Editor’s note: The “After an Affair” series shares one individual’s experience in the aftermath of his own infidelity—reckoning with it, then repairing using Gottman’s Trust Revival Method. We recognize that this may be challenging for some to read and advise those still dealing with the trauma of an affair to exercise their best judgment in reading this. The experience and opinions expressed in this article are by no means exhaustive and belong solely to the author. You can read Part 1 here.
Never in a million years would I have thought I’d cheat on my romantic partner.
I always scorned cheaters for their lack of self-control and their selfishness. I would harp about the importance of loyalty in relationships and preach good virtues—and then I went and cheated.
I was puzzled. Confused at how I could do an act that I vehemently and firmly stood against…
What’s wrong with me? Do I really just lack self-control? Or was I just a steaming pile of turds?
After I cheated, I shamefully owned up to it with my romantic partner. We decided that we wanted to continue the relationship and were recommended the book, “What Makes Love Last?” by Dr. John Gottman, an American psychological researcher who specializes in divorce prediction and marital stability, to help us recover from the act of infidelity.
We took the initial steps laid out in the book to decide if we should part ways following the affair. We analyzed if our relationship was worth saving and examined if I had a higher probability of not cheating again. Upon completion of that process, we decided to move forward with the steps to rebuild trust.
My partner and I employed Gottman’s Trust Revival Method from the book as a blueprint to move forward from the adultery.
Gottman’s Trust Revival Method
The Gottman’s Trust Revival Method is a three-phase process that is derived from his experience as a counselor helping couples recover from infidelity. His approach has been tested and produces a fairly high success rate among couples to heal after an affair. There is no specific time frame for completing the process.
The three phases in Gottman’s Trust Revival Method are: Atone, Attune and Attach.
Phase 1: Atone
After informing my partner of the cheating, my partner expelled all of her internalized anger, sadness and disappointment towards me. For many months, in fact. She was especially relentless with her criticisms and reminders of my past mistakes.
In this phase for recovery, according to the Gottman Method, it is the cheater’s responsibility to take fault as well as make amends and reparation for their actions.
The betrayer must accept full responsibility and patiently deal with the repercussions of their mistake while being non-defensive. Making amends cannot happen if the cheater is blaming the other person for their cheating, making excuses, or retaliating for why they cheated.
They must take all the blame.
The partner who was betrayed will have trust issues and will be triggered often. They will bring up cheating often. In this phase, they betrayed partner will sometimes get really caught up in their hurt and anger.
Honestly, this was the hardest phase to get through for us. It was an extremely stressful period. The everyday reminders of my cheating and the verbal lashes I received from my partner made it seem as if it would never get better. Threats of getting a divorce became routine. The cheating would come up in every argument or disagreement we had. My partner leveraged the cheating to win or get ahead in any argument or altercation. Even when she requested for things unrelated to the affair.
It was her “ace in the hole” to take advantage of any situation. Putting my head down and handling the strain derived from my actions was very exhausting. There were so many times where I felt like I wanted to pull my hair out and just give up. This step was definitely a test of our relationship’s resilience.
This rough patch got better after we applied the Gottman Trust Revival Method.
Before implementing Gottman’s approach of Atone, I would rationalize why I cheated whenever my partner lashed out at me. Her attacks often led me to make my own cutting retorts. I naturally felt the need to defend myself whenever the rampant angry outbursts came my way.
However, after I began to use Gottman’s method, I handled my partner’s release of strong emotions in a much calmer way. Whenever these raging outbreaks happened, I would simply take full responsibility for what I did and apologize for hurting her. It was difficult for me to do this at times because her anger sometimes felt overwhelming. After I accepted full responsibility for my actions, however, her verbal attacks gradually came up less frequently.
Although the cheater should take all the blame, Gottman insists that the person who was betrayed has a pivotal role as well.
They must be open to forgiving their partner.
If the cheater is putting in the effort to make up for their wrongdoing, the wounded partner must be able to be willing to forgive and cooperate if they want to move past the deceitful deed.
Get it all out on the table
In order for the wounded partner to accept and move past what happened, they must get all the answers to why it happened in the first place.
