Affairs and cheating in relationships are extremely painful and traumatic for a couple. However, many couples choose to stay together and work toward reconciliation after a betrayal. If both partners are willing to face their situation and work on the relationship, it is possible for them to not only move beyond the crisis, but also strengthen their relationship.
Throughout my career as a Couples counselor, I have specialized in recovery from affairs and other forms of betrayal. Over the years I have learned that there is a process of forgiveness and repair that heals and creates the foundation for a healthier, happier, more honest relationship moving forward. I developed a clear four-step process, which is summarized below:
Step 1: Be clear about and agree on WHAT happened and what needs to be forgiven. This involves the betrayer being completely transparent about the other relationship and the betrayed person getting answers to all of his/her questions about what happened.
Step 2: Develop and demonstrate EMPATHY for how this affected the betrayed individual. The betrayed person needs to feel a strong sense of empathy from their partner that includes a high level of understanding (and care) about how their actions affected the other.
Step 3: Gain insight and understanding as to WHY the betrayal took place. It focuses on the CONTEXTUAL UNDERSTANDING of the affair. There are always reasons why people do what they do. These reasons can include both individual factors and dynamics in the relationship. It is possible to explore the context while still understanding that the person who had the affair is completely responsible and accountable for their actions. The more insight they have into why they behaved a certain way, the more likely they will be able to prevent another affair.
Step 4: The LEAP OF FAITH. In this step, both individuals write a letter to the other, which is read to their partner in the presence a witness (often their therapist). The betrayer essentially takes responsibility for their actions, commits to do everything in their power to keep this from happening again, and asks for forgiveness. The betrayed takes a leap of faith by putting their faith back in to the other, forgiving them, and committing to move forward in the relationship. This does not include a commitment to never think or talk about the affair, but it does establish a commitment not to use the affair as a weapon or use it as a justification for their behaviors in the future.
These steps cannot be rushed, and must happen with the guidance of the therapist. With regular therapy appointments, the process usually takes about 6 months and often ranges from 3 months to a year, depending upon the situation. Working this way also allows the couple to learn about their individual issues and their dynamics as a couple – both strengths and weaknesses. Afterward, many couples will say that the affair was a significantly traumatic event, but also served as a catalyst for strengthening their relationship into a long term, connected and satisfying one.