Infidelity is one of the most devastating blows to a relationship’s foundation. Couples often want to know, “Can my marriage be saved after an affair?” In his book, “What Makes Love Last,” by couples researcher Dr. John Gottman, he seeks to answer that question based on years of research on the concept of trust. Here are some of the book’s most significant findings.
According to Gottman, a relationship is only affair-proof when there is a high degree of trust between partners. When trust erodes, small cracks become like large glass windows revealing a mountain of temptation.
How do you keep trust alive in a relationship? It is built in small moments of connection between couples everyday. Did your spouse call stressed about an upcoming work presentation and you berated him for not studying hard enough? Did you notice your significant other teary-eyed over a fight she had with a friend and instead of consoling her you turned the other cheek? These seemingly small moments of disconnect – which signals to your partner that you are not there for me in my time of need- destroy a relationship’s foundation over time.
Gottman instructs couples to use the acronym ATTUNE: Awareness (be conscious of your partner’s mood, attitudes and feelings), Turning toward (ask what’s wrong), Tolerance (stay patient and compassionate towards your partner’s emotions), Understanding (recognize and understand where your partner is coming from), Non-defensive responding (offer support) and Empathy (put yourself in your partner’s world and find ways to understand their circumstance).
When partners neglect one another in moments such as the examples given above, they start to doubt one another and begin to believe that they can’t voice their fears, concerns or unhappiness. They withdraw, hold back and isolate themselves. No longer feeling like home is a safe haven, the possibility of seeking fulfillment elsewhere becomes more and more likely, thus leading to an affair.
Couples are the most threatened and in jeopardy immediately after an affair because each person is trying to make sense of what’s happened.
With heightened insecurity and a broken safety net, everything they once knew and understood seems uncertain. Partners need to work on establishing emotional safety while agreeing not to make any permanent decisions about their relationship right away.
Both partners experience an array of feelings. Sadness, hurt, anger and resentment are a few of the most prominent for the hurt partner. Thoughts like, “How can I ever forgive him/her?” “Am I to blame? “Did I do something to cause this?” are common. Shame, embarrassment, defensiveness and often time’s relief are emotions that run rampant through the unfaithful partner’s consciousness. “I wanted to get caught,” or “I’m actually relieved that it’s finally out in the open” are common phrases from the affair partner.
In this fragile state, the unfaithful partner has a very important role to play for the sake of saving the relationship. Putting their own feelings aside for the time being is critical so that they can tend to their hurt partner. This does not mean that they have to let go of their own reasons of neglect and loneliness about the relationship that lead them to be unfaithful. Indeed, it is absolutely paramount that the affair partner is able to talk honestly about how the affair came to be so as not to make the same mistake in the future, however tending to the hurt partner is of utmost importance during this stage.
Being honest and transparent about the affair while showing remorse helps their significant other feel heard and understood which is the most powerful motivator for overcoming feelings of anger and hopelessness.
The hurt partner has a right to know how long the affair lasted and what degree of feelings were involved. Obsessing over the physical details of the relationship is common, but Gottman cautions against asking for graphics, as knowing too much might destroy the couple’s chances to rebuild.
As Time Goes On
Once the hurt partner is able to express their anger and disappointment- and the affair partner tends to them with compassion and genuine remorse- they begin to see that trust and healing are a possibility. Only then can the hurt partner begin to open up and understand their significant other’s side of things in order to see how the relationship was in jeopardy for infidelity.
This is not to excuse the affair partner of their wrongdoing- they made an awful judgment call that threatened the entire well-being of the relationship- but it is an opportunity to shed light on how both partners can come together and work on building trust in sliding door moments of connection.
Gottman provides hope for couples in his book and concludes that relationships can heal from infidelity.
It might feel like the harder path to travel- and indeed, sometimes it is. There are times when couples will feel like giving up- like it’s just too hard. Other days, they might see a break in the clouds and find hope amidst the despair.
Couples that make the commitment to band together and fight for their marriage have great success for overcoming such a devastating blow as infidelity. Couples should be warned against seeking advice from friends and family during this time as the advice given- albeit with good intention- may not be helpful to the relationship’s ability to recover. Instead, seeking a trusting professional who has experience with unfaithfulness can work with the couple on rebuilding their relationship. Couples counseling can be a great option for those looking for further direction and guidance.