Once the secret of an affair is exposed, the aftermath for both partners and the overall relationship is catastrophic. Insults and harsh words are catapulted; tears pour harder than the Niagara Falls; fears, blame and shame become intermingled in the litany of pain. The confusion of hate and love seem to become one and the lack of control becomes unbearable, yet a part of your new daily life. You flip flop back and forth between wanting to forgive, wanting to end the relationship, and wanting vengeance. You worry what others will think and this makes your decision-making process even more complicated. You wonder if you will ever trust again.
With all this confusion going on, some ask what is a ‘normal’ emotional and psychological process to expect after an affair? There are many research studies that have addressed this exact issue, resulting in several different ideas. As an active practitioner in private practice dealing with these issues, below is the process that makes the most sense to me*:
- Roller Coaster Phase: Emotions swing from one extreme to another while both individuals deal with the shock of disclosure and the fluctuation of uncontrollable feelings.
- Moratorium Phase: This occurs when one or both individuals in the relationship agree to put the hurt aside and move on with their lives.
- Rebuilding: In this last phase, individuals in the relationship are more future oriented and focused on rebuilding.
During attempts at the rebuilding stage is where it gets sticky. Research in this area is lacking, and psychologists are unsure of exactly what the exact emotional process is that takes place that leads some to recover and others to end the relationship. The ability for your relationship to succeed through the rebuilding stage may have to do with you/your partner’s capacity for forgiveness and your/your partner’s level of motivation (reasons) to remain in the relationship. The process in rebuilding the relationship is also likely associated with seeking professional counseling that may assist in facilitating open communication between the parties, and healing each party’s own hurt.
In the end, it is very much an emotional process that requires patience and time. If you find yourself in this situation, try not to make any impulsive decisions in the heat of the moment. That is the worst time to make any decisions.
*Olson, M. M., Russell, C.S., Higgins-Kessler, M., & Miller, R.B. (2002). Emotional Processes Following Disclosure of an Extramarital Affair. Journal of Marital & Family Therapy, 28, 423-434.