Rick Reynolds, LCSW
by Rick Reynolds, LCSW
Founder & President, Affair Recovery

How to Prevent Relapse: Healing After an Affair

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A couple of years ago, Steph and I went canoeing with friends on the Guadalupe River. It was a picture-perfect spring day. Wildflowers streaked the banks in a kaleidoscope of colors and spring showers had the river running high. We stopped for lunch on a grassy bank and soaked in the beauty. All agreed that it doesn't get any better than this. It was the perfect day... or so we thought.

We Never Saw It Coming

The next day, my skin began to break out. Not just a little...A LOT. I've known for years that I'm deathly allergic to poison ivy, which is why I normally spot the stuff 100 yards away. But on that day, I missed it. I had it all over me, and that's no exaggeration. I never knew a man could itch so much. While I realized that scratching off the top layer of my skin was the worst thing I could do, there wasn't enough willpower in the world to keep me from scratching and spreading the stuff. Eventually, I ended up in the hospital with anaphylactic shock. I'm incredibly grateful for steroids.

Now, before you start feeling sorry for me, I need to confess that my allergy to poison ivy has been one of my greatest blessings. While that may sound absurd, it's not and here's why: I get to witness far more of God's creation than most. This condition causes me to be highly observant and present when I'm in nature. I see more; I enjoy more, because I'm aware of more. Without the gift of my poison ivy allergy, I would have never experienced as much beauty because I would have never been as present and aware.

At times, I may envy someone like my son who doesn't have to be aware of certain plants when he's romping in nature, but I guarantee he only sees a small fraction of what I get to witness as I walk through the woods. Looking back, I can see that my poison ivy allergy has become a gift, not a curse.

Will Power

Relapse prevention and healing after an affair are very similar. That may sound like the typical "the glass is half full" analogy, but it's not. I don't mean to oversimplify the effects and pain of infidelity or relapse. But there are similarities to the poison ivy analogy that are worth mentioning.

Last week, I was reminded of my misery when a woman shared about her husband's anger two years after ground zero. He just couldn't understand why she still carried on with her affair when she knew it was wrong and claimed she didn't want to do it.

He's not alone. I can't tell you how many unfaithful partners have asked the same question. They genuinely didn't want to do it, and yet they still ended up doing something they didn't want to do. Not only that, they felt there was no way this could ever happen again, because they had no hint of a desire to do it again.

Let me say without hesitation that all affairs are not the same. This article does not apply to all people, but it does apply to those who continue to do what they don't want to do. Life after an affair can be fruitful, but it's important to understand the "why" behind the urge to relapse on some level.

The Addict

For those without addictive natures, it's difficult to understand the insanity associated with their mate's behavior. In their world, if they don't want to do something, they simply choose not to do it. It's that simple and clear cut. For the addict, however, it's not that simple. Addictions are far more like Poison Ivy. It's more like an itch that has to be scratched, which makes healing after an affair even more difficult. Not everyone has this insane reaction to circumstances or substances like the addict. The difference is in the intensity of the urge.

Imagine you, like me, have an intense rash brought about by an allergic reaction; maybe you can understand how difficult it is not to scratch when that urge is intensely persistent. Now before I go any further, I want to be clear that just because someone has that intense urge, they absolutely do not have an excuse to act out. Alcoholics say that one drink is too many and twenty isn't enough. It's the same for those surviving infidelity who have sexual or relationship addictions. The point of choice is whether or not you pick up the first drink. Once the response is set into motion there's a reaction that makes things difficult, indeed, if not practically unstoppable.

"I'll Never Ever Do It Again"

Relapse prevention isn't a matter of deciding, "I'll never do it again,” just like preventing a reaction to Poison Ivy isn’t a matter of deciding not to itch. Instead, it's far more like staying out of the Poison Ivy. Rarely do I meet a person who intended to cheat on the day they got married. Most of them never imagined they could be unfaithful to their mate and even more of them never had a plan to resist the urge as they couldn't fathom that they would ever fall out of love with their spouse. They had no idea that if they were exposed to certain situations, they'd develop an itch that demanded to be scratched.

If you've already committed to being faithful but wound up being unfaithful, then the simple commitment to not do it again will never be sufficient and is, quite frankly, naïve at best.

If you've ever done something you don't want to do, you need to accept that you're more than capable of doing it again; true healing after an affair depends on that acceptance. If one's will power was not strong enough to prevent the affair from happening in the first place, why would that same will power now be able to prevent it from happening again?

Living In Light of Addiction

I know that I'm deathly allergic to poison ivy. Having accepted that fact, I make sure I avoid all contact with that plant. I live in a way that keeps me safe. I know for certain that if I spend time in an environment where that plant exists, I'll eventually break out in a rash. Once I break out in a rash, I no longer control what's going to happen. All I can do at that point is try to treat the symptoms. My son, on the other hand, could spend the night rolling in poison ivy and have no ill effects. His immunity allows him freedoms I simply can't afford to have.

My only point of control is making sure I don't have contact in the first place.

Here's the rub: acceptance of my allergy, as well as my addiction, provides me a way to protect myself. I'm not normal, but I am blessed, because it has also brought me disciplines that allow me to live an even fuller life, aware of my weakness and what my consequences will be should I act out. Accepting this fact makes life after infidelity not only more bearable, but also gives way to real change and personal growth.

It's the same for those who have fallen after beginning to heal from an affair. It's not only the hurt spouse that has trouble accepting the reality that their mate can't just stop. Even more dangerous is the unfaithful mate who believes they would never do anything like that again. Both need to come to accept the condition and to learn to see the blessing and safe guards that condition brings. For me, my addictions have forced me to be far more consciously aware of God, others, and life. It's the very thing that's taught me about love, relationships, and grace.

The only way to assure safety in healing after an affair is acceptance. If those who have been unfaithful can swallow their pride, release their shame, and accept how they are and how they naturally respond, then they can protect those they love by doing whatever is necessary to avoid future trouble of any kind. At the same time, they will experience far more of what life has to offer.

If you or your spouse are looking for comprehensive relapse prevention, I'd urge you to consider Hope for Healing for the wayward spouse.

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Designed specifically for wayward spouses, Hope for Healing is a supportive, nonjudgmental environment for you to heal and develop empathy. Over the years, this 17-week, small group course has helped thousands of people find hope, set healthy boundaries and move toward extraordinary lives.

"I just finished Hope for Healing and am proud of the changes that I already feel in myself and my marriage. I found Affair Recovery when I was at the darkest point in my life, and this course has helped me to get myself on a true path to recovery." - S., Alabama | November 2020 Hope for Healing participant.

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