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Q: We've only been married five years, but my husband had an affair with a woman he met on a business trip. He says it's over, that he never really cared for this woman, and he wants to make our marriage work. The problem is, I can't forget. I know that if I can't forgive him, I can never really move on, but I think about his betrayal every day and I certainly can't imagine making love. He's only been back one month, and while he's been patient with me, he doesn't understand why I can't move on and be the way we used to be. What can I do?
Bonnie Eaker-Weil, Ph.D., author of Make Up, Don't Break Up (Adams Publishing), and Adultery: The Forgiveable Sin (Hastings House), answers:
A: You're right: Healing and forgiving take time and patience on both your parts -- just how long it takes varies by couple. Some couples find emotional healing takes a few months, others a few years. It's healthy to be bitter, but it's unhealthy to stay stuck at that stage. By learning to work through these bitter feelings, you will feel in control of them, not controlled by them.
Nothing will help you forgive or regain a connection faster than empathy and compassion on your husband's part. If he can learn to validate your pain and rage on a daily basis -- for as long as it takes -- you will find it easier to move forward. However, without this validation, the pain may never go away. In a sense, by withholding forgiveness, you are actually continuing the affair. So stop. It's not easy, but you can do it.
Admit that you're very angry, but try to contain your obsessing about the affair to five- or ten-minute dialogues a day. Even though your husband doesn't understand why it's taking you so long to forgive him, tell him that these dialogues will help you move toward forgiveness. These time-limited sessions -- during which you and your husband agree that you can say anything and ask any question about his extra-marital relationship -- will help you release your rage. During these sessions, your husband needs to don an "emotional bulletproof vest," and promise not to respond or defend himself or his ex-lover. He merely needs to listen and empathize with your feelings. End each session by snuggling, holding hands, and feeling close.
To further rebuild shattered trust, ask your husband to give you daily reassurance, without prompting, that he has had no contact with his ex and that he loves you and wants to nurture the marriage. Ask him what was missing in the marriage that he needs you to do for him and evaluate, with an open mind, any contribution you may have unwittingly made to the affair. Did you set limits and enforce them? Did you make your needs known? Did you create a home atmosphere that felt emotionally unsafe for your partner? Looking at the part you played in the marital problems doesn't mean the affair was your fault; it simply means that you are willing to accept some responsibility for the problems you've had.
Finally, remember that making time to talk every day will also help you heal. You need to invite intimacy by practicing a new system of honest and full communication. Don't let work, children, or in-laws wedge themselves between the two of you. Nourish your sense of fun, spontaneity, and desire to please each other by remembering the traits that first attracted you. Spend time doing the activities you used to share. This will help you survive the pain and reach reconciliation. However, if you still find yourself unable to get past the affair, consider seeking professional help.
To read more advice from Dr. Weil, go to her Web site: www.makeupdontbreakup.com.