It can be incredibly hard to find resources for relationships in the wake of a discovery of a relational norm violation, aka: "infidelity," or "affair."
Especially if you're the one who went outside your relationship, or "cheated." And, you know, want to hear something helpful that's geared toward you and doesn't reduce you to a demonized cliché.
In the person-first, non-moralizing tradition of practitioners and researchers like Caryl Rustbult and Esther Perel, I use the following language and invite you to adopt the same: "involved partner" to replace words like, "cheater" and "adulterer;" "hurt partner" to replace words like, "victim" and "betrayed partner;" and "affair partner" to replace, well, use your imagination there.
I want so share some tips for involved partners, because I observe that most resources online are geared toward hurt partners.
First, I'd like to normalize an uncomfortable piece here. There's something you should know right from the get-go about Trust First Aid and psychotherapy geared toward repairing big hurts like "affairs." And I want to offer it from a seriously loving place.
All the stuff that maybe you want to be able to do RIGHT AWAY, like get to insights and understand and apologize and take care of your lover and heal that enormous hurt—that doesn't tend to happen in Stage 1.
If you'd like an amazing resource that can help you better understand the three broad stages of this work, check out Esther Perel's Infidelity Resource Guide. It has descriptions of each stage and questions you can use to guide safe, healing conversations that don't re-wound. I also find that it helps involved partners to print two copies and offer one to hurt partner, saying something along the lines of: "I know your mind has been racing with a million questions. Would you like to see if you'd like to ask any of these?" Just be sure not to jump to Stage 3 questions at first!
Speaking of, want to know what else just sucks big?
During Stage 1, we have to stabilize and take care of hurt partner and help them merge your secret timeline with the timeline of their reality and narrative. That's a doozie for hurt partners. Talk about a wacky narrative editing process. You've known about things since, well, you began doing them with affair partner/s, so try not to forget that hurt partner has to have time to make sense of everything.
What does that mean for you as involved partner if we're doing counseling work together?
I can give you some support with our therapeutic alliance and I can catch some of the nasty verbal bullets shot your way, but our focus has to be stabilizing and helping hurt partner find the ground and stop spinning so that they will actually be able to hear you when they're ready to go deeper.
Hurt partner's brain can literally take them on loop after loop after loop until they have made sense of reality. They're not doing it to be annoying, it's just how our brains are wired to account for discrepancies.
Regardless, for involved partner it can kind of end up feeling like your pain has to be put on hold for a little bit. And you know what's completely tragic about that? A lot of times, the involved partner was actually carrying the brunt of the emotional burden in a relationship and the other partner just had more willpower or fewer opportunities to meet sexy strangers.
But guess what? If you want to keep your relationship, your best shot is to 1) find an experienced therapist who knows how to work in stages, and 2) keep reminding yourself that a time will come when you can be deeply understood by your partner, forgiven even—that time is just not yet.
This is where a lot of people ask, "How long does it take to get to Stage 2?"
It depends. Frustrating answer: anywhere between a few sessions to six months, and sometimes longer, especially if one or more partners experienced Trauma in their life and already struggled with trusting others.
I can tell you something that helps immediately as you start to navigate Stage 1! Brushing up on your sincere apology skills. Therapist and speaker, Harriet Lerner, is officially your new best friend here. She can guide you!
In general, approach the entire situation with funerary reverence and a deep respect for the fact that something precious has been lost, and it’ll go smoother for you.
Think of the trust recovery process like surviving a storm together on a ship. The first task is to survive the most intense, dangerous part of the squall without capsizing. Once the ship is righted and the storm has passed, everyone can go about cleaning up, re-navigating and re-charting, and pressing on. Wait until you’re no longer bailing water out and putting out fires to address things like power differentials and unfairness that probably contributed to an emotional landscape with perfect conditions for infidelity.
By Stage 2, partners have started to tune into each other's feelings and real intentions and can begin to understand the story from multiple perspectives. They start looking into each other's eyes and crying together. They start moving to deeper insights and say things like, "I just had no idea you felt like that." A sort of next level of apologies can unfurl. Partners feel more security and start taking positive emotional risks and reaching for each other more.
