Stages of Affair Recovery & Relationship Renewal
Recovering from an affair is a difficult process. It takes more effort and time than most couples anticipate. But those that choose to do the work can experience something beyond mere survival; they can participate in a marriage that is satisfying to both of them. For that to happen, each partner must be willing to take the steps that move them through the stages of relationship renewal.
[NOTE: This article provides an overview of the renewal process. An explanation of each stage and each partner's unique responsibilities in the process is available in the download The Stages of Relationship Renewal by Tim Tedder.]
Before exploring the path of renewal, let me acknowledge that it isn’t the only path to affair healing. For some, healing is attained by focussing on individual growth rather than relationship renewal. This is especially true for the betrayed spouse whose wayward partner does not return to the marriage with the certainty and commitment required to heal it. But it may also be true for the unfaithful spouse who, despite sincere efforts to make amends, realizes their wounded partner is not willing to forgive or trust them again.
After an affair, most married couples stay together, but not always happily so. I use the term “relationship renewal” rather than “marriage recovery” because I believe it more accurately reflects the kind of connection that couples desire. The latter may be accomplished by merely avoiding divorce or returning to the kind of marriage the couple experienced prior to the affair. Most couples, however, tell me they don’t want the old relationship; they want something new.
From the time an affair is revealed, either by discovery or disclosure, a process begins that determines the outcome of the marriage. Couples can successfully move through each stage toward renewal if both are willing to take the necessary steps, but a different destination awaits if either exits the path. A betrayed spouse, for example, may choose not to invest in hope, forgiveness, or trust. An unfaithful spouse may decide to remain dishonest, fail to feel genuine sorrow, or refuse to accept responsibility for getting the marriage back to a secure place. Both partners may refuse to ever be vulnerable with each other again. Any of these choices will move the couple out of the renewal process, either ending the marriage or moving it into a state of managed disconnection.
The process of marriage renewal can be separated into these five stages:
It is important to recognize that these stages are fluid. You will likely experience a blending between the stages as you move from one to another, and sometimes may find yourself flowing back into an earlier stage. Still, it's helpful to consider the differences between them and understand the natural progressions from one stage to the next.
This fluidity should be expected in the steps taken by each spouse, too. A betrayed spouse who completes the initial step of grief may still experience moments of mourning even after hope has been established. The same may be said of the unfaithful partner’s step of honesty. It is not just a single act of confession, but an ongoing commitment to truthfulness.
Predicting Successful Affair Recovery
What are the best predictors of successful recovery from an affair? Let me give you six predictors of success based on my work with couples:
1. The couple has previously experienced mutual love, respect, and trust in their marriage. If they never experienced this level of connection, the affair will likely become the final reason for ending their marriage. If they remain committed to saving the marriage, they will need to understand that “dealing with the affair” is only the first step to a longer process of creating the kind of marriage in which trust and intimacy become the norm.
2. The affair spouse is able to move quickly to the Behavior Shifts of honest disclosure and the complete cut-off of all relationship ties with the other person. The longer the spouse holds on to deceptions or continues in any kind of affair behavior, the harder it becomes for the marriage to survive.
3. The affair spouse assumes responsibility for helping his/her spouse feel safe again. This means the affair spouse will be willing to go to extraordinary measures to regain the spouse's trust. It also means that the betrayed spouse will be given enough time to process grief and hurt, even if it takes longer than the affair spouse thinks it should.
4. The betrayed spouse is able to genuinely forgive. This comes easier for some than for others, but it's necessary for the marriage to move forward. For the betrayed spouse, forgiveness means they no longer have to be held captive by the past. For the spouse who had the affair, real forgiveness helps them heal from shame and live without fear of continual accusation.
5. The affair spouse gains necessary insight into their affair behavior along with a clear vision for change. In order to guard against repeat behavior, a person needs to understand the various influences that were at play when they chose the affair and give proper attention to each. Along with gaining insight from the past, it is important for the affair spouse to have a clear vision of what it means to be healthy and whole.
6. The couple finds new ways to pursue intimate connection with each other. Simply returning to "business as usual" often means a return to affair vulnerability. Smart couples find ways to make their marriage stronger by both accepting responsibility for the problems in their marriage and working toward change.