John only had a short affair. And it was a long time ago. Years later the truth came to light and his marriage to Maryanne hit the critical list. Maryanne didnít want the marriage to end. But how could she ever again trust John? John desperately wanted to be forgiven for the past, and find a way for the marriage to continue.
By the time they came to see me for help, they were completely stuck, hopeless and miserable.
Unfortunately they arenít alone. Iíve worked with many other couples in a similar situation, and always my goal is to leave them with a much more rewarding relationship than they ever had before.
Here are the steps that John and Maryanne were able to take, which illustrates how many couples can rebuild trust and transform their nightmares:
Step 1: Make a Clear Decision
When there is an infidelity, thereís a decision to be made. The unfaithful party must immediately cease all contact with the person they have been seeing; no phone calls, no emails, no texts, no cards or notes, no drive-bys. Johnís essential first step with Maryanne was to commit willingly and wholeheartedly to emotional and physical fidelity Ė and to mean it.
Step 2: Shift from Guilt to Remorse
John felt guilty about his affair and horrible about himself. Unfortunately feeling guilty didnít help at all. It led John to be quiet and keep his distance. But what he couldnít see was that as a result Maryanne felt shut out. This formed a downward spiral, leaving her feeling even more tense, unhappy, and unloved.
Guilt is useless! Donít let it ruin your relationship. Guilty people are so absorbed in their own feelings that they canít even see what is happening for someone else. Johnís guilt was driving his wife even further away from him.
The dramatic change came when John made the huge shift from guilt to remorse, and focused on the pain Maryanne was experiencing instead of his own. He got interested in what was going on for her. Feeling compassionate rather than self critical, John was able to begin creating connection with Maryanne rather than distance.
Step 3: Be willing to sit and listen
If you are going to leave an affair behind, sooner or later you have to talk about it. John had to be willing to let Maryanne ask for whatever details she wanted to hear. Whatís more, he needed to listen to her feelings of betrayal and hurt in a supportive way. Thatís extremely tough to do, which is why John and Maryanne chose to do this part with me, over several therapy sessions.
To make it easier, I taught John and Maryanne a three-part communication skill called the Imago Dialogue. We worked together to bring respect to the dialogue structure by eliminating shame, blame and criticism as John and Maryanne learned to focus on their own deeper feelings and express them.
John and Maryanne found a deep understanding of one another. A deep connection was building, perhaps deeper than they had ever experienced before.
Step 4: Re-imagine your role in the relationship
Although John felt and understood Maryanneís pain, internally he still had plenty of excuses for the affair. He still wanted to justify his actions to her in some way, but every time he did he undermined his attempts to rebuild trust.
Instead, I coached John to take on a new role, as protector of the relationship.
He prepared himself, like a martial arts expert might. He knew that he would have to be able to absorb Maryanneís anger and yet still hold his ground. Just like in Aikido. He worked on calming his reactive tendencies with breathing exercises, used music to calm himself, and learned to sit in a grounded position when he talked with Maryanne
Creating new mental images was another important step. In addition to seeing the pain he had caused, he also recalled positive times in their years together, and all the things that led him to fall in love with Maryanne. All of these actions helped Johnís romantic, creative side come alive, and he began to court Maryanne much like he had when they first met.
Naturally, Maryanne responded by beginning to feel more trusting and secure.
Step 5: When itís time Ė explore and repair
Up until now, weíve really only talked about John examining himself. But it takes two to make a relationship. For complete healing, John and Maryanne became a team to understand how their histories and their present day dynamics may have made them vulnerable to an affair.
But itís important to complete steps 1 to 4 first. Thatís because Maryanne canít feel safe to explore until she truly feels Johnís remorse.
This is very tender territory and can be aided tremendously by the coaching of an Imago therapist. Just like steel rods are broken and re-soldered many times to make them stronger, a relationship can emerge from a betrayal stronger than before when the couple are willing to climb the above steps.