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Couples in Recovery “It’s Complicated”

Issue 21

Recovering from Infidelity

Infidelity in any relationship is a complex and highly individual, traumatic event to dissect and heal from.

The definition of what constitutes infidelity is complicated.

Esther Perel in her bestselling book, The State of Affairs, writes that infidelity includes one or more of the following elements: secrecy, sex, and emotional involvement.

When infidelity occurs in early recovery, it can be referred to as another “ism” or even sexual addiction. Affairs occur for a multitude of reasons—a need for adoration, autonomy, risk-taking, excitement, revenge, or a need for power and control.

While the affair is not about the partner, it is very difficult to not take it personally. The responses of the partner are varied and highly personal—shock, feelings of betrayal, fear of abandonment, humiliation, guilt, rage, disillusionment, and obsession.

Recovery from infidelity involves the immediate crisis, making sense of what happened, and ultimately envisioning a new future together. This is a complex process and should be undertaken with the help of a trained couple’s therapist.

While most experts agree on general recovery steps, they are not “black and white.” Each case must be individualized, with an understanding of the nuances of addiction and codependency.

General recovery steps:

1. End all contact with the “other person.”

2. Consult a couples’ therapist who has expertise in addiction and codependency.

3. Negotiate transparency regarding phone and computer usage.

4. Demonstrate sincere remorse for the betrayal. Taking responsibility is vital for the healing process.

5. Talk about the affair and be willing to answer all questions. This is not a one-time discussion. It takes time and requires listening without anger or blame. It is up to the partner to decide how much detail they need without causing more trauma or obsessional thinking.

6. Allow your partner to express their feelings as they come up or as they are triggered, which is part of post-traumatic stress following an affair. It is helpful to work on these triggers with an individual therapist.

7. Both partners may benefit from individual therapy to work on the meaning and effects of the affair. These may include work on cross-addictions, secrecy, seeking adoration, triggers, shame, and boundaries.

8. Work on improved communication—active listening with honesty and compassion. Making sense of the affair can lead to deep discussions about envisioning what the couple wants.

9. Spend time together not talking about the affair.

10. Do not expect quick or easy forgiveness.

Infidelity does not generally occur because something is wrong in a relationship. Most people who have affairs are in conflict between their beliefs and their behavior. With good therapy and commitment, a relationship does not have to end. Recovery is about re-creation, and healing from infidelity can be about creating a more intimate connection.


Elaine Shamos
Elaine Shamos
Elaine Shamos, MPH, has 30 years experience as a public health professional and is the former director of Dartmouth’s Women’s Health Resource Center. Glenn Simpson, LCSW, CADC, has a private practice specializing in substance use disorder, and couples therapy. They are working together on a book for couples in recovery.

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