Over the years, I have worked with many couples presenting with infidelity or extramarital affairs. Although every couple’s experience is uniquely challenging, there are some similar patterns.
For couples where the affair with the third-party has ended, the marriage can begin to heal. But it is easier said than done. Often, the acted spouse (the one who committed the infidelity) believes that since he (often male, but not always) has ended the relationship with the third party, his wife ought to relax and have things go back to normal. But for the injured party, nothing feels normal anymore. Distrust, insecurity, sleeplessness, even flashbacks can take place despite her best intentions not to be bothered by them.
In helping couples to heal post-infidelity, I have heard similar metaphors being used again and again by my past clients. More recently, I started to offer these metaphors right at the beginning of therapy to my new clients. To my delight, I discovered that clients have appreciated having these pictures to hang on to—almost as if the metaphors help them to feel more normal more quickly, and enable them to be more understanding of each other’s experience going through the difficult process of recovery. It is my hope that by sharing these metaphors here, many couples can be helped in trying to salvage their marriage post-infidelity.
Note: I will be using the male gender to describe the acted party and the female gender for the injured party. This is by no means to put blame on men but it does reflect the statistics. Men who have suffered infidelity from their wives have as much difficulty, if not more, and differently so. I have worked with more than a handful of such cases. Also, there are cases where past hurts experienced by husbands had led to their affairs, which make the healing more complicated. But I will have to reserve these for another post.
1. The Roller Coaster
Post-affair, the injured spouse can go through unwanted roller coaster experiences—ups and downs of emotionality and reactivity. Many injured spouses experience these roller coasters, and I often tell the acted spouse to ride with their wives through the ups and downs, even though it is very difficult for them as they feel blamed and wonder when the questioning and distrust will end. Sometimes, the acted spouse may become angry at the injured spouse because they do not understand how the injured spouse feels. I help the husbands understand that their wives are suffering these ups and downs rather than intentionally being difficult. They would prefer not to be going through them if they could.
2. The Wounded Animal
The acted spouse can look at his injured wife’s experience through another metaphor, the wounded animal. The challenge for the acted spouse is to put his hands into the cage to hold on to a wounded animal that desperately needs his assurance whilst having his hands scratched and bitten at the same time. Many acted spouses have told me this is what it feels like to go through the healing process. I tell the acted spouses to consider this as identifying with the injured party. By allowing themselves to suffer the roller coaster of their wives’ chaotic emotions, they join in their wives’ suffering, and show practical empathy for what their wives are going through. Only then, and over time, can the injured party begin to slowly learn to trust again.
3. The Earthquake
I also use the metaphor of the earthquake. When an earthquake devastates a city, everything is thrown into disorder. Even the foundations have shifted or crumbled, needing to be rebuilt. Sometimes, the acted spouse does not realise an earthquake has taken place. But for the injured spouse, the foundations have been shaken. And in any meaningfully close relationship, it only takes one party to trip for both of them to fall down. When the foundations have shifted, the basics of a couple’s relationship are brought into question. “Can I trust him anymore?” “Who is the man I married?” “Do I still love him?” “What has been the purpose of my life the last x number of years?” These are like the aftershocks that torment the injured wife again and again, until they eventually subside over time through the loving co-suffering and empathy of the husband as well as his commitment towards complete openness and transparency.
The good news is, couples can and do recover from infidelity if both parties put effort towards working on their relationship. More often than not, successful repairs can also mean a better marriage moving forward. Unfortunately, not all couples make it past an extramarital affair. Some will quit because the process is too difficult, or some give up because the love had already died even before the affair took place. For those who are still fighting for their marriage, professional help can make a difference. A good therapist—preferably one with training and experience in couples therapy—will be able to help the couple to hold on to the chaos and the pain as they ride through the storm to rebuild a new and better marriage with each other.
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