The person who commits a sexual/emotional indiscretion always wants the other person to forgive and forget. But I like another option: to explore and remember. Everything is shaky after an affair comes to light and this state creates a great opportunity for personal and relationship change, major change. As I have quoted before, Picasso said, “the first step to creation is destruction.” Like an old leaky house damaged by a storm and made better in the aftermath, the carnage after an affair creates an opportunity to make structural changes.
After an affair, getting to a healthier relationship takes three components: a dedication to total honesty, time for trust to redevelop (usually about one and one-half years), and a willingness to keep an open dialogue. While maintaining honesty, the transgressor must stay open to the the partner’s, seemingly, never-ending stream of questions and waves of rage and pain. Therapy is is very helpful in keeping the dialogue productive. My most difficult job as a therapist is to coax the aggrieved party out of the victim role into looking at his/her part in the relationship problems before the affair. This person also needs to follow the advice of Dr. Phil McGraw of Oprah fame: “Stop complaining and start requesting.”
Not all committed relationships can or should be saved. I certainly know people who are happier in second marriages. But, statistically, the chances of finding marital happiness decline with each succeeding marriage. For those couples who are wanting to recapture that “special-ness” to each other, an affair may even seem like a blessing many years down the line. A blessing in the sense that without that upheaval, the flaws in the structure and the flaws in the personalities might never have been addressed. Remembering an affair, along with all of the pain and growth, can have a unifying effect that says “We survived that awful time, and we love each other more because of it.”