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

Surviving Infidelity: Three Types of Reconciliation

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"I'm afraid we'll never achieve the AffairRecovery dream" a couple told me.

What are you talking about?" I asked.

"We're not sure we can make it or that we'll ever find a new life of meaning and purpose," they replied.

In my years of treating infidelity, I've seen couples take many paths after the initial disclosure—and not all to good end. I've often wondered if there's something we could do to help increase the probability of couples achieving a better life. How could we help couples be more resilient after experiencing the trauma of relationship betrayal. Why are some individuals and couples more resilient than others in these situations?

I agree with psychotherapist, Esther Perel, that there are three basic paths couples seem to travel, and I want to credit some of her thinking for some of the concepts in this article. First, there are "Sufferers" who stay stuck in the past and spend the rest of their lives focused on the betrayal, and can live in fear that it might happen again. Second, there are "Builders" who power through what happened and let it go in order to save their marriage. Third, there are "Explorers" who use the pain as a catalyst to build a new and better partnership. Let's unpack this a little bit.

"Sufferers" tend to remain crushed by the infidelity crises and can't allow their circumstances to be a catalyst for change.

Instead, they become stuck in a black hole of perpetual bitterness, trapped in orbit by the surrounding field of gravity. Both parties can remain stuck in their feelings of resentment and desire for revenge. I've seen couples who have remained in this orbit for decades. The betrayal is still the epicenter of their pain, and I'm amazed they have stayed together. They are like a skipping vinyl record that continuously repeats the same accusation, recriminations, and cycles of blame. No amount of remorse is sufficient to douse the flames of hurt. Personally, I believe these couples would have struggled regardless of the infidelity. Each is stuck with maladaptive strategies of relating and are blind to their own self-limiting behaviors.

While these couples may stay together, they are perpetually stuck in a state of misery. I've seen couples such as these show up at EMS (Emergency Marriage Seminars) who've been in this cycle for over 20 years. The "betrayed partner'' views their mate through the lens of their transgressions and is blind to any positive characteristics or behaviors. Their myopic focus on the injustice of what happened, along with their lifetime membership to "Victims Are Us," blind them to the possibility of a better future. The "wayward partner" is also stuck in the quagmire of the past, seeing no way forward. They continuously endure the "betrayed partner's" rage and mean-spirited comments. Rather than feeling compassion for their partner's pain, they move into toxic shame and join in with their own self-deprecation. Their state of shame leaves them believing this is as good as they deserve and see no room for self-improvement. Like their partner, they are also blind to positive qualities their partner possesses and join the "Scum Club."

Sadly, it's the victim mentality of the Sufferers that keeps them stuck. By attributing their misery to their partner's failure to change, they place their future happiness in their partner's hands and surrender their ability to choose a different path. They fail to realize that by developing their own sense of self-agency, they could make the personal changes necessary to create a brighter future.

Marriages change unilaterally, not bilaterally. It takes two people to maintain an old destructive dance. However, if one partner changes their dance, the homeostasis of the old relationship is broken. Ironically, in the "dance of suffering," recovery itself can be seen as yet another form of betrayal for one and a danger for the other. For the one betrayed, letting go of the grievance and moving past the suffering into greater relational health can be viewed by the one betrayed as tacit complicity in the injustice perpetrated on them, representing a sort of self-betrayal. For the wayward partner, holding onto shame and self-recrimination may seem like a good strategy for preventing relapse, but over time this mindset may actually put one at greater risk of falling again.

The solution for Sufferers is for each to explore what has them repeating their miserable patterns (Hint: it's not the infidelity). In my experience, childhood trauma is often the culprit that perpetuates the tragic cycle of using adaptive patterns (from childhood) that no longer serve them well as adults. Whatever the reason for being a Sufferer, hopefully the pain of their current suffering will seem worse than the shame or loss of pride they may feel when they seek help and engage in the individual work necessary to find a way forward. If you have felt locked into a miserable pattern, there is hope even if this dance has been years in the making.

"Builders" focus on retaining what they once had.

For them it's about commitment, family, and community. Their goal is to save the relationship and reestablish the status quo. They want things to go back to the way they used to be without necessarily pursuing an improved relationship. They move beyond the affair and tend to view it as an anomaly.

