Healing From An Affair?
Speed Recovery Time by 'Bringing It Up'
© 2020, by Linda J. Engelman, Licensed MFT
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Note: Client names and details have been changed to protect confidentiality.
Barry's affair had been discovered, and now he and his wife were dealing with the aftermath. Both wanted the pain to end quickly, they wanted to 'let it go,' to bury the whole incident, never to be seen or talked about again.
But that wasn't happening. When this couple came to see me, they reported that the infidelity came up frequently, that Glenda had emotional outbursts several times a week, and that she constantly wanted to go over the details of what Barry had done. Barry longed for the whole thing to be erased - the guilt and the shame were tearing him apart. He was nearly debilitated, having to face himself in the mirror day after day, identifying as the unfaithful one who had risked it all for the excitement of sex with someone he didn't know.
Barry told me how he had begged for the forgiveness of his partner. The two of them were depleted, nowhere to turn but towards each other, and yet that was no longer a consistent or reliable respite.
"There are moments where we're suddenly able to hold each other and feel close and connected," Glenda said through her tears. But, she explained, like the most unpredictable storm, the winds would pick up at the most unexpected moment, and before long, both would be battered, thrown about by rage and confusion.
"Letting it go," it seems, was not in the cards. Glenda told me she needed to be able to stare Barry in the eyes and see his deep sense of regret and remorse. But more than that, Glenda needed Barry to "bring it up." She needed him to come to her on a frequent basis, and talk about this huge event that would most certainly change the course of their marriage forever.
SCARED TO BRING IT UP...
I told Barry and Glenda, as I have told so many other couples, that to repair, to go through the steps of recovery, one of the most helpful things that Barry could do to help his wife would be to learn "THE ART OF 'BRINGING IT UP.'
This is quite a scary thing to say to someone in Barry's situation. Bringing it up is the last thing that the one who went astray wants to do.
I proceeded to talk with this couple about some of the things I had learned over the years, helping people recover from the most painful betrayals imaginable. In a typical week in my office, here's what my betrayed clients will tell me:
- "I want HIM to bring it up (my client points to her betraying husband). I want to know that it's on his mind, he's thinking about it, it impacts him, and he's struggling! I need to know that it's not just me who is in pain."
- "It would make such a huge difference to know that he's trying to work through this, not just compartmentalizing it in some little box with a tight-fitting lid."
- "I want my wife to bring it up (pointing to his wife who recently cheated on him). She's the one who broke our vows. I have to live with this pain every single minute of every day. When I bring it up, I seem like the bad guy, and that's not fair. She had sex with my best friend, and I need her to figure out how this could happen, how she managed to forget about me and the kids in those moments."
- "I'll know that she's remorseful when she starts being the one to bring it up. Why should I be the only one who has to live with those images of the two of them in bed together? I need her to come to me and tell me that it's bothering her too -- that she thinks about it and gets upset like I do."
- "I manage to get through 4 or 5 days without talking about it, and then I just can't hold it in any longer. When he doesn't bring it up, I get the sense that he thinks I'm doing fine now…that everything is starting to get back to normal. But it's not, it's not okay at all. My pain is there 24/7 and I need him (referring to her unfaithful partner) to show me that he gets that, that he CARES about that."
Just like all of these couples, my client Glenda explained to me that she hated being the one to raise the topic of the infidelity. She felt ashamed, and would think things like "I should be over it by now," or "what's wrong with me that I'm still needing to talk about this?" She also worried about pushing Barry away. "What if I keep bringing it up and he just can't take it anymore? What if he leaves?"
WHY WON'T THE BETRAYING PARTNER BRING IT UP?
Betraying partners are suffering, just as their injured partners are. They are facing their own pain and shame, and resist bringing up the affair for a variety of really legitimate reasons. Here are a few of the more common ones, and the responses that I tend to give to clients:
Betrayer: If we're having a few good days, why ruin it by "rocking the boat?"
Therapist: The boat has already been rocked. Your partner thinks about this every second of every day. Just because he/she isn't talking about it right now doesn't mean the thoughts aren't there. By bringing it up, you are taking a vulnerable risk. And ultimately the repair of your relationship is going to come from one vulnerable risk after another.
Betrayer: If I bring it up, does that mean we have to sit and rehash all of the details of the affair for hours?
Therapist: No, when you bring it up, it can be for 60 seconds, or for 5 minutes. The length of time has nothing to do with the impact. The tone in your voice, the way you physically reach for your partner, the look in your eyes...these are the things that will make the difference between an interaction that is intimate and one that is very disconnecting.
