When my husband confessed his affair everything seemed lost, broken, tainted, and ruined. Though devastated, my inexplicable inclination was to stay in our marriage even though I had no idea how to stay. The biggest roadblock on the steep, rocky footpath to staying was my trust in my husband had been obliterated in the blink of an eye and I was certain I’d never trust him again.
I didn’t worry he’d cheat again anytime soon. I knew he was 100 percent remorseful and giving every ounce of himself to the saving of our marriage. I knew he’d wrecked himself as much as he’d wrecked me and that he was fully committed to helping me heal. I worried about miles down the road. What if we grow apart again? What if he refuses to work on our problems again? What if I give up again and withdraw? What if his response is to cheat again? What if is a difficult game to play and there is rarely a winner.
Timelines are important in the aftermath of adultery because generally speaking, it takes couples who are committed to working through infidelity two years on average to get to the other side of it. When we sat across from our counselor for the first time, she hit us with that cautionary statistic and I visibly flinched and felt the urge to throw a tantrum; an outward expression of my frustrated, damn-this-all-to-hell state of mind. Two years of irregular breathing and body-wracking sobbing? Two years of hurting, of hashing out all these hard feelings and regrets? That was a sobering come-to-Jesus moment for me and I nearly balked.
Six months into the painstaking process of recovering from infidelity, I continued to struggle with learning to trust again. My husband had shown me what he’s capable of and I couldn’t unlearn that knowledge. How could I ever trust him not to do it again? Our counselor assured me that trust could be earned again, over time. But I felt I could only give my trust once. The best I could eventually do was replace trust with hope. I could hope that he would never again make the choice to be unfaithful.
A year into the long-term job repairing a broken marriage is, we graduated from counseling. Our counselor said her work was done, that we had all the tools needed to continue rebuilding on our own. We knew walking into that session we were ready to retire her and hearing we were on the same page was another indicator of how far we had come. Even at that point trust was still off the table for me.
A year and a half after our near implosion I realized that while I didn’t yet have what I’d call trust for my husband, lack of it was not a roadblock anymore. I’d arrived at a new perspective on trusting again. If it’s early days for you on the pitch black, lonely road back from infidelity you’re likely slogging through a soupy fog and can’t see two inches in front of your face. You may be feeling weak, for choosing to stay, or to leave, though there is only fierce strength and courage in either decision. I’m not aware of an easy button available for either choice. But this perspective might shine a light just far enough ahead and just bright enough to make it all the way home by.
I saw an old video clip of Oprah interviewing Dr. Phil, the ultimate say it like it is guy, and the missing piece of the trust puzzle fell into place for me. He emphasizes these important steps for anyone learning to trust again after being betrayed:
- Realize trust comes from knowing you can handle what your spouse does, not in being able to predict what he’s going to do.
- Realize the amount you can trust again depends on how strong you are and knowing you can handle your partner’s imperfections.
Then he references the “what if” game we play when trust is broken. Dr. Phil says, “Play the game, but actually answer the question. What if he hurts me again? The answer is: I’ll be fine, I got through it before and I’ll get through it again. I believe in me and I’m betting on me this time, not on him.”
Nearly two years after the affair, in spot-on timing according to statistics, I can trust again. I trust I can handle whatever is to come. My husband’s actions are so far out of my control, that I don’t spend time what iffing anymore. In this moment, I’m sure of his painful remorse for hurting me, his deep love for me and his strong commitment to us. This moment is all there is.
In recovering from the trauma of unfaithfulness, whether you choose to stay or to go, allow yourself plenty of time to arrive at the point where you’ll realize that regaining trust is about developing trust in yourself. Time is the boss, the master key to unlocking that door, but once you’ve learned to trust yourself to traverse daunting, unmapped roads, you’ll cease trying to rebuild trust in someone who broke it. You’ll realize that’s their job, not yours. And you’ll have played your final hand in the what if game.