The cheater must be transparent about why it happened with that particular person, and give the details of where and how it happened. This can be an extremely uncomfortable conversation. Providing full disclosure will lead to a lot of agonies but it is necessary so the hurt partner can forgive their significant other.
My partner sought out all the details regarding my cheating so she could feel more at ease with the events that occurred.
Again, it is really useful to have a therapist lead these conversations. The partner who was cheated on can easily get overwhelmed and verbally attack their partner if there is no mediator guiding the conversations.
Having an actual talk about working together to better the relationship is much more pleasant and productive when you are not at each other’s throats.
It is vital that both partners understand why the cheating happened—and a therapist can help expedite the process.
The proof is in the pudding for fidelity
You can tell your partner again and again that you would not have an affair any more until your lungs give out!
But unless you show it through your actions, the wounded partner will remain distrustful.
So, how do you show your partner that you would not cheat on them again?
Gottman asserts that you can rebuild trust by providing the hurt partner with transparent reassurance of where you are or what you are doing at all times. This includes giving them access to your “personal life” i.e. credit card records, phone messages, daily calendars, etc.
It may seem over the top or might feel like an invasion of privacy. It did to me.
At first, I was very against it and I felt like I still had a right to my privacy. Initially, I refused to share my messages or my phone’s location. But eventually, I conceded and it has since paid dividends.
During this phase, I made a strong effort to keep my word. This meant that if I told my partner where I was or what time I was going to meet her, I was going to be there at the correct time and not somewhere else.
One of the hardest parts for me during this phase was being on a short leash. I absolutely despised it. I loathed having to regularly tell my partner where I was at all times of the day. If I missed or forgot to notify my partner of my whereabouts at any time during the day, I would be harshly criticized.
I felt imprisoned.
As discouraged as I was during this time, I knew I was responsible for the situation and I begrudgingly accepted my lack of freedom. My partner had my phone’s location, so she had an idea of where I was at all times and she would often ask to see my direct messages on my social media accounts. It gave her peace of mind that I was not going to cheat again.
The wounded partner really must feel a sense of security that the affair would not happen again and receive constant proof of their partner being faithful.
The partner who cheated must sacrifice some of their privacy and activities such as late-night partying or bar stops for a while until after the trust is rebuilt.
Again, the hurt partner must be open to forgiveness and be patient with their partner, be willing to cooperate. What the cheater did was wrong, but they are doing their best to change their behavior.
Phase 2: Attune
In this phase of the revival method, after couples can possibly reach some forgiveness, the focus turns to building a new relationship.
Both partners must understand that there were some needs not getting met and problems with the old relationship. Now, the couples must turn the attention to fixing that and coming up with a new strategy for getting each other’s needs met.
Couples can develop a more sound approach through attunement.
Attunement, as defined by Dr. John Gottman, is the desire and the ability to understand and respect your partner’s inner world. Gottman asserts that sharing vulnerabilities stops either partner from feeling lonely or invisible.
There are a number of tactics and approaches laid out by Gottman in What Makes Love Last? to help couples better navigate through conflict and sharing emotions to build trust between partners.
One of the methods is to set a designated time every day for you both to ask each other how your day was. This is an effective method for building trust, checking in with each other, and reconnecting.
Here’s how my partner and I used this approach. We would make it a point to share and have more discussions about each other’s feelings. We made attempts to eliminate “you” statements i.e. “you are so selfish” and replace them with “I feel” statements such as “I feel angry and disappointed when you get up and leave during an argument.”
We would also check-in and ask open-ended questions on how we were each feeling when one of us seemed upset or bothered. Open-ended questions were essential because they unlocked the way for us to share our thoughts and feelings instead of giving us the option to shut down the conversation before it even has a chance to begin. For example, instead of saying, “are you angry with me?” we asked, “You look a little upset—what’s up?”
It is pretty easy to fall down the slippery slope of attacking each other or being passive-aggressive in discussions following cheating. These tactics helped us create a more pleasant and effective atmosphere for debate.