Betrayer: I've already told her all of the details. What more is there to bring up?
Therapist: Great question! Bringing it up doesn't necessarily mean talking about the details again. For instance, you could bring it up by saying "I was looking at the photo of you on my desk today and got so sad, knowing how much I've hurt you. I am so sorry that I did this to us." That's bringing it up!
Betrayer: I don't want to keep facing this part of myself, the part of me that did this horrible thing. If I keep bringing it up, I have to keep acknowledging that I hurt the person I love most.
Therapist: That's a hard one. Of course, I understand that it can be completely devastating to think of yourself as someone who could get caught up in such a mess. But here's where we're at -- you told me you want to re-establish intimacy and connection with your partner. That's going to require you being transparent. By sharing this part of you, the part that is so ashamed and so regretful, you let your partner see the most tender and fragile parts of you. That's going to lead to some amazing and deeply connected moments. Moving out of the shallow waters, and into the deep end of the pool together, you two are going to experience a bond that is unlike any you may have had in the past.
13 CREATIVE WAYS THE BETRAYING PARTNER CAN 'BRING IT UP'
Let's get to the details. Here are some specific ways that you, the injuring partner, can open the door to conversations that are safe and curative, open and honest.
- I know that we haven't talked about any of this recently, but I want you to know that there's no expiration date on your grief, and that you can come to me at ANY time. I'm not going anywhere, and I will never tell you that you've talked about it too many times."
- "I looked up some articles today about infidelity, and I saw this thing that reminded me of our situation. Can I tell you about it?"
- "I know that although you haven't mentioned anything about the affair in a few days, it MUST be on your mind all of the time. I just wanted you to know that I know that, and I care."
- "Today when I was driving, I remembered a detail that I hadn't remembered before, and I really want to share it with you, even though I know it's going to be hard. Can you be patient with me, and gentle, so that I can feel safe enough to talk this through with you?"
- "In my individual therapy today, we were talking about ________, a subject that comes up a lot. And I had this insight that I've never had before. I think it might have something to do with why I did what I did. Can I share this with you?"
- "You looked a little sad earlier today. I wonder if you want some time to talk about things tonight."
- "I heard this song on the radio today and it made me so sad. It was about someone who had hurt someone badly. It reminded me again about how badly I've injured you, and how much I wish I could erase the hurt or rewind the tape."
- "I wonder if we should read from the 'Hold Me Tight' book together tonight. I feel like we should be talking about this more often, but I just don't always know how to bring it up. Maybe reading about it together would help."
- "I wanted you to know that I was so sad today. I was walking through the airport, and I saw all of these couples holding hands and it made me think of what I did. I got confused, because I still don't understand it all, and I know that you don't either. I know it's important that I dig deeper, and I want you to know I'm committed to figuring this out so that we can have an amazing future together."
- "I was thinking about how I often say 'I know how you must feel.' Today, I realized that I truly don't know how you feel. But I want to. And I promise to do whatever I can to learn more and more about how all of this has impacted you and how you feel. That feels more honest than me always claiming that 'I understand' or 'I know how you feel.'"
- "Can I bring something up? I know that you sometimes feel like you're burdening me with all of your questions about what happened. I just want you to know that you're not. As hard as it is to keep hearing what I've done, you deserve to keep talking about it."
- "This morning, I noticed a text message from (insert affair partner's name here) on my phone. I haven't opened it yet, because I wanted us to open it together so that you'll know I'm not pre-screening anything. Going forward, you and I are a complete team on this, and I won't open any messages without showing you first."
- "I'm struggling today. I know it's not fair of me to lean on you, given what I did to us, but I'm really scared today…scared that you're never going to look at me the same way again, never going to fully trust me again, and that sometimes feels like too much to bear."
Like so many couples facing an "after affair recovery," my clients Barry and Glenda got through the most difficult time in their marriage. They have gone on to raise beautiful children together, and are celebrating all of life's joys and sorrows as they grow old together. Even though several years have passed, Barry still brings up the affair when he wants to connect with Glenda and let her know that he still feels deep regret for his actions. These two were courageous, as I hope you will be as you face your own challenge right now. Be brave -- bring it up -- and watch the healing process gain momentum.
Need personal coaching on how to 'Bring It Up'? CALL for a confidential consultation: 925.295.1036
LINDA J. ENGELMAN
Licensed Marriage & Family Therapist, MFC#46255
Psychotherapy and Counseling Services for Individuals, Couples, & Families
Office Located in San Ramon, California
(Contra Costa County, San Francisco, East Bay Area)
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