Coming Clean After Damage Control: Repairing a Relationship After an Affair

The Wrong Approach: Damage Control

The discovery of any affair, emotional or sexual, is similar to a plane wreck. Something massive comes crashing to the ground with great force, sending debris, some random, some expected, ahead of it, settling once the craft comes to an absolute standstill. The survivors begin slowly emerging from the wreckage as best they can, while emergency vehicles and personnel are arriving at the site. And like affairs, after the shock, the stunned survivors begin navigating through the debris, trying to make sense of what has just happened to them. Similarly, just as the airline holds a press conference following the crash, the guilty partner, having accessed what debris, what information, has been accounted for, now shapes the information into the least offensive version.

This is called, “Damage Control.” The guilty partner isn’t only trying to protect themselves and the shame they feel, but the future of the relationship, and the hurt it caused their partner. As a result, they might stick so close to the damage control version of the event despite emerging evidence to the contrary. They may even begin to believe this version, becoming defensive whenever it is questioned. Because the state of relationship is so fragile after the discovery of an affair, and the stakes so high, the guilty partner would rather lie through omission than risk the perceived consequences of coming clean. If it’s safe to say the relationship had difficulties prior to the affair, the dynamics resulting from damage control negatively affect the possibility of rebuilding and repairing the relationship.

Why Damage Control Fails

Our nervous systems are not self-contained, but designed for socialization, especially regarding those we are in a romantic relationship with. Humans have evolved “mirror neurons” that help them get a read on the intentions of others by replicating the sensed state of the other, and checking whether it matches their behavior. While mirror neurons explain the ability of humans to empathize with one another, they originally evolved as a part of a complex survival mechanism. In reality, empathy is a self-correcting feedback loop. Because of this, a mismatch is sensed when someone is hiding something. This mismatch alerts one or both people that something is amiss. In most social interactions this can be smoothed over. But when an actual alert is present, such as a potential or actual affair, the mismatch is more apparent. If something of this magnitude remains unresolved, it can become a big part of couple’s dynamics. Situations that previously didn’t put a strain on trust now do. Because the partner is withholding information regarding the affair, he or she has forfeited an opportunity for deeper intimacy. As a result, the awareness that there may be hidden information will remain, like a foreign object lodged under the skin, stalling the couple’s efforts to re-engage openly.

Also at play is the guilty partner’s unresolved feelings regarding the person they had the affair with. Affairs have the potential to develop into full-blown romantic relationships, and can be just as difficult and painful to end as any romantic relationship. Because of the guilty feelings about the affair, the guilty party may not feel like they are allowed to experience their loss. Yet they do, contributing to the experience of mismatch. The guilty partner may develop resentment, having to do “double duty;” i.e., keeping their relationship together while dealing with loss, which their partner has no understanding or appreciation of. If the guilty party’s’ feelings about affair are never shared or expressed, this can create a polarity between the couple.

The Stalemate

For each sex, the type of affair their partner has had poses a different threat. Generally speaking, for men a sexual affair is more threatening, while for women an emotional one is. Men see sex as a means for expressing intimacy, while for women intimacy precedes sex. Typically women are more emotionally available, and have an easier time expressing verbal and physical affection in non­sexual ways. Comparatively, men are typically less verbally expressive and tend to express their emotions sexually, perhaps using touch in place of words. Upon discovery of an affair, a hurt female partner might ask, “Do you love her?” while a hurt male might ask, “Did you fuck him?” Each approach the ramifications of the affair based on how they perceive intimacy. One isn’t more right than the other, but this can affect the way in which the affair is discussed, especially when it involves damage control.

For example, if it is a man who has had an affair he may denigrate the other woman, and even the sex, in order to minimalize the suffering the affair caused his partner. This doesn’t resolve the matter because it doesn’t address her primary concern. She may only think less of him, his risking their relationship and hurting her to simply have sex with someone he doesn’t care about or even like. The affected partner may question who she’s with; if he can talk so badly of someone he’s sleeping with, what’s that say about her? As long as he sticks to damage control he will never be able to honestly express what he derived from the affair.

If it’s the woman disclosing an affair, typically she might be more careful to protect her partner’s ego by insisting that the affair was more about having a confidant, leaving out her experience of the sex. As men tend to focus more on the physical sex, they overlook the emotional significance of their partner’s affair. For example, a woman may want to talk about the emotional component of the affair, but get detracted by her partner’s concerns regarding the sexual one, eliciting more sexual details and assurances, and foregoing talking about what was more important for them: emotional intimacy. Whether it was the man or woman who had the affair, relying on damage control renders them both unable to mutually understand and resolve what influenced the affair. The relationship is at a stalemate.

