How to regain trust after an affair

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Affairs don't have to be fatal to a marriage, although they often are. Esther Perel, couples therapist and author of Mating In Captivity, says an affair can actually lead to a new and wonderful relationship.

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  • Esther Perel

    Esther Perel Marriage and Family Therapist, Author Esther Perel is a licensed marriage and family therapist and member of the American Family Therapy Academy and the Society for Sex Therapy and Research. She's author of the international bestseller: "Mating in Captivity: Unlocking Erotic Intelligence." more about this expert »

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How to regain trust after an affair

Can your marriage survive an affair? How can you regain the trust of your partner? Here are some surprising answers from Esther Perel:

Should you always reveal the affair?

In America (unlike the rest of the world), we believe in total transparency in a relationship—even at the expense of our partners’ feelings. In other cultures, it’s believed that it’s better to save face—protecting the partner from embarrassment. And while an affair may be revealed, it’s not necessary to divulge all of the hurtful details.

Secrets aren’t always the end of a relationship. Sometimes the person who had the affair can end it without telling their partner, instead coming back to the relationship having learned something about themselves and what they want from the relationship.

How do we rebuild trust?

Many couples find that they cannot repair trust after a revealed infidelity, but some don’t. They realize it’s a huge, painful disruption, but then they mend the relationship. They learn to have conversations. Often in therapy, after the revelation of an affair, they have conversations they haven’t had in years.

Remember that there are stages to rebuilding the trust. It may not be the same kind of trust as before.

What kind of a relationship can you have after an affair?

Some find a way to have a whole new relationship. In the West, most people will have 2-3 committed relationships in their lifetimes—sometimes with the same person. After an affair, the marriage that you had may come to an end, but you have to ask yourself if you have enough history and love together to want to have another marriage with the same person.

The new relationship is going to be with the same person but very different. It can be more sober and solid, but also less naïve and idealistic.

Also in other cultures, the person who was betrayed is more likely to be willing to continue with the relationship in order to save the family unit and keep the status quo.

But is lying okay?

It is not an easy concept to accept—lying to protect others—in America. Here there is a push for transparency that has become so intense we’ve lost respect for privacy. By keeping an affair to yourself you may preserve your marriage.

Transcript

LISA: I'm Lisa Birnbach for howdini.com. Can your marriage survive an affair? What if you don't know about the affair. Secrets aren't always the death nail of a marriage. Esther Perel is with us, she's a marriage and family therapist and the author of the book Mating in Captivity: Unlocking Erotic Intelligence. Repairing the trust after an infidelity--revealed infidelity. I can imagine a lot of couples can get stuck right there.

ESTHER: But a lot of them don't.  A lot of them understand that there was a huge disruption and it was painful and it was a tear and then they mend. And they find the mechanisms that will mend. They learn to reassure each other. They often learn to have conversations that they haven't had. You know there is a real moment that often happens in my office that is uncanny. That after the revelation of an affair, people start to have conversations with each other that they haven't had in years. And it's painful and they go one minute 'I can't without you, don't leave me' and the next minute is 'get the hell out of here, who are you, I never want to see you again.' And there's a myriad of ten different feelings happening at the same time. And at the same time they have not felt as alive with each other. You know it is not black and white. There's stages to rebuilding the trust. And it may not be the same kind of trust as before. One of the things I will often tell couples is that you know at this point in the West most adults are going to have two or three committed relationships in their adult life. Or marriages. Some of them will do it with the same person. 

LISA: Oh interesting. 

ESTHER:  So this marriage that you had may come to an end. The question is, do you actually have enough together that you would like another marriage with that same person? It's going to be the same people, but a very different relationship. And that is another way of looking at what an affair has done. It's like an alarm system, it has shaken everything up. And it can create a destruction, but then it goes to create a complete new building.

LISA: And that new building might work very well.

ESTHER:  That new building may sometimes be more sober, a little bit less naive and idealistic, but often more solid. Often more solid. The question is to see a couple five, ten years after an affair and to see those for whom it actually launched a different deification between them and those for whom that thing remained. That thing in between that will never get over. 

LISA: They will never forgive it. It becomes the defining fact of the coupling. Doesn't it? 

ESTHER:  That's right. That's right rather than one of the many crises the relationship may experience. 

LISA: How often does the person who's having the affair or has had it understand why he or she has engaged in it? 

ESTHER:  America very much believes in transparency. It also believes in the revelation of the affair in order to rebuild intimacy. In other cultures the idea that you have to reveal it all, that you have to go through all the details isn't seen necessarily as the only way to rebuild intimacy. Sometimes you rebuild it because you have actually understood, exactly the way you ask, what I was looking for there. What happened to me there. What did I discover about myself there. And what of that can I bring home.

LISA: So you might be doing the responsible thing by keeping it to yourself, understanding what you were doing and moving on. 

ESTHER:  Yes and that's a very difficult concept. You know it's not a simple idea because you basically are saying that sometimes the simulation or lying is done for the protection of others rather than just that if you really respected the other person you lay it all out. And these are very different cultural ideas about what is honesty? What is the importance of facts? You know, what is transparency? In this society I think that part of what has fueled the notion of affairs and the way that we think about them is that the push for transparency, the mandate to share, the imperative of talking has become so intense that we actually vascillate between transparency and secrecy because we have lost the respect for privacy.

LISA: Hmm, so interesting. Esther thank you so much. For howdini.com I'm Lisa Birnbach. 


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