An extramarital affair leaves a big emotional wound, especially if you thought you had a healthy relationship where you could trust your partner.
Once the trust is lost it may be tough to figure out how to navigate the next steps in your relationship and get it back on track — and many couples make common marriage reconciliation mistakes and struggle to get over the affair.
We look at the 10 common marriage reconciliation mistakes to avoid after infidelity and talk to Michaela Thomas, a clinical psychologist, about how married couples can navigate the tricky few months and not make any rash decisions about their relationship after emotional or physical infidelity.
No matter what you do, don’t ignore the affair. Although facing the issue head-on can be extremely painful, brushing the infidelity under the carpet won’t help your affair recovery. This will lead to the cheating partner thinking that their behavior is acceptable and your emotions not being addressed, including any trust issues you both have.
Whether the affair was a one-night stand or a longer more emotional affair, Thomas says that it’s important to make your partner feel safe.
“It is crucial to set boundaries which make the injured partner feel safe in the immediate moment, creating some stability and predictability in the initial shock of finding out about the affair,” she says.
Other more practical boundaries are whether the affair partner should stay in the family home and if children or family should be told about the affair. For the security of your mental health and if you both want to reconcile at some point you should also have boundaries and a plan around how you should handle the aftermath of the affair — which could include professional help.
The initial shock of the affair will feel very damaging, but the healing process isn’t linear, so there could be triggers that bring up the same emotions.
Thomas says these could be as little as seeing someone who looks like the person your partner had an affair with, or has the same name.
“Other triggers which make the brain jump back in time to the affair include the cheating spouse entering a similar situation to where the affair was had, e.g. going to the next year’s Christmas party, making a close friend at work again, or going to the gym,” she says.
You may want to know how your partner’s new relationship or affair started, but too much information will also cause further harm to the relationship. “Honesty is crucial, but think about the function of that honesty,” Thomas says.
“The injured partner often has a strong wish to know the ins and outs of the affair, and some of the details can be more hurtful than helpful. Think carefully about what you say at this stage, to not add insult to injury for the partner who is already hurting.”
However, communication is also important here as if you don’t talk about the affair, and why it happened, then reconciling may never be an option. “Sharing thoughts and feelings about the quality of the relationship, and the underlying needs of each partner are key to the meaning-making process after an affair,” says Thomas.
Talking about infidelity on social media can do more harm than good. You may feel like shaming your partner for what they did but talking about it so publicly will make it worse in the long run.
Telling your children and friends or making rash decisions like selling the house may seem like the right idea at the time but taking time out to process your emotions and look after your well-being is better than making the wrong decisions in the heat of the moment.
If you’re the unfaithful partner and you want to try and mend your marriage it’s important that you have empathy with how your partner is feeling.
“You need to show respect and compassion for the pain the injured partner is feeling, without dismissing it,” says Thomas. “The cheater needs to find the strength to make space for the hurt and pain they caused, even if they feel ashamed of what they did. Otherwise, they make it about themselves and their own guilt.”
Any blame directed towards the innocent partner, says Thomas, is a bad sign. “If there is gaslighting and blaming of the injured partner for what happened, that is a strong warning sign. It’s never your ‘fault’ if your partner has cheated on you, that responsibility sits with them.”
If you have been hurt multiple times and the same patterns keep occurring, “then only you can decide whether you are willing to go through the same pain,” says Thomas. “The best predictor of future behavior is past behavior, so you need to decide where you draw the line.”
One of the most common marriage reconciliation mistakes is not investing in professional help. If you’ve never invested in therapy the concept may seem alien to you but having a mediator to guide you both in the right direction during couples therapy that can help heal your pain and help you understand the infidelity could be the best route to take.
Of course, you’ll want to confide in your best friend and some close family members, however when you tell too many people the intimate details of the affair and how your partner cheated on you it’s hard to find a way back to reconciliation.
Communicating your hurt and emotions, whether it’s with your unfaithful partner or during individual therapy will help you to rebuild your relationship.
“After infidelity, the betrayed spouse can feel like they have been hit by a traumatic experience akin to a car crash or a mugging, whereas the participating partner can be hit with a great sense of remorse, guilt, and shame over their actions,” explains Thomas.
Time is the most important part thing after the affair. One of the biggest mistakes is not giving each other the space and time to trust each other again.
“Rebuilding trust takes time and commitment, and it is important to remember that the phrase ‘forgive and forget’ doesn’t apply here, it is more about ‘forgive and let go’ to move forward,” says Thomas.
“Nobody can dictate how long that takes for the injured partner, and that forgiveness doesn’t mean allowing bad behavior to happen again, or excusing that it happened in the first place.”
Thomas believes that the marriage reconciliation process can be successful, especially if you are willing to have empathy and put in the hard work.
“Sometimes the relationship connection deepens once the couple has worked through why the infidelity happened and have learned from it,” she says.
However, she goes on to add that just because reconciliation is possible, it doesn’t mean that it’s always the right choice. “Sometimes the most compassionate thing is to decide to go separate ways, as the hurt caused runs too deep and forgiveness isn’t possible.”
If your partner makes no attempt at infidelity recovery by agreeing to go to couples counseling or doesn’t want to set boundaries in order for you to feel safe in the relationship then it can be hard to move on with a healthy relationship.
“If you’re not seeing improvement and your partner is refusing to make sacrifices to make you feel safe again, e.g. refusing to minimize or cut contact with the person they had the affair with, then you have a tough choice to make about whether you think you can ever feel safe again with a person who doesn’t put you and your relationship first,” says Thomas.