Wayne Baker
by Wayne Baker, M.A., LPC
Member, Affair Recovery Expert Panel

Creating Healing Spaces

In my private practice as a psychotherapist of almost 20 years, I've seen firsthand the devastation, pain, and havoc infidelity causes. But I've also been able to witness the strength and resilience of couples who choose to work through this crisis, and sometimes other wounds from their relationship or childhood years, and then go on to rebuild a relationship that they had only previously dreamed about.

If it weren't for the transformation that I get to witness firsthand, I'd probably be still teaching middle school math or even before that, selling computers. For the wayward spouse, understanding how to create a safe environment for the betrayed spouse is crucial for healing and moving forward.

And this week, I just want to explore a few strategies to foster a safe space to support the healing process for both of you. Understanding the depth of hurt caused by infidelity and the steps required for healing is super important.

As a therapist for individuals and couples dealing with infidelity, I've learned that getting to the whole truth as quickly as possible is crucial. That means no trickle truth and no dragging it out. Betrayal trauma can lead to a whirlwind of emotions for both of you, and you don't want to make it worse by leaking bits of truth out over time nor do you want to tell half-truths in order to soften reality.

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I'm very much aware that sometimes getting to the whole truth does take time, but you've got to make it a concerted effort. If you have been in an affair or any kind of secret sexual or emotionally intimate relationship, and you've been lying about it for years, we know that it's going to take time for you to learn how to tell the whole truth.

I'm not giving anybody a get-out-of-jail-free card, but you've got to do the work and effort required to get that story out as quickly as you can. Usually, in my opinion, within two or three months should be the limit for getting it all out. For some – most betrayed spouses — even that amount of time is going to feel like an eternity. The betrayed partner experiences so much anguish that leaking it out over time just makes it worse.

Brené Brown talks about anguish in her book, Atlas of the Heart. She says, "The shock and incredulity can take our breath away, and grief and powerlessness often come for our hearts and our minds. But anguish, the combination of these experiences, not only takes away our ability to breathe, to feel, and to think - it comes for our bones. Anguish often causes us to physically crumple in on ourselves, literally bringing us to our knees or forcing us all the way to the ground. The element of powerlessness is what makes anguish traumatic. We are unable to change, reverse, or negotiate what has happened. Anguish always finds its way back to us. After going through such things; your bones are slightly different than they were before."1

I think this describes a lot of the betrayed partners I have seen in my office over the years. Along with anguish, the betrayed spouse will experience hopelessness, despair, sadness, anger, rage, grief, and a slew of other painful emotions – many times, all at the same time.

These feelings are intense, and they are valid. The wayward partner must recognize and validate these emotions. The betrayed spouse needs their pain to be acknowledged. This is key.

These intense feelings must be validated not just once, but many, many times, and possibly for years to come. Understanding that the healing process is neither neat nor predictable is important. I still see a couple occasionally that I've been seeing off and on since their D-Day, about five years ago. They are doing well, but periodically, she (the betrayed spouse) will encounter a trigger. She had one just a couple of weeks ago. It was a phone call from an unknown number, and it was a reminder of the unknown numbers that played a role during her husband's affair. It turned out the call was from some political campaign. But when she triggered, he quickly reverted to the belief that "she has not forgiven me." She had forgiven him, but they were suddenly both triggered – for her, intense angst and bewilderment and for him, intense shame.

This couple has done enough work that they were able to talk about it and repair it pretty quickly, but I tell you the story as a real-life example of the long-lasting impact of betrayal trauma. It should be expected that even years later, people will have reminders they will need to work through.

Both partners will have reminders which need to be met with empathy, compassion, and a commitment to make a quick and genuine repair.

So, let's talk about HOW to create an emotionally safe environment for now and for years to come. The first thing is no big surprise – you need to establish open communication. Healing begins with honest and open communication, where the wayward spouse is willing to answer questions and discuss the affair with transparency and honesty.

The conversation is incredibly painful, but it's also necessary for rebuilding trust and safety. Empathy and patience are very important for communicating without defensiveness or attempts at justification.

The second aspect to creating a safe environment is that the wayward spouse must be able to express remorse and take responsibility. Remorse without blaming your partner for all the external circumstances is crucial for your own learning and growth. This means expressing sincere regret and understanding (and feeling) the pain you've caused. You have to do that consistently and with patience for as long as it takes – really.

