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Saving your marriage after an affair

Dear Doc Column

Healing relationships after affair1-30-18   Dear Doc, my husband had an affair last month when he was out of town.  He swears it’s over, that he’s had no contact with the other woman, and I don’t think he’s lying about that.  But it’s been horrendous.  I get paranoid & angry and second-guess everything he does.  I’m also down, super insecure, anxious, snappy, and a thousand other negative adjectives to follow.  Here’s the kicker: we both want to save the marriage. But how do we reconnect after an affair?  How do I get over this?  Thanks.

Fixing a relationship after an affair can feel like trying to mend a boat with a hole in it — while you’re floating in the middle of the ocean.  For every bucketful of water you oust, another bucketful seems to seep in.  Many relationships don’t make it, but that’s usually  because one or both of the involved parties aren’t sure that’s what they want.

Your situation is different.  You and your husband want to mend your marriage, and if that’s your plan, agreeing to mend the connection is an enormous step in the right direction.  There’s never a guarantee that one set of recommendations works for everyone, but here are some ideas that might help.

First, decide: why do you want to save the marriage?

You and your husband want to repair your relationship.  Grab a pen and piece of paper each and answer the pressing question, “Why?”  More specifically, “Why save your marriage?  What is it about the relationship that’s worth saving?  What would you miss if you separated?”

Don’t write, “I like X, but I’m unhappy about Y.”  Focus specifically on the reasons you’re staying together.  Make the list as long as you can.  When finished, combine the two into one.  Over the course of marriage reparation, you’ll need to refer to this frequently.

Possible reasons might include “because we love each other,” “for the kids,” “because I’d miss her hug when I got home,” “because when he’s happy, I’m happy,” “because she’s the only one who laughs at my jokes,” “because we have a long history together,” or “because our faith says we were made for one another.”  Sometimes that list must include “because the pain is worth it.”  Can you think of others?  Put the list up in a place where you’ll both see it often, and keep adding to it as new ideas come up.

If you can’t come up with reasons, consider taking some time apart and reflecting on that questions: “Why?”  That is, “Why save your marriage?”  For this relationship to survive, both parties have to be 100% committed, despite past and future pain.  You have to know why you’re fighting so hard.  It’s okay to take a break and let your brain wrap itself around the situation little by little.  Take your time to decide.

Second, it’s time to work together: what’s your plan to save the marriage?

You know why you’re staying together.  The next step is to create a tangible plan to reconnect with your husband.  This isn’t about punishing him for his sins.  This isn’t revenge.  He’s seeking forgiveness, trust, and compassion.  You’re planning to grant him these things, at your own pace.  You want to feel appreciated and loved again.  He’s planning to give you these things, too.  How do you take on such a monster?  One step at a time.  Each person has their homework.

Assignments for the person who had the affair:

(1) Focus on your partner:

  • Spend ten minutes/day telling the other person why you stayed with them.
  • Make a list of things you like about your spouse and put it a spot they’ll see. Keep adding to the list. Help them rebuild their confidence.
  • Be accountable for your actions.  Take responsibility and, if you haven’t, end the affair.  Then, remind your loved one you haven’t had contact with your former lover — remind them as often as they need to hear it — and, if you do hear from your lover, be honest and let your spouse know.
  • Account for your free time, especially during the first six months after the affair. Help the other person learn to trust you again.
  • Make sure your loved one is the #1 priority in your life.  When you have free time, choose to spend it with them.  When you have a cookie, give them half.
  • If your spouse finds it helpful, consider spending ten minutes/day verbally “lashing” your former lover — stating things you don’t like about them and reasons you left — so that your significant other can understand you’re letting go.  Your partner needs to know you’re choosing them over the lover.
  • Apologize sincerely and repeatedly. Your spouse is hurting, and they need to hear you wish their pain gone.  A simple “I’m sorry” isn’t enough.  Seek to understand your partner at the deepest level: state specifically what you did wrong and what actions you are taking to avoid hurting them in the future.
  • Grieve with your spouse.  Don’t ask them to “put it all behind” them.  To build trust, you must be willing to bare witness to your loved one’s pain.

