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Healing The Wounds Of An Affair
Written By: Mark Smith


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This can’t be happening! You just discovered your husband of 21 years has been having an affair with a co-worker. How could he possibly be capable of betraying you in such a cruel way? You thought that your marriage was OK - pretty connected. You vacillate between strong feelings of being completely destroyed and shattered, to wanting to kill him to actually wanting to win him back. You don’t know what is worse – his having sex with her or huge stack of lies that he has been peddling for so long. He says that he still loves you that he wants to work it out, that he will cut off all contact with his lover and that he is more than willing to go to counseling with you. He is tearful and he seems sincere, but how can I ever trust such a liar ever again? Is it even possible to save such a damaged marriage? Is it possible to ever forgive someone for such a grievous atrocity?

Well, thankfully the answers are yes and yes. This article is for you – the cheated upon partner. I know that you pain is beyond what words can express. Read with an open mind and an open heart – if you take the concepts that I will be sharing in several very positive things will happen - #1 what has happened will make a lot more sense, #2 your bitterness and sense of victimization will be greatly reduced, #3 it will help you to communicate with your offending spouse in a much more positive, effective and ‘hearable’ manner, and #4 it will provide a solid foundation upon which to begin the restoration process in your marriage.

Affairs happen. They happen with shocking regularity, even in marriages that appear to be solid. The truth is that just about anyone can become entangled in an affair. Early in my career I have to admit that I was both pretty judgmental and quite naïve regarding this issue. At that point I thought that affairs were basically about sex. With the assistance of the insights from a fabulous book that I strongly recommend to every single married couple - His Needs/Her Needs by Willard Harley, I have come to understand that vulnerability to an affair is actually rooted in whole variety of unmet emotional needs and that even good people who normally have very high character are capable of falling into an affair. This absolutely does not have to be the end of your marriage – it can actually become a new beginning. In this article I will discuss the root causes of most affairs as well as the ingredients needed to not only salvage the marriage, but also to rebuild it into something better then it has ever been.

Marriage Is Not What You Think It Is – I never realized just how incredibly NEEDY and vulnerable people are.

While marriage is the chosen vehicle that most of us employ to address many of our deepest emotional needs, for most of us, a normal condition called ‘Emotional Cutoff’ slowly and many times imperceptively causes us to drift far enough away from our partners that we can become susceptible to friendships and connection with others. Without a great deal of attention, work and emotional health almost all marriages move from the honeymoon or ‘Enmeshment’ stage to the distance and lack of passion which is Emotional Cutoff. You’ve heard of ‘the 7 year itch’ – same thing, different term. While we are conditioned as young people to believe that marriage can and should deliver unconditional love, bliss, happiness and life long companionship, ironically marriage actually is designed to be a place where our needs are NOT meet. This next section is extremely important – I’m blowing a bunch of worthless psychobabble at you here – I know what I’m talking about. All of us get our fair share of emotional wounds growing up – a distant or a controlling father, a depressed or an addicted mother, being exposed to rage or abuse. Every family that I have ever come across has a good bit of dysfunction and your family is no different. Fortunately (and unfortunately) as kids we develop defense mechanisms that protect us not only from our deepest emotional pain, but also from the truth about ourselves.

Nature has a way of wanting to heal itself. If you cut your finger, your body will heal itself over time. In a very similar way nature, or God would very much like to help us heal our deepest emotional wounds. There is one problem however – as a young adult we are encased in our thick psychological walls. So, God came up with a plan – a system to help us to address our unresolved childhood wounds. It is a very wonderful and horrible healing system called marriage and relationship. Here is how it works – whatever unfinished business we have around the most hurtful and damaging characteristics of our parents we will actually unconsciously be attracted to and marry! Bummer, huh? I’m serious. The girl with a controlling, critical father will marry this wonderfully decisive fellow who she later sees as a carbon copy of dear ole dad, the boy with a mother who abandoned the family will invariably be attracted to and marry a woman who eventually abandons him (usually by having an affair). That is what marriage really is – a way for God to make us work on our deepest emotional wounds. Anyone who has ever been in a relationship has been in therapy. Let me share some such patterns in some recent cases – a woman who was adopted (the abandonment) but then lied to by her adoptive parents about it married a man who lied to and abandoned her. A woman who grew up with a drug addicted father who lied to protect his addiction and a compulsively self-absorbed mother grew up to marry a self absorbed sexual addict who told her many lies. A woman whose father abandoned her when she was very young and whose mother was both a compulsive liar and self-absorbed marries a workaholic man who eventually drifts into an affair and then leaves her. A man who grew up with a distant father who had shady and unethical business practices grows up to marry a woman who is a compulsive sexual addict who frequently sleeps around. That is what marriage is. You marry the person you marry for a reason – there are absolutely never, ever any victims in marriage.