And then there's this commitment to change, the third aspect of creating a safe environment. The betrayed partner must see and believe in the wayward spouse's commitment to make these changes. That might involve ending an affair completely, cutting off all contact with the AP, and taking concrete steps to rebuild safety and trust, like sharing passwords, location, and all finances. It also means honoring and abiding by the agreements that the two of you have made and will continue to make over the recovery process.

Something that I don't think is talked about often enough in the healing process is patience. Healing is gradual, and in this world of immediate gratification and a get-it-done-now mindset, this is a totally different animal.

It's going to take time to heal.

The wayward spouse must be patient, giving the betrayed partner time to grieve and process the emotions – all of them. It's not about waiting for the storm to pass. It's about learning to navigate it together and getting on the same side of this together, however long it takes.

One thing that tends to happen with couples who are successful with this process is that the wayward partner is able to put their arms around the relationship and be thte leader in creating this safe connection. I think it's the quality of the connection that becomes the biggest healing agent.

Yes, there's the whole truth and all the other things we've discussed, but if you look at the quality of your connection, is it what you want it to be? Is it what you dreamed of? If not, take a look at what's missing. It's that connection that comes from getting on the same side of this and working on it together.

A fourth element of creating a safe space is creating, establishing, and reestablishing boundaries. You know, infidelity often blurs boundary lines, and reestablishing clear boundaries is crucial. It might involve setting new rules around privacy, communication, and interaction with other people outside of the relationship. Those rules might need to be extremely strict and detailed at first.

Another thing that can be really helpful is finding some professional help. The guidance of a therapist who knows the complexities of healing from infidelity can provide a neutral space to explore feelings and communicate effectively. With that person, you can develop strategies to rebuild the relationship you have always dreamed of.

Another element that a lot of couples don't talk about at the very beginning of recovery, but it starts anywhere from 6 to 9 months into the healing process, is this recovery of sexual intimacy. It stands to reason that this part of your life is likely severely damaged following infidelity. Rebuilding intimacy takes time. And it may start with very simple acts of connection, non-sexual touch, spending quality time together, and expressing appreciation and affection. One of the things that's super important is to respect each other's space in rekindling the physical intimacy. Both partners need to feel safe and comfortable. Very rarely is that pace going to be the same for both of you, but you've got to respect each other's space and pace.

It's important to remember that forgiveness is a process. Forgiveness, self-forgiveness included, is a personal journey, and you can't rush it. The unfaithful spouse has to understand that forgiveness, if it comes, will be on the betrayed partner's terms and on their timeline. It's all about eventually letting go of anger and resentments.

But just like what I said about sexual intimacy, everybody has their own pace and their own process. If the unfaithful spouse does the work, tells the truth, expresses empathy, and is patient, respectful, and kind, most of the time, forgiveness comes over time. Even though triggers are always possible for either spouse, this process doesn't take years and years and years.

Lastly, let's talk about the co-creation of a new relationship. Neither spouse should expect the relationship to be the same as it was before. It is an opportunity to build a new foundation – one that's based on mutual understanding, transparency, and a renewed commitment, understanding and agreeing on core values for the relationship. It involves redefining relationship goals and expectations and creating new, meaningful routines and traditions.

Healing from infidelity is one of the most challenging things any therapist has seen in their practice. It is filled with a ton of pain and an opportunity to create a safe space for their partner. This will allow the betrayed partner the space and the time they need to do their own healing work.

Through open communication, professional support, a commitment to rebuilding the relationship, and co-creating something new, couples can navigate this difficult path together. Like I've said, I wouldn't be doing this if I didn't see this process play out all the time in my practice as a psychotherapist.

It's possible to emerge stronger and more connected with a renewed sense of trust and commitment! Remember that every couple's journey is unique. A safe, supportive, and compassionate environment is the cornerstone of any healing process.

As a psychotherapist, I encourage couples to view this challenging time as an opportunity to create a renewed and stronger relationship. I can think of no better place to start your journey toward transformation than the EMS Weekend offered by Affair Recovery!

It's no secret I went through this program 28 years ago, and it's a big reason why I became a therapist. It is full of grounded theory and practical experience. What you will find there is a compassionate staff, a solid structure, and a process for working together to transform your relationship.



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