Affairs are atom bombs. They implode marriages, upend lives, ruin careers, and wither reputations. The fallout is awful. But, if you’re genuinely sorry and willing to put in the effort, it is possible to save your marriage. This requires humility, self-awareness, hard work, and, most of all honesty.
Even before an affair reaches its explosive place, it takes a severe emotional toll on the one doing the cheating. And, if you cheated (c’mon, man) and want to save your marriage, it’s essential to recognize — and react to — how those emotions manifest.
The most pervasive emotion after an affair is, unsurprisingly, guilt. So says Lisa Bahar, a marriage and family therapist who has more than 20 years of experience. But what people don’t realize is how common it is for the guilt a cheater feels to make them turn on their partner as a means of projecting their shame and avoiding a confession.
“He starts to feel guilty and perhaps starts to pick fights with the wife,” she says. “He becomes suspicious of her, checking her phone, accusing her. And she’s like, ‘What is wrong with you? Why are you doing this?’”
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Of course, Bahar says, the immediate fallout from an affair can also bring with it a lot of mixed feelings, including shame that the cheater might have developed feelings for the person with whom they are cheating.
“There is also a lot of confusion,” she says, “due to the emotional bonding that took place that has a ‘forbidden,’ ‘secret’ element that creates in many cases ruminating thoughts and anxiety: ‘I just can’t stop thinking about him/her.’”
That guilt and shame, compounded with the fear of the consequences, forms a potent cocktail of emotions that keeps cheaters from confessing to their significant other. That is, of course, a mistake.
“Keeping it a secret is like having an affair with the secret,” she says. “It’s always going to be lurking and your partner is going to sense it. If you have one little area of yourself that you’re not sharing, that’s enough for it to wiggle back in.”
On top of all this, dwelling on the affair in one’s own head can lead to a shame spiral that can be very tough to pull out of. “It’s just fertile ground for anxiety, depression, self-loathing, shaming, perpetual guilt,” she says. “Which can lead to ways to cope like drinking, drugs, or porn.”
So, after an affair, what positive steps should someone take to try to save their marriage? The only course of action, per Bahar, is to come clean and face the problem head-on. Keeping any details omitted, she says, will only allow the affair to continue, even if it’s on an emotional level.
“Affairs survive in secrecy,” says Bahar. “And they become more tantalizing and interesting and exciting when they’re not being put on the table, taken apart, and looked at. The goal is to not get too far into the minutiae and more into, ‘Okay, what is this that happened and how do we work through it?’”
Working through infidelity almost always requires professional intervention, Bahar says, preferably someone who is pro-marriage and not about each person seeking out their own happiness. It’s also important for the one who’s cheating to take responsibility and also show their partner that they’re willing to take the necessary steps to heal the relationship. Those steps could include “picking up the cost for counseling, showing up for counseling, doing counseling homework, attending personal therapy, maybe even love addiction meetings,” says Bahar. “This decreases the ‘sensational high’ of the affair; it is no longer laced in secrecy and it’s less exciting.”
Also, Bahar stressed that couples need to identify what it is that triggered the affair in the first place. What was missing and what drove the other partner to cheat? “It is important for both spouses to learn about what the affair represented through individual and couples counseling,” she says. “Remember, these acts of infidelity survive in the fantasy world of the mind and are not viable relationships that can sustain in the ‘real world.’”
Before the healing can really begin, however, Bahar says that the cheater has to sever all ties with the other woman (or man). This is a skill called “opposite action,” which Bahar teaches in her Dialectical Behavior Therapy (DBT) courses.
“You want to do the opposite of what the affair is asking you to do,” she says. This means you must block the person’s phone number and delete the phone number after blocking it; remove yourself from social media; stop posting on Facebook (take the icon off your phone).”The affair needs to get fed,” says Bahar. “So no contact. Do not go to locations that you shared. Do not look at pictures that you had together. Destroy all love notes and exchanges. Action, action, action. Go to therapy, communicate with your wife. Be present with family. It will decrease the intensity of the attraction.”
There’s no way around it: An affair will take its toll on you and your relationship. And it’s most likely that you will feel its after-effects for some time. But, Bahar says that if you can take these steps, then you can hopefully come out the other side. “An affair will wiggle and tap for the rest of your life,” she says, “but if you keep closing the door, the intensity decreases over time.”