Once we're in Stage 2, little panics might still crop up here and there, and definitely grief as partners awaken into the full reality of times they weren't there for each other, but the giant crisis feeling has mostly passed.
This, dear involved partner, is when I'll start supporting you to help your partner get a deeper understanding of what set you guys up for this experience. All of your patience and courage and beautiful apologies will start to pay off when you get there.
So. Let's get really practical.
Here are 20 of my top favorite tips for involved partners:
- Try to keep the time between your actual infidelity—i.e., sexual activity, online relationship, phone sex, etc.—and your disclosure to your partner/s as short as humanly possible. Waiting a long time to disclose a secret relationship increases the complexity/difficulty and length of treatment to build trust again. (Queue: The Strange Boys, “Be Brave.”)
- If you’re still in that phase where you're convincing yourself you don't need to tell your partner that you violated an important norm/expectation in your relationship, I would invite you to remind yourself: 1) that secret isn't possible to keep, 2) that that kind of thinking is pretty grandiose and your partner is strong enough to handle the news, and 3) it’s demeaning to say you don't want to tell your secret for fear of hurting the other person—they deserve to be aware and know the truth so they can make conscious decisions that are best for them.
- Want to save your relationship? End your affair/s NOW. STAT. ASAP. Sever all connection—stop touching, stop joking about the difficulty of stopping touching, stop communicating absolutely. RADIO SILENCE. Finito. Dunzo. "Never ever ever ever getting back togetherrrr."
- If you keep a secret bank account or messaging app, get rid of them. If you really don’t want to disconnect from affair partner, like with all of your being, consider seeing a therapist to do some "discernment" work and explore how much you *really* want to stay with your primary partner.
- Please, please avoid repeatedly lying/avoiding answering your partner’s direct questions like, “Is there something I should know?” "Is there something going on?" or even, “Are you cheating on me?” It's called 'gaslighting' if you let someone think they're crazy when you know they're not and I’m pretty sure if we studied this in the lab, you could slap on 1+ month of therapy for every time an involved partner denied a true allegation from a hurt partner. "You're making a huge deal over nothing! It's probably your anxiety," takes forever to heal.
- Lying by omission can feel as bad or worse to hurt partners than bald-face lies because it can feel like pressure is now on them to be ever-vigilant for future signs of the unwanted behavior happening again—like it’s somehow their responsibility to police the situation for signs that they need to check in and make sure that you aren’t still deceiving.
- Tell the truth and nothing but the truth, but do use a helping professional to help navigate co-creating a shared version of “the whole truth.” Do NOT share the most explicit, sexual details of your affair—especially at first—with your hurt partner. Unfortunately hurt partners tend to seek answers to these types of painful questions when they're most unable to handle it, as Julie Gottman says. Typically, it never becomes necessary to explore these painful images.
- It’s possible that sexual details won't be the most painful information for your partner to hear, though, so also be mindful of how you convey details about the emotional connection you had/have with your affair partner. Looking into someone's eyes as they wake up the next morning can be more painful to imagine than the preceding raunchy night of sex.
- Maybe your partner found out about your affair/s via a tech-based medium. In my experience, this can tend to go along with a lengthier treatment and more complex prognosis, especially if the hurt partner saw sexually explicit photos/videos/audio or written material like text exchanges over many weeks. It can be a horrific, Domino-like experience to see something that got built up over weeks/months/years unfurl before hurt partner's eyes in real time over a few hours.
- Consider mindfully limiting who you disclose details of the infidelity to and make sure to be on the same page with your hurt partner about who gets told what by who and when. I recommend finding ONE person you really trust who you can talk to, and encourage your hurt partner to do the same until you can get into a counseling session where you can have a longer version of this critical conversation and really make an actionable plan that limits pain for everyone.
- Steer clear of verbally defending your affair partner/s to your primary partner—espeeecially at first. Maybe you also lied to your affair partner and you feel guilty for what they are going through—that’s nice and humanistic of you, but keep this to yourself and don’t stick up for your affair partner if your primary partner bashes them because it feels like you're allying with affair partner. You have to repair your “couple bubble.” There might be a space in the future to make amends with your affair partner, but if your goal is to stay with your primary partner—keep quiet or talk shit, but don’t talk about how great your affair partner is or how undeserving of pain/wrath/etc. they are.
