Affair Recovery – The First Step is Atonement

Affair Recovery – The First Step is Atonement

Michael and Jennifer sat on our living room sofa, both in a great deal of pain. Michael had just confessed that he had an affair with a woman from work. He was feeling ashamed and fearful about how Jennifer would react. Jennifer was sitting there in shock and disbelief. Her whole world was shattered. She had tears running down her face and had no idea what to say.

Affairs are one of the most painful ordeals that a couple can encounter. The affair shatters all the assumptions about their partner. The core of a healthy marriage is that your partner will be there for you. They have committed to being by your side with safety, love, trust, innocence. Now, all that has been robbed from the betrayed spouse. All the fondness and admiration have been taken away and been replaced with anger and grief. All the trust is now gone. If there have been lies or a cover-up, it’s even worse. The betrayed spouse wonders if they can trust anything that their partner says.

While Jennifer sat in shock, my heart broke because I knew all the questions and feelings that were likely to emerge as the two of them try to heal.

Dr. John Gottman is one of the top marriage researchers globally. He defines the affair recovery process as atone, attune, and attach (Gottman & Silver, 2013). The very first phase is to atone.

Forgive and Forget?

Michael has confessed to the affair. Can’t Jennifer just forgive and forget?

This is one of the worse ideas out there. Yet, also one of the most common thoughts by the infidel, counselors, and even the betrayed. The pain is so immense it seems like it would be easier to just ignore it and move on.

Some affairs cause betrayal trauma in the offended partner. The emotional trauma can stay in their bodies for years if not processed. The trauma can create post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). This can include intrusive thoughts, flashbacks, images, difficulty concentrating, anxiety, hyper-arousal, hypervigilance, and numbing avoidance. Suppose the marriage continues without processing the trauma. There is a good chance that intimacy and closeness will struggle, and both partners will feel isolated.

Years can go by, and still, the pain can be triggered and brought back into the present.

As Christians, we value forgiveness so much that it seems wrong not to immediately forgive. My experience is that the couple first needs to understand the hurt and pain to know what they are forgiving. They can choose to forgive, but the pain needs to be processed. Any type of dismissal of the hurt and anger will only cause harm to the relationship. You can forgive, but that doesn’t build trust, safety, security, and warmth in the relationship.

Other Dumb Ideas

Gottman lists additional dumb ideas (Gottman & Silver, 2013). Here are just a few of them:

  • Both partners are equally culpable
  • If cheating is done with a prostitute, it’s not as bad
  • You have to forgive before progress is made
  • The betrayed partner’s anger will drive the betrayer away
  • The real goal is to save the marriage at all costs
  • The real goal is to end the marriage because no relationship can survive this.
  • You are making too big of a deal out of this
  • There is a timeline for when you should be over this
  • If the affair happened years ago, it doesn’t matter anymore
  • If it only involved sex, it wasn’t an affair
  • If there was no intercourse, it wasn’t an affair
  • Sexual online chatting doesn’t count

I remember when a couple came to us, and she was very hurt that her husband was looking at pornography. At first, I wanted to dismiss this as “just pornography.” But to her, the pain was real. Pornography was a breach of trust to her. This can cause deep emotional distress, and the hurt needs to be taken seriously.


Dr. Gottman calls atonement the first step in affair recovery. If Michael wants to rebuild his relationship with Jennifer, he needs to start by atoning for his sin. Merriam-Webster defines atone as “make amends: to provide or serve as reparation or compensation for something bad or unwelcome” How does Michael make amends to Jennifer? What can he do to rebuild a relationship with his partner?

Atonement can be difficult. Michael will need to listen to Jennifer’s mixed emotions and be patient and not defensive. This is part of the consequence of infidelity. Michael may feel that he had justification for the affair. Defenses, such as “you’ve been distant for months,” may be accurate, but the blame will not help Jennifer to heal. The couple will not move on until the infidel accepts responsibility and understands his partner’s pain.


James 5:16 says, “Therefore confess your sins to each other and pray for each other so that you may be healed.” This is undoubtedly part of the atonement.

The betrayed partner often goes through a period of obsession. They want to know everything that happened. Their mind will obsess about all the details.

Often, the infidel won’t want to talk about the details for fear of hurting their partner more. However, holding back details will not rebuild trust. If something is withheld and comes out later, the recovery process will take a significant hit. Michael will need to be patient and answer all of Jennifer’s questions.

The betrayed partner often wants to know all the details of the sexual activity. The risk to this is that it can further traumatize them. I often explain that some of the specific details of the sexual activity may not help with the healing.

Eventually, the betrayed partner needs to move from obsession to ask themself, “Will this detail help in my healing?”

Gottman quotes research that the couple stayed together 86% of the time when the cheater agreed to answer questions. When the cheater refused, the marriage survival rate was only 59%.

Be Transparent

Trust is based on being trustworthy. Jennifer’s trust in Michael has disappeared. The infidel often wonders, “Why don’t you trust me?” At this point, Jennifer has little reason to trust Michael.

Part of atoning is rebuilding trust by being transparent. Jennifer is going to be hyper-vigilant. Anything Michael can provide that will reassure Jennifer is part of the process. This may include passwords, access to his phone, access to his online accounts, and access to financial accounts.

Even a simple activity, like going to the health club, may be in question. Any places where the affair took place may be off-limits. These restrictions may be necessary for Michael to prove that he is trustworthy.

Eventually, trust can be rebuilt.

Understand the Why

Eventually, the discussion has to move to understanding why the affair occurred. Early in the recovery process, this can come across as blaming the betrayed person for the affair. Nothing justifies infidelity. This part is best done when the couple can better discuss reasons without it being about blame.

Suppose the couple wants to make sure this doesn’t happen again. In that case, they need to understand the dynamics of themselves and their relationship.

The infidel needs to understand their vulnerabilities. What led them to have an affair? Why was the affair partner so attractive to them? What did they get out of it? This may show ongoing vulnerabilities that need to be addressed.

For example, let’s say that Michael was drawn to the affair because it made him feel good about himself. Perhaps he has a deep insecurity and having a woman be attracted to him fulfills him in some way. Michael needs to understand his own vulnerability is the way that he feels about himself. He may need to see a professional therapist to process this. If he doesn’t deal with his vulnerability he may be open to another affair in the future.

Atone, Attune, Attach

Remember, atonement is only the first phase of affair recovery. The next steps involve attuning and attaching.

Tips for Marriage Mentors:

  • Trauma – Explain to the infidel that this is a traumatic event. Helping their partner process the hurt is necessary to restore the relationship. This is going to take some work.
  • Atonement – Explain to the infidel that there are steps that will be uncomfortable. They will need to be patient and repeatedly listen to the pain. Confessing and answering uncomfortable questions is going to be required.
  • Rebuild Trust – The betrayed partner will probably be hyper-vigilant for a season. Trust is restored when you prove yourself to be trustworthy.

Other posts you might like:

The Obsession Cycle After Infidelity

The Depression Cycle After Infidelity

Honesty After an Affair


Gottman, J. M., & Silver, N. (2013). What makes love last?: How to build trust and avoid betrayal. Simon & Schuster Paperbacks.