Fran, a fit, attractive Helen Mirren lookalike, is turning 58 next year. She and her husband, Joe, 59, live in a thriving Midwestern suburb. I hadn’t seen her professionally for a number of years when one day, out of the blue, she called to schedule an appointment.
She entered my office, took her old familiar seat on my sofa, and burst into tears. Reaching for a tissue, she blurted, “Joe had an affair with a 40-something trainer at the gym.”
When I asked what she wanted to get out of counseling, she said she wasn’t sure — other than the strength to move on, whether with Joe or without. “I still love him, but I’m not sure I can ever forgive him or trust him again,” she told me. “Right now, I don’t even want him to touch me.”
Joe had confessed the affair a few nights earlier, when they were out for what was supposed to be a quiet dinner. He called it a “crazy-headed” onetime occurrence and said he regretted it. He told Fran that he had started talking to this “gal at the gym,” who had just divorced and was planning to move back to Seattle.
After a few extended conversations, he said he had one of those “what the hell” moments, and when she invited him back to her apartment, he went. He didn’t want to see her again and felt guilty enough to join a different gym. Fran’s pain wasn’t assuaged by this confession, even after Joe told her he was 100 percent committed to repairing and working on the relationship together, even agreeing to couples therapy.
“I'm just not sure I can do it,” Fran confided. “I feel devastated, hollow.” She said there were no warning signals. They’d been married for 30 years, and she doesn’t understand why Joe would do such a thing when they had so much going for them: good jobs, three great grown children and wonderful family and friends. “And P.S., I thought we had a decent love life and generally good communication,” she added. “Now I find myself asking, 'Who is this guy?' I’m about to have one of my own what-the-hell moments, when I walk out and don’t look back.”
Should She Stay or Should She Go?
Joe’s affair violated the trust that he and Fran had built together, and he said as much in the first couple’s session they scheduled with me. “I'm an idiot, and I may have jeopardized the one thing that’s going really well for me right now,” Joe said. Fran replied that she feels angry and hurt because the man she trusted, respected and loved is not as reliable or as honest as she thought he was.
If they are going to be able to save their marriage, Fran and Joe must rebuild the trust that’s essential to a strong and healthy relationship. In my long-term study of marriage and divorce among couples who've been together 25 or more years, 92 percent of the men and 96 percent of the women said their most important marriage expectation was feeling that their spouse would never hurt or deceive them.
It is possible to regain trust after a betrayal, but it's usually exceedingly difficult — all the more so when you've come to expect it or even take it for granted after decades of marriage. If people are to get it back, it takes time and a lot of work and commitment on the part of both partners. I counseled Fran and Joe on the necessary steps they would have to take as Fran decides whether she can stay in the marriage.
7 Steps to Rebuilding a Longtime Marriage After an Affair
- Commit to rebuild. Both partners have to be willing to invest time and do the necessary emotional work, which may involve working with a therapist over months or possibly years. If Fran is going to ever trust Joe again, he must be completely truthful about the infidelity and what led up to it. He must answer the challenging questions, like why he was attracted to this woman at the gym, why he had the affair and whether this was the first time he cheated.
- Forge an agreement. I generally suggest that partners create and sign a symbolic contract, as I did with Fran and Joe, which stipulates important terms that have been agreed upon by both partners (e.g., zero contact with the other woman; both partners are allowed to vent anger to each other and agree to put energy into the resolution).
- Give/accept an apology. Joe must also offer a heartfelt, serious apology, taking responsibility for his actions. Even if Fran is not able to accept it at first, she does have to hear it (later, she may have to accept it to move on). Even if she is ever able to forgive him, she will never forget what happened. Unexpected triggers, from his gym bag to a TV show, could restimulate her memory and pain. They both need to be prepared for her emotional ups and downs. And she needs to know that Joe will listen and validate her feelings at all times.
- Understand his perspective. Once Joe articulates why the affair happened, Fran should try to understand where he’s coming from. Sometimes the betrayer doesn't fully understand why he or she cheated, and in that case, as a therapist I will help them talk things through until they reach a deeper awareness. In any event, it will certainly be difficult, but the goal for Fran is to listen to his story about what was going on for him in the relationship and his inner life that caused him to betray the trust they had built. To rebuild it, Fran does not have to agree with his perspective, but she does have to try to understand it.
- Resist self-blame. Fran has to see that her self-esteem and self-worth are not dependent on Joe’s behaviors. I advised her to surround herself with people who love her and make her feel safe and highly valued. I gave her the assignment of making a list of five things she likes about herself and reading it every morning. Even though she is not the cause of the betrayal, she needs to be a part of the solution or at least work to change the relationship.
- Express anger constructively. Journaling or writing a letter to your partner can help diffuse excessive anger. Don’t show the letter to your partner; throw it in the garbage. Talking to friends and family about what happened is also useful.
- Reaffirm the good. The couple needs to identify and list each other’s positive qualities in writing. Fran has to remember Joe’s strengths and why she was attracted to him in the first place. Working to get beyond one’s grief and anger to dwell on the good things will gradually help two partners to see the light at the end of the tunnel.
It’s been four months since Fran and Joe started seeing me twice a month, and they are proof that working through a betrayal and rebuilding trust is possible — with time and mutual effort. In a recent session, Fran said: “As much as I hate to admit it, this process has actually been good for both of us. We realized there were aspects of our relationship and things about the other that we took for granted. Having everything at stake has made us both more appreciative and attentive. I am still really pissed, but we are starting to change things.”
The names of the clients in this article have been changed to protect their privacy.