how can we get past this?

my girlfriend I are currently on a break. we want to work it out, there has been infidelity. we need ways to heal and move forward
Asked by Stace

Hello Stace! Thank you for your question. I appreciate your candor. Let me say right up front that relationships can heal. There are things people can do to mend what has been damaged as long as both parties are willing to do the work. Let me highlight some of the things that you and your girlfriend could do to work on this relationship.

1. Calm your bodies. It is important that both of you learn how to recognize when your nervous systems have become activated and simple techniques that you can apply to help calm yourselves. You are not going to be able utilize the problem-solving part of your brain if you are overly emotional. There are some fairly simple techniques such as deep belly breathing that will help you to calm down so you can have meaningful and logical conversations about what is bothering you. 

2. Learning your own individual triggers. Many people carry baggage with them from childhood into adulthood. Things in the environment can send a signal to the body that there is "danger" nearby even when there isn't really. We need to understand what cues or triggers our bodies are reacting to. Once we know what triggers our nervous system to go into fight, flight or freeze mode, then we can be mindful of those triggers and manage situations rather than just react.

3. Safety. You and your girlfriend need to make an agreement that regardless of how emotional you might feel, you will channel that energy into calming activities rather than harmful activities. At the very least, you will call for a time out so you don't hurt each other. You will never heal if you continue to hurt each other.

4. Communication. Once you have learned how to calm your bodies, then you are ready to start working on communication skills. There is something called the Fair Fighting Rules which are essentially rules for having tough conversations. The goal is to be able to work out the differences rather than argue. Couples are never going to agree on everything. So learning how to listen for the purpose of understanding, and having a willingness to compromise is essential to mending your relationship. A person has to ask him/herself "what is more important -- having the last word or having this relationship?"

5. Values and behavior. You and your girlfriend would want to identify your own personal values. These would be those things that are most important to you in life. It is important to identify your own values and not the values that you think you are "supposed" to have. We run into problems when we are trying to live our lives according to someone else's values. So once you have figured out your values, then you will want to compare them. You probably won't have an entire list of identical values. The important thing here is for each of you to know what the other person values and then decide if you are both able to show respect for the other person's values -- even if those values are not your values. We need to be able to align our own behavior with our values to have some semblance of peace in our lives. If our partner is constantly making it difficult to live by our own values, then we are going to be unhappy and we will probably argue a lot. We have to be able to let each partner have their own independent life in addition to the life we have together. We have to be willing to line up our actual behaviors with our own values and the values of our partner.

6. Willingness to do the work. Both you and your girlfriend would need to understand that relationship work is an ongoing process. I am not sure that we are ever "done." So we have to understand that we are going to have good days and not such good days, but that doesn't mean we should give up. We just pick up where we left off and carry on. Making changes is hard work and it requires effort and patience by both parties. Neither of you can say "this is YOUR problem and YOU need to fix it." Relationships require effort on both sides. 

7. Trust. When there has been infidelity by either or both parties, there will need to be a process of earning and regaining trust. This requires that the person maintains very consistent behavior -- they do what they say they are going to do when they say they are going to do it. Trust is earned back very slowly.

8. Individual work. It is possible that one or both of you have some individual issues that need to be addressed regardless of whether you stay together or not. If either of you have experienced trauma in your past, that might be something that needs to be addressed. If you have some other untreated mental health conditions like depression or anxiety, then those conditions need to be addressed. 

9. Core beliefs and thinking patterns. An integral part of most therapy is understanding how we think -- our core beliefs and our thinking patterns. Understanding how we think helps us understand why we react the way we do to certain situations. Once we understand these thoughts and patterns, we can intentionally decide if we want to hold on to those thoughts or change them to something more realistic. 

10. John Gottman. Last but definitely not least, Dr. John Gottman is considered to be the leading expert in relationships. He and his wife Dr. Julie Gottman have been doing research for many years about what works and what does not work. Their material is a "must" for any couple who are trying to mend their relationship.

I hope this information helps you a bit. I appreciate you taking the time to read my answer. Best wishes to you and your girlfriend!