Why Affairs Happen – What are your most important emotional needs, do you know? What are your spouses? In his book His Needs/Her Needs – Building An Affair Proof Marriage, Harley indicates that for many (not all) men the top 5 include sexual fulfillment, affirmation, recreational companionship, domestic support, and physical attractiveness. For many (but not all) women the list includes affection, conversation, financial support, family involvement and honesty. If these main emotional needs are not being met then all it takes is for a member of the opposite sex to come along and begin to meet those needs. Most affairs begin very innocently – a lunch between co-workers who really haven’t even noticed an attraction yet, a completely non-seductive hug given to an emotionally starved woman, a word of praise for a man whose wife only criticizes him, an enthusiastic run on the trail with a friend of a friend, etc.

Comparatively few affairs begin exclusively due to animal lust. Granted, while sexual addiction is a colossal concern in our society that is destroying countless marriages, that type of infidelity is not the kind of affair that we are addressing here (see my article on Sexual Addiction at familytreecounseling.com). Most of the time the straying spouse has no idea that they are even capable of ever coming close to cheating. They are good, well meaning people who have drifted from their spouse without realizing just how needy, vulnerable and exposed they are.

The Keys To Restoration - In my experience there are 6 main steps involved in restoring a marriage that has been damaged by an affair - #1 Accountability, #2 Shifting Out Of A Victim’s Perspective, #3 Overcoming Abandonment Issues, #4 Grieving, #5 Forgiveness, #6 Re-Creating Love. You will need a great deal of help in this restoration project. You will absolutely need a therapist with knowledge and experience with these issues to be successful. You cannot do this on your own. Call our office at 844-2442 when you put this article down and get started with this difficult but extremely important project.

#1 Accountability – Terminating an affair is an extremely difficult thing to do. It can very much like be trying to quit cocaine. The hole in the human heart is so huge that the addicted partner will frequently be willing to gamble everything that is dear to them in order to cling on to their lover. Going cold turkey is the only successful or reasonable approach. Once an affair is brought to light, a great deal of accountability will be required to help the ensnared partner to stay completely away from former lover. This means that e-mail and cell phone passwords are handed over to the spouse – this is not negotiable.

It means that every minute of their day and every dime in their pockets are to be accounted for. The straying spouse has to be on ‘lockdown’. They cannot be permitted any contact with their former lover. Their mail needs to be monitored. If they work with their former lover serious consideration must be put into changing jobs. Every single interaction with the former lover stokes that fire again. If your straying spouse thinks that any contact with the former lover can take place they are very seriously mistaken. This is a case of assume that they are guilty until they prove to you that they are innocent of attempting to continue the affair on any level. Do not be judgmental or shaming in your interactions. You will need firm boundaries with well spelled out consequences if you are going to be successful in helping your addicted partner kick this incredibly powerful drug.

#2 Shifting Out Of A Victim’s Perspective – As with any marital issue this is the most important task. As I said before, there are NO victims in marriage. Settling into a victim role is very easy to do – you will be given a great deal of support in your victim’s stance from well meaning loved ones. A victim’s stance will destroy whatever is left of your marriage if you let it. You will need to be frequently firmly reminded by an assertive and insightful therapist of the following truths… 1. You absolutely, positively contributed to the creating an environment where an affair could develop by not meeting the important emotional needs of your spouse. No, I didn’t say that you made them do it, you did however; majorly contribute to leaving them vulnerable. 2. Due to your unresolved childhood wounds you needed to select a spouse who was capable of abandoning you in the most extreme way that a spouse can abandon a spouse. Please don’t be tempted to get defensive here. If you were to come in my office I guarantee you that I could prove to any half way open minded individual that this was in fact the case. In your childhood there are some of the following issues… distance from one or both parents, abandonment (by divorce, death, adoption, etc.), being a ‘lost child’ as your family role, having a parent who themselves have had an affair or a parent who frequently lies or keeps secrets in order to protect an addiction. 3. You allowed the Emotional Cutoff to develop without taking the appropriate steps to fix it. You were asleep at the marital wheel. You did take your spouse for granted. You knew something was missing, but you never in a million years thought that it would be possible for them to betray you. Desperate times call for desperate measures. If you are in an Emotionally Cutoff marriage (which the vast majority of people married over 5 years are) then you should do 2 things – read ‘His Needs/Her Needs with your spouse and then fully and enthusiastically practice its concepts and see a therapist for a marital checkup. Anyone can have an affair. If a marriage is not vibrant and passionate then both you and your spouse are at great risk of having an affair.

