Healing from an Emotional Affair
Despite the varying details that I hear when working with couples dealing with some degree of infidelity, there is a simple fact that I always try to remember: at the end of the day what a hurt partner usually needs the most to heal is to feel that the offender understands the pain and hurt he or she has caused and that it won’t happen again. Some of you reading this may now be thinking “Is that all? I can do that!” and that may be enough for you to start repairing the damage without ever stepping into my office.
But outside of the fortunate few, most couples struggle to get to a place where that essential need can be clearly expressed and met by the offender. This difficulty is likely due to the fact that when the issue of the emotional affair comes up, the two individuals are quickly pulled into a negative cycle that blinds them to the fact that they both need to feel something in order to move forward together in the healing process.
What Constitutes an Affair?
The cycle can often be triggered by a disagreement on whether what happened constitutes an affair. To a hurt partner, the word “affair” is an accurate word for what happened. According to Jim Vigorito, Ph.D., even though there may have been no physical aspects to the relationship, “you’re taking your best communication outside of your marriage and then there’s not much left to bring to your spouse.” Partners feel violated when there has been an intimate level of sharing with someone else, especially if sharing and openness has been something they’ve always wanted from their partner but never had.
(Note: In this post I will use the terms “hurt partner” to identify the partner that has been hurt and “offender” to identify the partner involved in the emotional affair. I acknowledge that the term “offender” may appear loaded or accusatory, and I do not mean to imply anything excessively negative about the person’s character. But for the sake of clarity and fluidity in writing, I need to make a concrete distinction.)
But for the offender, to admit to having an affair can feel like they are admitting to being a kind of person they have likely despised. This is especially true when it comes to emotional affairs. Society has historically associated the word “affair” with sexual infidelity and with that comes a negative image of an unfaithful partner. As a result many offenders bristle and may even deny that they did anything remotely close to what that word implies. This discomfort keeps them from sending the message that is usually buried under all that defensiveness—“I’m truly sorry.”
And the more the offender struggles with the word “affair” the more the hurt partner gets the feeling that her pain is not seen and acknowledged. Most hurt partners then respond by becoming more insistent in pointing out the details and behaviors of the affair instead of expressing the pain and suffering they feel. This insistence leads to more defensiveness on the part of the offender and the cycle continues as it drives the two further apart.
Beginning to Heal Your Marriage
One way for offenders to try and keep themselves from adding to the destructive speed of the cycle is to remember that is isn’t about how they or society define betrayal but how their partner defines it. Michelle Weiner-Davis, a clinician and author in the field of couples counseling noted the prevalence of the idea of “no sex equals no affair” in the many couples she has treated but adds “if their spouses think otherwise and feel hurt, threatened or emotionally abandoned, it becomes a marital problem.” She continues, “and as with any marital problem, partners need to protect each other’s feelings. This means that the emotionally involved partner should honor the feelings of his or her spouse whether he or she agrees with or understands it completely.” The sooner that honoring of the hurt partner’s feelings can take place, the sooner they can heal.
The hurt partner can also play a part in directing the conversation towards healing by assessing whether what he or she needs matches what he or she is asking for or focusing on. As a marriage counselor, I find that this is a more difficult task and I don’t usually expect they can get to this place without first seeing some empathy and remorse from their partner. The hurt partner is typically dealing with more intense feelings of betrayal, shock, and pain, so it can often be challenging to feel vulnerable enough to identify and express those needs to the very person who hurt them. What this can normally result in is a deep sense of pain that is expressed through anger, accusations, or a focus on details of the extramarital relationship.
When dealing with the pain of emotional infidelity, a few simple questions for the hurt partner are these: “How do I best communicate my pain and my needs? Do I tell him about my pain by focusing more on his behaviors and the details of the affair, or by telling him about the hurt I feel because of those behaviors?”
It is completely normal for there to be an almost uncontrollable need to know details and to focus on getting a complete confession from the offender. But at some point your efforts will need to turn to clearly and courageously sharing with your partner how you have suffered and what you need, if real and lasting healing is to take place.
Marriage Counseling and Next Steps in Healing
Recovering from an emotional affair involves a number of steps, but the biggest obstacle is breaking out of that destructive cycle that keeps couples locked in pain, shame, and frustration. If your best efforts are not enough to get to those healing conversations, you may consider seeking out couples therapy so your relationship doesn’t have to suffer any more than it already has.
If you’re in the Denver area and need help to heal your relationship, call us today at 720-468-0101