, and it worries me” is another good example. The speaker is showing vulnerability here, and creates space to talk about something in the relationship that bothers them. “I feel like you want me to come home earlier” isn’t a heart statement. It’s one partner’s best guess at what their partner wants, and it’s a conversation ender because it puts the listener on the defensive. A Heart Statement response to your partner saying that they miss you, and they worry when you’re out late, could be: “I’m glad you told me”. Also, “I need my girls’ nights though, so how can we work this out?”
Next, couples learn how to incorporate speaking from the heart into their daily lives together. This isn’t intuitive or easy, so you’ll receive a lot of coaching and practice in session, and a lot of homework in between sessions.
With practice, speaking in Heart Statements leads a couple to have the best and deepest conversations they’ve ever had. Once you and your partner learn this skill, you’ll never want to return to the old way of communicating feelings. Furthermore, your relationship will start to feel new and different, not just an enhanced version of your relationship before the affair.
Stage 3: Meaning
During Stage 3, Meaning, you and your partner can delve deeper into meaning-of-life questions, now that you are equipped with new skills and habits and an expanded emotional vocabulary. This stage normally takes at least three months, or 10 to 12 sessions, but can actually last as long as the couple wants.
The toughest part of Stage 3 is dealing with the one-year anniversaries of events on the affair timeline. The first anniversary of when the affair began, when it was discovered, and several anniversary dates in between, can all cause the original pain to return. This is where you can use what you learned in Stages 1 and 2. So whereas a year before, when things were hidden or denied, and there was a wall between you and your partner; now you can comfort and help to ease each other’s pain.
Each event on the affair timeline needs a dedicated whole session. But my couples do leave these anniversary sessions feeling better about their stronger relationship. They also begin to feel better about themselves, more comfortable in their own skin.
In Stage 3, we also talk about what kind of relationship the partners want, and we review the story of how they first fell in love. Each partner shares their hopes and dreams for the relationship. We take the time to share stories and back-stories, and the couple begins to see and hear each other in new ways. They experience Heart Intimacy, a high-level form of heart-to-heart connection in which two partners know each other’s emotional world intimately. They get a deep sense of security from being truly understood and accepted.
A “New” Marriage
At this point, you can celebrate how far you’ve come, and how much your marriage has changed. You may want to develop new rituals and mottos that encapsulate your story together. You may want to meet less often with me, to get a panoramic perspective of how your “new” marriage has improved.
Couples then return to each session with more stories to share and celebrate. After working together for months or even up to two years, couples usually come to a mutual agreement on when their affair recovery is complete, and they’re ready to journey on together. It is my privilege and pleasure to send them on their way.