Healing the Damage of an Affair
posted: Dec. 12, 2018.
Originally published in Your Tango
You can come back from this.
You cheated on your husband or wife by having an affair — and now you have no idea how to apologize to them so they know you really mean it. You want to learn how to save your marriage after cheating, yet you wonder if your spouse will ever be able forgive you for your infidelity.
But here's the rub: True forgiveness takes two people.
Most of the time, when we talk about forgiveness, we’re thinking of something one person chooses to do, for their own reasons.
Maybe there’s family to consider. Maybe you’ve invested so much in this relationship that it doesn't make sense to destroy it completely. Maybe you just don’t like the way you feel when you think about the violation and you want to forget about it.
However, there is a tradition that says real forgiveness is impossible unless the errant partner asks for it, sincerely and humbly, and the wounded partner is ready to accept the apology. Until that happens, your relationship is shaped by distrust.
You got caught having an affair and now you're humiliated, ashamed, and frightened about the future of your marriage.
You panic. Have you wrecked your relationship and your family? Maybe. But, you can work on making a true change and regain the trust you lost.
When you've been caught having an affair, here are 7 tips for how to apologize to your husband or wife that can help save your marriage after cheating.
1. Don't make excuses
If you're hoping to heal your relationship and save your marriage, get over the idea that you have some excuse. You don’t.
There are reasons for what you’ve done, but there are no excuses. You’ve broken your promises and invalidated your contract.
2. End the affair
It has to be done, clearly and without any doubt. Waffling will make everything worse for everyone.
No matter how much pain you feel, you need to be willing to do the hard thing. You will have to tolerate a lot of horrible feelings.
3. Apologize to your partner
It might not be accepted the first dozen times, but do it, anyway. Tell them how very sorry you are. No matter how much you want to make excuses, don't.
Tell them you want to mend your relationship and you’ll do anything to accomplish that. At this point, no matter how your partner responds, stick to this message, and only this message.
4. Acknowledge what you did
Your shame about your affair is so painful, the last thing you want to do is to look at it. But you have to.
Chances are, you have never thought of yourself as a cheater. Even the word may make you cringe. Now that you know you have a cheater in you, you will not be able to stuff it away and pretend it doesn't exist.
Since you’re taking the time to read this, I have to believe you are a "good" person who did a "bad" thing. When a person acts out by having an affair, it’s usually because there’s something inside that needs expression, and hasn't become clear enough to be put into words.
When you shame yourself for your behavior, all you're doing is punishing yourself. And while both you and your partner may agree that you should be punished, this self-inflicted shame gets in the way of learning.
It’s tempting to hate the "cheater part" of you and want to wipe it out, but that can make things even worse. Pushing away parts of yourself you don’t like is probably one of the sources of your actions.
Instead, take a breath and tolerate the knowledge that you have flaws. What you did is in you, and you are the one who needs to get familiar with it. Only then can you be confident that you are capable of making better choices.
It’s a good idea to get involved in therapy at this point. A neutral outsider can make space for you to open up your hated parts and get to acquainted with them. In this way, you can begin to forgive yourself. Paradoxically, forgiving yourself is a vital step in taking responsibility for yourself.
5. Empathize with your partner's feelings
While you are practicing this self-examination, you also need to have empathy for your partner. At this point, they are probably not being their "best selves". There will be a long time of rough going.
One moment, you’ll think all is well again, and the next, out to the doghouse! Keep in mind that your partner, who didn't do the deed, is at least as off-center and mixed up as you are. Their world has been turned upside down, and they’re trying to find their own safe harbor.
When they’re in a rage, all you can do is tolerate your own feelings about it. Have faith that it will pass, and you’ll be back on the path of healing.
6. Be circumspect in your behavior
Be impeccable about doing what you say you will do. Be transparent at every step. Take full responsibility for your own actions. Be affectionate, and make room for their feelings and behavior.
Every person who has strayed wants the experience to "be over, already!" long before the betrayed partner is ready to let it go. Patience will pay off, even though it’s hard going.
7. Be patient with yourself and your partner
There will come a time when you can own your behavior, and accept responsibility for the harm your actions have caused.
You will be able to say, with full humility, "I know that what I did hurt you deeply. I see my responsibility, and I can promise never to do it again. I hope you will find it in your heart to forgive me."
You may have to repeat all these steps until your partner is ready to trust you once more.
There is a best-case scenario in which your assault on your marriage contract shakes up a humdrum relationship and gives both parties a chance to grow and change.
When this happens, you can find a new life together, in which you are actually more trusting, and more willing to be vulnerable with one another. Sometimes the worst thing that could happen turns into the best thing that could have happened.