Infidelity highlights the cracks and weaknesses in a relationship as well as the individuals, but it also reveals the strengths and positive aspects of both the individual and the relationship. Builders choose to focus on these structural strengths and build around, rather than change, the weaknesses. Their goal is to once again reestablish a safe place to lay their head.

The negative aspect to this approach to reconciliation is that both parties have to accept a "no-growth policy." Focusing on the structural strengths while ignoring vulnerable aspects of the relationship can restore the status quo but leave the relationship and the individuals in their old, familiar orbit. These couples substitute closeness (a pseudo form of intimacy) for true intimacy. One way of defining intimacy is "In– to – me – see." Being authentic with our partner is, more often than not, trading short-term instability for gaining long-term connectedness. Because each individual is unique, we don't always see or experience things the same way. Couples have separate and distinct subjective realities, and if they have the courage to be authentic and share their differing perspectives, short-term instability ensues. Builders tend to sacrifice authenticity for a sense of closeness. Authenticity and connectedness can become mutually exclusive if the goal is to save the marriage. If the goal is unity, why would either party be motivated to share something the other doesn't want to hear?

While builders are able to beat the regrettable event (infidelity) flat enough to slide it under the proverbial rug and put it behind them, this feat is accomplished by ignoring weaknesses and vulnerabilities, both individually and as a couple. Important questions become too potentially disruptive to ask—questions such as, "What happened in my childhood that causes me to respond this way?" "What issues do we need to address in our relationship to have the best marriage possible?" "What's it like for my mate to live on the other side of me?" "Are my behaviors driven by my mature adult-self or by the maladaptive parts of me?" Builders are uncomfortable with these questions.

The serenity prayer says, "God grant me the ability to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference." Builders tend to do this backwards. By focusing only on changing the things they cannot accept and ignoring what is too painful to change, they try to prove they don't have issues and end up accepting things they could have easily addressed. They do attain a sort of "normal," but it's a normal that features a variety of relational landmines to be avoided at all costs. The infidelity is out of sight but not forgotten. It is the thing never discussed but always there. Perhaps they lack the courage to look into the abyss of their own brokenness and honestly explore their core issues. This way of thinking leaves them together but destined to relational mediocrity.

"Explorers" exemplify what I believe to be the AR dream.

Granted parts of the journey can feel like a bit of a nightmare, this group tends to find a way to leverage the tremendous emotional energy from the painful situation and create a fundamentally different relationship. While no one would wish this type of pain and trauma on another person, the Explorer comes to a point where they are grateful for the freedom and post-traumatic growth they experience as a result of all the hurt and pain. Unlike the Builders, these couples don't just focus on saving the marriage (even though the fear of loss may motivate them), but instead, they embark on a journey of personal healing. Both parties are willing to look at themselves and see how they can become more functional adults.

Unlike the Sufferers, as they move forward, Explorers don't look at the betrayal as the definitive event of their relationship, but as one event in their life together. Their language shifts from you and me to we and us. "When you did this to me" turns into "When our crisis happened." The infidelity becomes something integrated into the larger context of their lives.

In my experience, Explorers resemble bamboo in a hurricane—they bend rather than break. Or even if they feel like they're broken for a time, they each believe that there's still a part of them inside that knows they won't be broken forever. Here are some characteristics of these couples. This is not an all-inclusive list, but I do hope discussing these characteristics will give you a way to see new ways forward if you want to achieve the AR dream.

Explorers surround themselves with resilient people. Through the ages, the community has served as one of the primary pillars of healing from trauma. This group tends to find others where they can weather the storm together. In the face of betrayal, it's natural to isolate, but Explorers have the courage to find and join healthy communities who can help carry them and direct them in their journey. They ditch the negative characters in their life and seek people who will support and encourage them along the way.

In the midst of the storm, these couples work at having a positive mindset. Whether together or not, they believe there will be a light at the end of the tunnel. Hear these wise words from French Philosopher, Albert Camus,

"In the midst of winter, I found there was, within me, an invincible summer."

-Albert Camus

Explorers tolerate ambiguity and recognize that to weather the storm, you have to remember that the clouds will eventually part and the sun WILL return.

