Editor’s Note: Strong relationships are at the core of a happy life, but sometimes, dealing with the people in our lives is tricky. That’s why Thrive Global partnered with The Gottman Institute on this advice column, Asking for a Friend. Every week, Gottman’s relationship experts will answer your most pressing questions about navigating relationships—with romantic partners, family members, coworkers, friends, and more. Have a question? Send it to [email protected]!
Q: My partner had a one-night affair with someone he met at work but no longer works with. We’ve been together for 8 years and although we have each grown busier and spent less time together the past few years, our relationship has never felt devoid of love. I was devastated after he confessed his infidelity and all my friends say once a cheater, always a cheater. But in the months since, my partner has not stopped trying to win me back, promising it was a one-time thing, that he will work on himself, and that our relationship isn’t worth throwing away. I’m deeply hurt, but despite this, I’m wondering if I should give him another chance. How do I know if I will be able to get over the breach of trust? —A.K.
A: Thank you for having the courage to ask the question. Betrayal can be devastating. It’s understandable that you feel deeply hurt and are having difficulty trusting again. However, as painful as it may be, it is possible for a couple to recover from an affair. In fact, an affair can actually lead to increased intimacy and stronger commitment. Let me explain.
I suggest that you enlist the help of a Certified Gottman Therapist or a therapist trained in the Gottman approach to healing from affairs to help you through this process. You can find someone in your area on the Gottman Referral Network. Alternately, you can read and work through John Gottman’s book, What Makes Love Last? How to Build Trust and Avoid Betrayal.
In the Gottman Method, the royal road to healing and recovery from betrayal is what we call the 3 A’s: Atonement, Attunement, and Attachment.
The first phase, Atonement, is not about forgiveness. Rather, it is about your partner acknowledging that he has hurt and betrayed you and being willing to listen to your hurt and answer your questions about the affair. It is about accountability and transparency.
This phase may be quite prolonged and may involve you asking many questions about the affair. However, I would caution you not to ask questions regarding details about the sex during the affair, so as not to trigger traumatizing images in your mind. Your partner must be willing to answer your questions and to be more accountable and transparent in the present.
Healing requires your partner to hear your pain and understand what you are going through. Atonement is more than saying “I’m sorry.” It’s a long, slow process of showing remorse and willingness to make amends. It’s only through that long, slow process that healing can occur.
The second phase, Attunement, is about learning how to “tune in” to each other’s bids for connection, needs, and feelings. In this phase, you will learn how to process your past failed bids for connection and regrettable incidents so you can understand how communication might have went wrong.
Couples that have affairs tend to engage in conflict avoidance. If that is the case in your relationship, the therapist will teach you new conflict management skills in order to reverse that tendency. The therapist will also help you to become better listeners and to create and ritualize everyday emotional connection. The therapist will work with the you on expressing fondness and admiration for each other and appreciation and gratitude for each other’s contributions to the relationship.
In addition, you will learn how to have a daily ritual of a supportive stress-reducing conversation. Finally, the therapist will suggest that you have a weekly State of the Union Meeting in which you talk about your feelings and needs in a calm way so that you create emotional connection without conflict.
The third phase, Attachment, is about establishing trust, commitment, and loyalty. Trust is based on transparency, truth, constructive conflict, processing past emotional injuries, and attunement, which you started to create in Phases 1 and 2. In Phase 3, you will continue to work and build toward re-commitment and loyalty through work on cherishing.
You will talk purposefully about what values give your lives meaning, what dreams you have for your future individually and together, and your goals for fulfilling those dreams. The therapist will also help you to rekindle your passion and your sex life. Work will be done to renew and/or strengthen the sexual relationship, thereby fostering closer connection in the relationship and to ensure lasting commitment.
The relationship that results from this process will probably not be the same as the relationship before the affair. Yes, couples can and do recover from affairs, but the relationship that results is most often a new relationship.
While the scar of the betrayal may never completely disappear, there is an opportunity for renewed hope, trust, commitment, and intimacy.