Sharing emotions and being more cognizant of each other’s feelings made us feel more connected. I have to add, being vulnerable with each other is a key aspect in this phase.
What I struggled with in this phase was learning how to open up and share my emotions. Our culture in the States has taught men to hide and not express our feelings. Traditional masculinity told me I was weak if I did. I just wasn’t used to talking about my emotions and it made me feel uncomfortable.
Also, I often came from a place of logic and problem-solving. I habitually tried to resolve issues in lieu of sharing how I felt. I used to get so annoyed whenever my partner vented to me. After quite some time, I learned that she was just expressing to me how she felt and was not looking for a solution.
After using this approach, we’re able to understand and convey our feelings better. I’ve slowly improved my ability to explain my emotions. It has helped us to better communicate and rebuild the confidence in our relationship.
Vulnerability requires a lot of courage. A therapist can help you healthily express your feelings better, and get you in the habit of exposing vulnerable emotions. Being vulnerable with each other requires each partner expressing their deeper thoughts, feelings, and desires. This step really began to build up a lot of trust between my partner and me. Fully opening up to my partner about my insecurities, fears, and aspirations helped us feel more connected.
Attunement builds intimacy and will ultimately boost trust in the relationship.
Phase 3: Attach
The final stage for trust revival deals with sex.
An essential subject to talk about after a physical affair.
This topic may feel especially burdensome to talk about because the betrayed partner may naturally feel anger, resentment, and fear when they talk about physical intimacy.
My partner personally had a very hard time engaging in physical intimacy because she felt I was tainted. She could not have sex with me without the image of my past mistake popping up in her head.
Sexual intimacy that is pleasurable to both partners is a necessary component for the relationship to start again.
In order to move past this trauma, Gottman advises a steady diet of intimate conversations talking about sex. In the attunement phase, you discuss very personal and intimate topics. Now, in the final phase, you sprinkle in discussions about sex to discover your partner’s feelings, attitudes, and preferences in bed.
Having enjoyable, intimate sex requires good communication. Partners are not going to have much satisfying sex if they have a hard time talking about their desires. Practice asking your partner what they like in bed.
Some examples of questions to ask each other are:
- What areas do you like to be kissed?
- What makes sex more romantic for you?
- What’s your favorite part of my body?
- Where do you like to be touched the most?
- Would you be interested in using sex toys?
- Do you believe you are a good kisser?
- Give me the details on how you want me to initiate sex?
- What is your favorite position?
- What is a fantasy in bed that turns you on?
- What do you like to see me wear or not wear?
- How often do you masturbate?
- What instantly turns you on?
Gottman lays out a large variety of questions on a number of sex topics along with questions laid out in “What Makes Love Last?” that you can easily reference.
We tried mixing sexual topics into our day-to-day conversations. Both of us would inquire about each other’s sexual preferences by asking intimate questions. Again, what was difficult about this phase was that my partner struggled with being engaged during sex. The thought of me cheating clouded her head. She shuddered at the idea of me having sex with another person.
Gottman’s approach was helpful because these conversations slowly mended and deepened our emotional connection. We would have fun, lighthearted talks about our sexual preferences and how we could meet each other’s needs.
After a healthy daily dose of communication with my partner about sexual preferences, pleasures, and desires, we were able to enjoy sex again. These conversations of our sexual needs gave us the spark we needed to reignite the passion in the bedroom without being hindered by my past mistakes.
Learning to communicate about sex is an important skill to make progress towards couples overcoming betrayal.
Here’s to restoring relationships after an affair
Our society perceives cheating as a simple lack of discipline or moral ethics in the face of sexual temptation…
In actuality, research shows that the majority of affairs are not caused by lust. If a relationship is strong and each partner is getting their needs met, there is no temptation for lust outside of their partner.
If your relationship is not getting your needs met, better communicating and working together with your partner is a much safer route to take than cheating to try to fix things.
It does take a lot of effort to overcome infidelity, but if you and your partner are up for it, I wish you both the best on your journey!
Has your relationship experienced a sexual or emotional affair? The Gottman Institute is currently seeking couples for an international study on affair recovery. For more information, please click here.