To be an Explorer, one also has to have humility. Pride, hubris, and/or shame leave one stuck in unbending beliefs, but humility makes room for curiosity. That curiosity can help one identify, and let go of, unhelpful beliefs about themselves and their mate, leaving room to consider new possibilities. Humility also enables them to develop compassion for themselves and also for their mate. It's this characteristic that makes way for empathy. Without humility, it's difficult to build a new marriage in which both people feel seen and understood.

"Success is not final, failure is not fatal: it is the courage to continue that counts,"

-Winston Churchill

Explorers appear profoundly courageous, but at closer examination, it isn't that they have no fear, but rather that they are willing to look into the abyss and address what needs to be done in spite of being afraid. Know that if you simply have courage, you will live to fight another day.

"The greatest glory in living lies not in never falling, but in rising every time we fall,"

-Nelson Mandela

Unlike the Builders, Explorers accept what they can and can't change. They have the courage to assess the health of their moral compass and take personal responsibility for their actions. They don't settle for the limiting notion that "this is just how I am." Instead, they explore the possibility that childhood experiences may have contributed to their maladaptive response patterns in the face of adult stress.

Explorers live in the dynamic tension of this paradox: They wish deeply that the infidelity had never happened AND they see the infidelity and recovery as the catalyst for the creation of a profoundly different and better relationship. It shouldn't have happened AND it is part of the story that brought them to a very good place. What was intended for evil, and was sinful, has created a path that leads toward new blessings!

Our mission at Affair Recovery is to help those impacted by infidelity find new lives of meaning and purpose! The last thing we want is for people to fall into the category of the Sufferers. Suffering is a part of the journey, but you don't want it to be the ending point. Builders may salvage what's best of the old life, but sadly, they usually fail to achieve a new life of meaning and purpose. If you fall into that category, please know there is more; you don't have to settle. For those of you who are Explorers, I want to encourage you to stay the course. This is what we want for everyone impacted by infidelity. Your growth and progress provide hope for those who are beginning the journey. Those of us at Affair Recovery applaud your courage and tenacity!

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Not on the same path

What happens when you and your partner are not on the same path?

Not on the same path-Heather

Hi Michelle, saw your comment about the issue of when spouses who are not on the same path, and unfortunately, I've never seen anyone from Affair Recovery respond to anyone's questions or comments with counsel, direction, or encouragement, so I'll just share with you what I've learned. When your spouse is not on board and pursuing recovery with you, and disinterested in restoring the marriage, the number one thing you can do for yourself is to focus on yourself and your own healing. Your own personal healing may involve professional coaching, a trained betrayal trauma therapist, group support, a program of support for betrayed spouses, or whatever you find that would be most helpful to you! Make self-care top priority as well, and that includes taking care of your mental, physical, psychological, and spiritual health. It's also vital to set and hold boundaries with your husband to protect yourself and allow only what brings you the most safety in the relationship as you grow and heal. You can still offer him the opportunity to come along side and join you in recovery while maintaining your boundaries. I know it's hard when one person is not vested in the relationship and feels like another betrayal. Just take things one day at a time, and it is possible to enjoy the path your own personal journey can take you on. I pray peace, healing, and many blessings over you as you move forward in your recovery!

You don't see many AR folks

You don't see many AR folks responding, but if you join the community forums you will find people who are very helpful and respond to questions / comments with counsel, direction and encouragement.

You don't see many AR folks

I was referring to the lack of response in the comments section by the actual staff and article writers at AR Recovery, not the community. The community does share feedback with each other and offer support through their responses in the comments section.

It depends, I think.

It depends, I think.

How long has it been since your d-day? If we're talking a short time after your d-day (maybe less than 1 year) then I wouldn't be surprised at all to see both on a different path, and I might even extend that to 2 years.

There are just way too many factors involved... are both partners leaning into recovery work? Are they supporting each other? Has there been full disclosure? Has there been abuse? Does the unfaithful spouse "get it"? Is the betrayed spouse willing to forgive? Is there something holding the betrayed spouse back? Is the unfaithful spouse willing to address what it is? Is the unfaithful spouse safe? Are you both "all in" ?

What I hear the spirit of your question is the future of the marriage if you're both not on the same path.

It doesn't necessarily mean divorce. There are way too many factors involved there too. The most honest answer is no one knows, no two situations are the same.

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