3 Things You Need to Know to Help Your Marriage Heal
When Caroline’s husband, Stephen, confessed an affair, she was naturally shocked and heart-broken. But less than six months later, it was Stephen who was angry and threatening to end the marriage. Why? Because Caroline was still battling feelings of anger and sadness over the affair. She described it to a friend as a cycle of making progress in her quest to forgive and move on, then experiencing momentary setbacks in which the anger, fear, and jealousy rose back to the surface. Stephen, however, was so uncomfortable with dealing with what had happened and the guilt that came with it for him, he couldn’t handle the moments when she needed reassurance or to be heard…
A marriage is a fragile thing. Like a plant that suffers a drought or too much heat, it shows the strain of a crisis. And while the plant can bounce back after a time with proper conditions, it still looks wilted and weak for a while, until those interior cells are repaired. Likewise, a marriage that suffers a major setback like an affair or other serious loss can recover—but it’s a process that takes time and patience. If you or a loved one is walking the long road back to a healthy marriage after a serious hurt, consider these things:
1. People process pain differently, and on different time tables. My husband lost his only brother to a military training accident while they were both in college. Years later, his father talked with me about how differently he and my mother-in-law coped with the loss, and how it was sometimes hard to understand one another in the aftermath of it. One grieved intensely and openly in the early months, and returned to a more normal emotional state rather quickly. The other grieved more quietly and internally, but for much longer. It’s hard to say if one way is right and the other is wrong, but the recognition of their differing ways of coping helped them to maintain their marriage relationship as they tried to discover their “new normal” with one less child.
In the wake of infidelity, this is even more complicated due to the complex mix of grief, anger and guilt brewing for both partners. But the same principle—that people grieve and recover differently and on different time tables—can be helpful as you wait for the day that you’re both on a healthy footing again.
2. After a major crisis, don’t expect to go back to the way things were. That’s not to say that you won’t experience a good relationship and a happy life, but there will be different things required to make it all work. For instance, after an affair, the cheating spouse may need to make a greater effort to be accountable to the other. It’s not a form of punishment to say that you need to check in at home more and be extremely cautious in the ways that you interact with the opposite sex both professionally and socially. It’s just a simple reality that a formerly cheated-on spouse may legitimately need those reassurances to trust and love openly and fully.
So don’t carry the unrealistic expectation that all parties will be able to act like the whole thing never happened. Yes, true forgiveness needs to take place for the relationship to have a chance. But altering a few things about how you co-exist in order to safeguard the relationship from recurrent problems, or to provide emotional security to both parties is not too much to ask. You can find a normal life again, but it will be different in some ways–your “new normal.”
3. Patience—and wise counsel—is essential. No one can say exactly how long is long enough to grieve a marriage disaster, but it will probably take longer than you’d like. Giving your spouse some time and space to figure out his feelings and rebound is essential to recovery. In the case of Caroline and Stephen, most experts would agree that a few months is scarcely enough time to fully recover from an affair. If either spouse feels that the process is taking longer than is fair or realistic, mutual counseling can help uncover the real issues which may be blocking the healing. In this couple’s case, a great counselor helped Stephen see that his anger with Caroline’s fragile feelings was simply a cover for the guilt he felt. He helped Caroline learn how to be more specific in telling Stephen what she needed to feel secure in the marriage again. An objective third party can help everyone see things more clearly and move in the right direction.
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