How Couples Can Reconnect After An Affair
For those who've recently had the gut-wrenching experience of being cheated on, know that you're by no means alone in what you're going through. One in five men and women admitted to having cheated on a past partner in one 2015 study, so the phenomenon is far from rare.
If you choose to stay together, how do you recover and come out stronger?
The Gottman Method, a popular research-based approach to couples therapy, breaks down the process of how to reconnect after an affair into three main steps: atonement, attunement, and attachment.
Step 1: Atone.
First and foremost, the cheater must express regret and remorse. According to the Gottman Method, it's necessary for the cheater accept the blame. "Atonement cannot occur if the cheater insists that the victim take partial blame for the affair," writes John Gottman, psychologist and co-founder of the Gottman Institute, in his book What Makes Love Last?
During this same process, the cheater needs to become more aware of their needs and vulnerabilities. Oftentimes the affair occurs as a way for the cheater to meet their unrecognized needs.
In the book, Gottman also recommends that those desiring to continue in a monogamous relationship establish the "no second chance" rule, which creates a huge disincentive for cheating again. This helps to give the victim back some of their power.
It's important to decide what you're comfortable with going forward and to establish firm boundaries that make your relationship a safe place for both partners.
Step 2: Attune.
In the second phase, partners begin to make each other a priority again. At this point, both partners can look at reestablishing what they want in a relationship and in each other.
Recognizing the roots of the problem.
Relationship expert Rachel Madorsky, LCSW, explains that once you've decided to move forward together, "it's important that both people begin to look at how they co-created the relationship and subsequently the affair. Once you've done this, miracles begin to take place."
The idea isn't to blame the person who experienced the betrayal but rather to examine the problems that happened between the two people in the relationship that preceded the affair since it's easy to allow the affair to eclipse all else that happened prior to it.
"Cheaters are not necessarily looking for someone else; they are looking to become someone else," Dr. Tammy Nelson, psychotherapist, board-certified sexologist, and author of When You're the One Who Cheats, writes at mbg. "A person may be cheating because they like who they are when they're with their affair partner. They might feel sexier, smarter, more charming, and more alive when they cheat. With their spouse at home, they might feel invisible, dull, boring, or old. An affair can counteract a person's negative self-talk, through no fault of their partner."
The events and context that led up to an affair don't excuse the cheating, but they do offer clarity as to why it happened—and a path forward toward healing for both parties.
With that in mind, an important part of the attunement phase is each person regaining trust and unconditional positive regard for the other. Harville Hendrix, relationship psychologist and creator of Imago Relationships Therapy (another popular couples therapy method), recommends one great exercise for rebuilding trust in his book Getting the Love You Want: Each person writes down 20 small acts of kindness they would like their partner to do for them. These can include giving small gifts such as flowers, writing love notes, spending quality time together making breakfast, trying a new restaurant, or cuddling in bed on a Sunday. Once each person has their wish list, they exchange them and attempt to perform one of these acts a day for their partner. Over time, these acts of kindness help couples to rebuild rapport and trust. Slowly they can begin to appreciate and enjoy each other again, even it feels forced in the beginning.
For the person who was cheated on, Madorsky says that learning to trust your partner again can be difficult, but it can also be empowering: "When you don't own how much power you have in your life, you're left to feel like a victim. It actually feels better to trust than not to trust. So as long each partner is committed and taking positive action, consider giving yourself the gift of trusting again."
As you begin rebuilding your relationship during this phase, David Ley, Ph.D., psychologist and author of Insatiable Wives: Women Who Cheat and the Men Who Love Them, stresses the importance of avoiding online discussion groups about cheating. "Like the rest of the Internet, they tend to be filled with angry, toxic people who are gleeful when your relationship ends in the same flames of rage that torched their own," he writes.
He also warns against lie detector tests: "There is unfortunately a steady business out there that promotes the idea that 'this is only way you'll ever really be able to trust your partner again.' Those tests are invalid and merely breed greater antagonism and one-sided coercion."
Rather than focusing on the negative aspects of the affair, Ley says it's better to shift your focus onto the good times you've shared in the past and all the new ones you'll find together in the future.
Step 3: Attach.
Once you've begun to feel positive toward your partner again, you can begin to work toward the future and regaining your intimate connection. Because healthy sex is based on a strong emotional connection, you want to get to know your partner again only after attunement has taken place.
"It's important to remember that recovering from infidelity requires us to be able to understand and recognize our own sexual and intimacy needs, and to communicate them to our partner, listening to them, and respecting them as they do the same to us," Dr. Ley writes.
One exercise that works to help develop and deepen emotional intimacy involves answering that popular series of questions developed by Dr. Arthur Aron and prominently featured in the New York Times' Modern Love section. By taking a romantic evening and answering these questions together, you reacquaint yourself with who your partner has become. This exercise can be particularly powerful for couples that have been together for many years.
(If you want more ideas, here are five other ways to connect with your partner again.)
While working through these steps of recovery, it's also important to continue having fun. "It's OK to compartmentalize the affair during this process and have fun together, as long as you're committed to handling the issues," Madorsky says. "In fact, by having fun together, you can begin to heal more quickly."
Once you've achieved the three steps of atonement, attunement, and attachment, you can begin moving forward on looking toward your future.
In his book The Seven Principles for Making Marriage Work, Gottman outlines the Sound Relationship House theory, which features seven relationship "levels." The top two layers, accessible only after moving through and managing conflicts like affairs, are "making life dreams come true" and "creating shared meaning." During this period of meaning-making, couples can begin to determine what they want to be important to them as a couple moving forward. For instance, your shared goals might include international travel, creating a business together, or starting a family. You might want to begin by planning a vacation, giving yourselves something to look forward to and enjoy, and continue building from there.
For couples who've suffered from an affair, making plans for a future together is the ultimate marker of reconnection. It takes time to get to that place, but if you slowly and intentionally move through each stage of the recovery process, you can access this place of union and commitment once again.
Sara Sloan, Ph.D., LMFT-A, is a licensed marriage and family therapist associate specializing in relationship and sex therapy. She has a master's degree in Counseling from St. Edward's University, an MFA from Columbia University, and a Ph.D. in English from Texas Tech University. She is a member of the American Association of Sexuality Educators, Counselors, and Therapists and the Sexual Health Alliance. She has a private practice in Austin, Texas.