If you get stuck in a victim’s perspective the goal won’t always be restoration – at times it will be about punishment and revenge. Being bitter and victimy will also make you completely and utterly miserable. It will lead to depression and you will be angry with both God and the world. I will never forget a young man who after being just completely destroyed after learning of his wife’s affair proclaimed after a month of therapy that his wife’s affair was, in fact, THE best thing that had every happened to him in his life – and he was right. He learned about his family of origin issues, reflected upon patterns of untrustworthiness that his wife had shown during courtship, learned healthy intimacy skills, learned about his own addictions, etc. He needed a wake up call and he took full advantage of it. He still had some work to do in order to fully forgive his wife, but he was off to a good proactive start. Getting stuck in a victim’s role can last a lifetime. I have seen victimy clients obsess and ruminate over affairs that took place over 3 decades before! If you don’t shift out of a victim’s perspective, your marriage will probably not survive – if it does you and your spouse will be miserable. You will need frequent attitude adjustments sessions from your therapist to continue to think right. It is so easy to fall back into it – a memory, a scene from a movie or even a slight distancing from your spouse can put you back into a bad place.

#3 Overcoming Abandonment Reactions – This is the most difficult issue to overcome. If there was some abandonment in your childhood – and there probably is if you married someone capable of having an affair, then the pain of the here and now event will be mixed with a very deep, primitive, and intense reaction that is capable of turning otherwise well adjusted individuals into murders, suicide victims, ragers or someone who is highly irrational and emotionally reactive. When an abandonment reaction comes up it is sort of like you become instantly drunk. You become instantly 3 years old. You are full of hurt and rage.

Severe abandonment reactions will blow your already damaged relationship up. Sex is a very sacred act. When that sacredness is violated it can touch extremely deep places in us and that in turn can make us act crazy. Being blaming, raging, judgmental, out of control and attacking will do nothing to help anyone. With help you can learn to recognize your abandonment reactions, step back from them, be objective and even get help, support and nurturing from your spouse while you are under the influence of your abandonment. You can become therapy buddies who work together as a team in the restoration project rather than enemies and adversaries.

#4 Grieving – You will need to cry more tears then you thought were in you. You will go through many boxes of tissues – yes, even you men. Men are people too.

You will need to talk about it and talk about it and talk about it some more. You will needs lots of good friends, and prayer partners, and group therapy members, your main process partner (your spouse) and a therapist who can help you to grieve without fostering or enabling a victim’s perspective – that is not easy to pull off. This process takes time. I have had clients who desperately wanted to speed the grieving process up – they moved into the forgiveness stage in a matter of days or a few weeks. That is not human or healthy. Without exception the clients who needed to forgive and forget prematurely are no longer in that relationship. Grieving is scary and hard. Knowing that it is fair, that it is part of God’s attempt at helping to heal your childhood wounds and armed with a great deal of support and given time, you will get through this. The sun will shine again. Things are not as dark as they seem to be right now. Keep your focus on your issues – not your spouses failings. The more you cry with a proactive perspective the better you will feel. Time and crying and focusing on the right issues will heal all wounds.

#5 Forgiveness – You have done the hard work. Your spouse has de-toxed from his or her addictive relationship. They are now able to show the sadness and remorse that you needed to see earlier. They are truly sorry for all the pain they have caused you and they tell you this frequently. You see your spouse as the wounded, needy little child that they are on the inside. You do not reach for the stone to throw at them. You are at peace. You have done your work. You are ready to forgive. It works differently for every couple. It is a very important step that many couples without help never reach. It means the re-establishment of trust. It means being able to say I love you again. It means letting go of it finally.

It is a gift. It is a relief. It really is a miracle of grace. You will be big enough to forgive the near unforgivable. Don’t rush it – it will come. If it is 2 years later and you are nowhere close to forgiveness then something has gone wrong in the process – you have been sidelined by a victim’s perspective or by intense abandonment issues. If that is your situation, call our office – we will get you unstuck. While you marriage is now out of surgery and off life support it will still not make it without the next step.

#6 Re-Creating Love – Harley says that there are 2 times in life that couples easily and yet deliberately work towards creating love – during courtship and an affair is started. He also says why not add to that list of times to create love – how about in a distant, emotionally cutoff marriage? In his classic ‘Surviving An Affair’ Harley explains that love can be re-created in a dead marriage very simply by devoting time to meeting each other’s most important emotionally needs. When we meet an important need for our spouse (or for another) we make a deposit in their emotional bank account. Once enough deposits are made love stirs to life again almost like magic. Now that you have come this far in the process spending a great deal of time (at least 15 hours a week) together deliberately focusing on meeting the most important emotional needs of your spouse will be the sweet icing on the cake of restoring the beauty and the sacredness that had been lost in your marriage. Read the books that I recommended and call us right now. Your marriage probably is not beyond saving. If you follow the steps that I outlined you will create an environment of strength, acceptance, forgiveness, patience, empathy, sensitivity, responsibility, romance and love that is powerful enough to heal even the most damaged relationship.




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This article was authored by Family Tree Counseling Associates, a marriage, individual and family counseling center serving the Indianapolis, Carmel, Fishers, Westfield and Noblesville communities in Indiana. If you would like to contact us, please fill out a contact us form or call us at 317-844-2442.
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