(2) Focus on yourself

  • Symbolically do something to wipe the slate clean – to let go of the lover you grieve losing and forgive your partner for their anger.
  • Have patience. Building trust takes time.  Your partner has decided to stay with you: it’s unlikely the damage is beyond repair.
  • Vent to someone you trust.  Talk to a trusted friend, or consider seeing a counselor.  Just make sure to keep your spouse aware you’re spending time with this person.

Assignment for the person who didn’t have the affair.

(1) Focus on your partner.

  • Share your grief.  Take time to cry, scream, yell, and cry some more.  If that’s what you need, do it.  Keep your partner by your side, share that emotion with them.  They are strong enough to take it.  They need to understand it.
  • Learn to forgive. Think of how good you felt last time someone forgave you.  Start little, one day at a time: forgive, and forgive again.  Some days will be harder than others.
  • Empathize with your significant other. Work on trying to understand their pain about the whole situation.  They’re hurting too.
  • Make sure to give your loved one breathing room.  Sometimes we cling tightly to stuff we don’t want to lose.  Don’t push your partner away by flooding the relationship with control and jealousy.
  • If you want to save the connection, you have to learn to trust again.  Remember, it isn’t all or nothing.  You can trust someone 25%, and over time let it grow to 95%.  Above all, be patient: trust takes time.

(2) For yourself:

  • If you need to, forgive yourself for your anger.
  • Work on depression and self-esteem. Dress up and smile, read self-help books, talk to friends, see a therapist.
  • Do something symbolic to clean the slate for yourself.  Give yourself a chance to start over.   Imagine resetting the clock.
  • Understand the stages of grief: despair, bargaining, anger, denial, and acceptance. You might feel all these emotions at the same time, or maybe you feel nothing but emptiness.  Everyone is different.  Remind yourself that you’ll survive.
  • Whenever you have doubts, go over the reasons you want to save your marriage.

Both parties should check-in once/week and review these four lists together.  What’s helping?  What isn’t?  Is there something not being addressed?  Are there other activities that might help?

Third, do something together once/week to represent your coming together.

By now you understand why you want to stay together, and each person is working towards reconnecting.  The next step is to share life.  Is there something special you two used to do?  Or something new you can plan for the future?  Identify a special experience you can share regularly, and find time to do it.  Possible activities include:

  • Something simple, like playing cards, walking in the park, a day out fishing, or curling up on the couch together to watch a movie
  • Something a little more extravagant, such as a night out on the town or a vacation to the mountains or a distant country
  • Talking about the future.  Find common ideals you both share and don’t be afraid to dream.  Concentrate on ideas that bring you together.
  • Signing up for a class together.  Look into community courses at your local community college, and jump right in.  You’ll find shared interests as you labor over homework.
  • Work out together.  Join a gym, take dance classes, or take long runs in the park.
  • Ask each other questions.  Think of the possibilities: Do you believe there’s an afterlife?  Why do people exist?  Why do we sleep?  Is there a solution to the Israel-Palestine situation?  Do you think it’s safe to drink Diet Coke?  What’s the best way to bake a cake?
  • Establish a ritual.  Light incense, burn candles, put on some cool music, and spend 30 minutes dancing the night away.  Travel out to the nearest mountain peak at sunrise and read your favorite poems under a flashlight.  Sit together each night and state five things you appreciate about one another.  Or come up with a new ritual that works specifically for you.

The take home message: kindness is the key.  The longer message is to treat one another well, grieve together, forgive, trust & be trustworthy, and invest time in the relationship. In the end, having a good connection with your partner strengthens who you are and grants depth and meaning to your life.  That doesn’t mean it’s easy.  Hang in there, and don’t give up.


Sometimes, no matter what you do, that connection remains elusive.  Is there too much resentment?  Too much hurt?  Has trust been so shattered there seems no mending the situation?  Are there so many underlying issues that you don’t know where to start?  If the answer to these questions is yes, if healing the relationship causes more problems than solutions, please consider contacting a marriage counselor.  They can help guide you through the healing process, while taking into account that each marriage is unique. 

An article by Kim Rosenthal, MD – Psychiatry

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