Unlike typical relationship stalemates, this one has high-tension stakes that are exhausting to maintain, and usually form fissures and break, so that the couple has to continually start from scratch. A foundation of openness and honesty regarding the affair hasn’t been established. Because of this it’s far easier to live with mistrust than to have trust broken repeatedly. The affected partner continues to sense the mismatch, despite having been told that one doesn’t exist, increasing their mistrust. The guilty partner, reacting to this, becomes more determined to deny withholding any information and shuts down, and badgers their partner for their on-going suspicion and lack of trust. Blame then gets turned around and focused on the affected partner. Now the guilty partner has a grievance—his partner’s inability to trust, and having to defend himself against his partner’s accusations. While this simplifies the issue for the guilty partner, it has an insidious cost to both. The affected partner is cast in a negative light based on what they are rightfully sensing, yet being denied. In time they may “back off” and begin to doubt themselves, but their pre-affair level of trust rarely returns. The guilty partner suffers as well, not merely because of being accused, but because the accusations are right. Unwilling to disclose the truth about the affair, not only are they unable to own their innocence, they can’t fully push for it either, due to the possibility of eventually being found out. Because something unacknowledged is constantly lurking, repair of the relationship is tentative at best.

Disclosure Regarding the Affair

Disclosure is not about confession, nor about listing off the details of the trysts, but about one’s actual experience of the affair. This means helping the affected partner understand why the affair happened by explaining their experience of it. This isn’t meant to be hurtful, but to give the affected partner a sense of what was felt to be missing from the primary relationship, and how pursuing the affair seemed like a possibility. Where were they emotionally prior to the affair? What it was about that person that attracted them? How were they viewing the relationship and their partner prior to and throughout the affair? We’re there feelings of anger, frustration, resentment, loss, fear, or perhaps it was tied to some larger, even existential issues. They might want to talk about how the affair was handled between the partner and his “lover.” Did they think it was going anywhere? What were the limitations? What good came of it? How did the partner feel about himself and/or his lover during the affair? This might be challenging to articulate, but in truth it couldn’t have been all misery. Perhaps he or she felt alive, wanted, or seen in a way he or she didn’t feel seen by their primary partner. Maybe it was primarily sexual, and validated their deeply felt need for sexual connection. These are all human needs, human desires, that most humans go to great lengths to obtain. Again, this may be exceedingly difficult to talk about, but discussing the affair as a means of improving the existing relationship offers a far better outcome than simply spilling one’s guts. It means that the primary relationship and partner were chosen over the affair, and thoughtfully disclosing one’s experience of it, demonstrates the value placed on this relationship.

Receiving Disclosure of an Affair

Recognize that, while it won’t be easy receiving the disclosure, it is necessary for repairing the relationship. One of the most important factors in couples’ communication is to try to not personalize what one’s partner is saying. This can be difficult because so much of what one’s partner does naturally affects the other, and one’s investment in a committed relationship is great. This is heightened exponentially with affairs. But in order for relationships to remain viable and develop over time, each has to recognize and maintain each other’s individuality apart from and as part of the relationship. This means mutually valuing and appreciating each other’s experience and what that means for them. Too often couples run into trouble when they place less value their partner’s individual experience, and more on how it affects them. When this happens, each person develops filters for what is or isn’t acceptable to share in the relationship and restricts significant aspects of themselves. This often creates the very conditions that lead to the affair, i.e., desiring a relationship in which these significant aspects are valued if not merely allowed. None of this is to say that the affected partner has to passively accept their partner’s having had an affair. Obviously, it is doubtful this would even be possible, but even an attempt at openly hearing about their partner’s experience can go a long way to bridge the distance between the couple pre and post affair. For the partner who had the affair, it can encourage them to see again that their partner is someone they can be open with and seek understanding; while the affected partner can lessen the hurt they feel by regarding their partner as an individual—who is accountable, but human. Certainly, this isn’t easy, but it offers a means to avoid the potential stalemate that relying on damage control creates. Striving for mutual openness around disclosure forces both partners to stretch to reach the other collaboratively and gives them the opportunity to repair the relationship together.

The Benefits of Disclosure

In my practice working with couples after the discovery of an affair, I can usually predict the outcome based first on the degree of honesty and disclosure of the partner who had the affair and second on the affected partner’s ability to receive and understand disclosure. Open disclosure requires taking into consideration how the people involved will react. It offers a clean slate to be able to fully engage in the process of repairing the relationship, without the risk further discovery foreclosing on this process. Bottom line: Humans make mistakes, and all they can do is own them, acknowledge them to those they affected, and make repairs where necessary. In doing this, they can share an understanding of themselves by sharing the understanding of their mistakes.

But affairs rarely happen in a vacuum. Full responsibility for the affair doesn’t rest on the person who had it. Some degree of it is a result of the relationship. If one partner ignores the needs or the struggles the other is having within the relationship, they are risking their partner’s being susceptible to receive it outside the relationship. Retracing the chronology of an affair, it’s usually easy to find where a rift occurred, the causes mutual, and in which the affected partner played a part, or ignored the opportunity to intervene in a way they could have improved conditions and lessened their partner’s susceptibility to the affair. This isn’t meant to blame the affected partner. More important is the willingness of the partner who had the affair to openly disclose their experience and help set a new precedent for openness, a deeper understanding of both partners, and a more realistic relationship that, having been tested, can continue to develop.

All responses, though professionally based, are intended as opinions, and are not a substitute for working with a therapist professionally.