Reconstruction after infidelity

Research shows that couples can move forward after an affair. But how?

Infidelity is a story as old as time. This form of betrayal takes a significant toll on a couple’s relationship and often appears as a symptom of a larger illness: breakup. Despite its widespread use, infidelity is still a widely misunderstood phenomenon.

Matters can be thought of as a warning light that flashes on a car’s dashboard. It indicates the presence of a leak or a major problem that needs to be addressed. Just like with cars, couples can begin to rebuild their relationships by becoming aware of the underlying issues that sparked the affair (and by implementing corrective strategies).

As partners begin to break apart (be it emotionally, sexually, or both), the potential for an affair increases. With the natural stressors that accompany any relationship, a recurring conflict can become a wedge that drives couples apart. When trying to re-establish this connection, a partner can contact a third party.

Should i stay or go

After an affair, the betrayed partner experiences a rocking of his world and may ask: “Should I stay or go?” While recovery from infidelity poses many hurdles, it doesn’t necessarily mean that a couple’s relationship is doomed.

Returning to the auto metaphor, an affair is often the blinking light that says, “Help, our relationship can’t go on like this!” Faced with the discovery of infidelity, couples must decide whether to look under the hood (see Where the leak started and make the necessary repairs) or throw in the towel.

A good first step in making the decision to work on the relationship together is to seek couples therapy and examine where cracks have developed in the foundation. These cracks are often the result of destructive interaction patterns.

Interaction patterns

The means by which couples interact in conflict situations are very informative for the functioning of long-term relationships. According to Dr. John Gottman, the four horsemen of the apocalypse are the proverbial destroyers of relationship satisfaction and can be the slippery slope that leads to infidelity. These four negative communication styles include criticism, defensiveness, contempt, and stone walls (which occur when a partner shuts down in response to emotional floods).

Through his research, Dr. Gottman notes that newly married couples who showed the four riders were more likely to divorce an average of 5.6 years after marriage. In contrast, couples who did not have escalating conflict but showed emotional withdrawal divorced 16.2 years after marriage.

Couples who undergo therapy after an affair often show the four riders in conflict discussions. Certified Gottman therapists are specially trained to help couples find more adaptable means of communication for these events. Given the four tabs, these therapists help clients learn and implement the antidotes to these destructive patterns of interaction:

Criticism – gentle start
Defensiveness – taking responsibility
Contempt – Build a culture of appreciation
Stonewalling – Physiological self-soothing
Once couples have learned the strategies necessary to communicate more effectively, they can begin the healing process.

Reconstruction after the apocalypse

An affair is a catastrophic event in a couple’s relationship. For the betrayed partner, the initial shock response may include anger, sadness, pain, and humiliation. These symptoms mimic post-traumatic stress disorder very well and can persist even long after the infidelity is discovered. Even so, it is still possible for couples to rebuild and move forward.

Relationships don’t exist in a vacuum. Therefore, a necessary step in rebuilding after an affair for both partners is to commit to maintaining the relationship. To do this, the betrayed partner must determine whether he can forgive. This act is critical to the long-term functioning of the relationship. Of the four riders, Dr. Gottman states that disdain for relationships largely predicts relationship dissatisfaction and ultimate divorce.

Moving forward from an affair is not an easy task, but it can be achieved! This process depends on the couple’s willingness to examine the way they interact. Some questions to consider are:

Are the four tabs most common during conflict discussions?
Can the couple defuse arguments? Can they access humor or playfulness?
Can the couple respectfully accept each other’s different perspectives?
When rebuilding an affair, Certified Gottman therapists work with couples to help them engage in healthier conflict discussions, turn to one another, and improve emotional alignment. By strengthening these areas, couples greatly increase their chances of long-term satisfaction and relationship growth.