- Make it CRYSTAL clear that you wouldn’t go near this person with a 10-foot pole even if someone paid you millions of dollars. I’m not kidding. Maybe all you can think about is being in the arms of your affair partner right now, but if you really want to be with your primary partner—if you want a life with this person, you’ll do whatever it takes. Without hesitation. It’s moments of hesitation that you’ll look back on with regret.
- "Name it to tame it." Adopt a reflecting and validating style and try to postpone problem-solving and fix-it-oriented responses when listening to your hurt partner. Arguably one of the hardest things you’ll likely go through in the coming weeks and months will be the barrage of tears and/or "How could you?” "How could you?" is just "Why?" dressed up for a showdown. Validate, validate, validate: “You’re so hurt.” “I’ve caused you so much pain.” “It hurts and it doesn’t make sense.” “You feel afraid—I feel afraid too.” When we feel out of control, our urge can be to try to fix, but your partner needs to feel their feels so that their nervous system can discharge the energy and get back to being regulated and in balance.
- Can't soothe your partner? Our ability to soothe our partner/s is rooted in secure attachment; being accessible, responsive, open, and safely emotionally engaged. As the stability of the relationship is restored, you will find your efforts to soothe your partner more and more accepted/successful and eventually reciprocated. If you can just stick with your partner through this difficult time, there’s nothing more powerful you can do to demonstrate your commitment and ability to be trustworthy and provide a safe emotional home.
- If you feel angry, overly-blamed, resentful, or just plain pissed during the early stages of the trust recovery process, find a good counselor or trustworthy close friend who you can complain to when it's feeling rough. “It’s not like I killed someone,” and similar minimizing responses are best saved for a bestie or homeboy, NOT for the wounded partner whose nervous system might very much feel something along the lines of what happens during bereavement.
- Attempt to see your hurt partner’s behaviors and responses through an attachment lens—look for the frightened little kid inside them who’s just plain scared to death that this all means you don’t love them and you’re going to peace out. What you have to remember through all this is: your partner's responses are protective and adaptive. Without any moralizing we can just agree that infidelity as a context (especially in the US where there’s a prominent Judeo-Christian heritage and monogamy-centered sociocultural values and norms) is ripe with conditions for both of you to feel what attachment theorists call "primal panic.”
- Try to give yourself some extra, gentle TLC throughout this process. Identify some activities that are health-promoting (e.g., go for a walk, do a yoga class, paint, take a hot bath) you can easily do in about 30 minutes or so that make you feel really relaxed and schedule them into your calendar. It can be easy for involved partners to stop taking care of themselves and if you aren't balanced and healthy, it'll be really hard to get the relationship flourishing.
- Think deeply about WHY you *really* went outside your relationship without your partner knowing. When you ask yourself, "Why?" don't settle for the surface bs answers your brain is likely offer up first… “I was drunk.” “Someone wanted me for the first time in years.” “I'm an idiot!” “I just couldn't say no.” “My partner deserves better than me anyway.” What needs have maybe been going ignored? When was the last time you felt close and connected? What do you believe a relationship is even for?
- It might be too early for this perspective, so table it if it feels that way, but these painful experiences can give us a golden opportunity to do some existential heavy lifting. If we can see it this way—a chance to reevaluate, learn, and grow—as individuals and together, it can become a powerfully transformative season for a relationship. Think deeply about your primary partner and what you adore, appreciate, treasure, and respect about them. If you're struggling, your relationship could be in what The Gottman Institute calls “Negative Sentiment Override,” which makes partners see things in a negative light. Speak with a helping professional before deciding to throw in the towel.
- Never forget: you are a whole, worthy human who is deserving of love. You don't have to be perfect, you have to show up. Breathe out.
The last thing I want to leave you with is a saying in my industry: the grass is greener where you water it. Esther Perel said, "If people brought to their relationships 1/10 of the boldness + playfulness they do to their affairs, they might not feel the need to stray."