Setting Boundaries After an Affair
You have had an affair and decided that you want to return to your marriage/primary relationship and give it your full attention. Your partner is apprehensive, but willing to try again. Together you have been able to name the circumstances, behaviors, unmet needs, and reactivity on both sides that eventually led to an affair. There are many ways you both are committing to changing to create a new relationship together. You have both taken responsibility for what happened and are doing the work you need to do so that your life supports a thriving relationship. Clarity about boundaries is an essential piece that will help build trust again, both in yourself and with your partner. It's a small piece of the big picture, but nevertheless important to know and follow.
Talking about boundaries in NVC is really about checking in with your needs. A life giving boundary means having clarity about what meets needs and what doesn't relative to incoming contact and expression – physical, verbal, mental, emotional, & energetic. Such clarity allows you to consciously welcome more contact and/or expression or consciously shift the level of contact and/or expression according to the type of relationship you want to create.
The first and most critical part of setting a boundary after an affair is to decide to completely let go of the person with whom you had the affair. You likely met a number of needs with this person, needs that you aren't yet meeting with your partner, so fully letting go might feel like you are stepping into an emotional desert. For a while you will likely be in a painful and lonely place. Choosing to let go of the person you had the affair with isn't an easy thing and it isn't about words. It's about deciding in your heart that your warmth will be directed to your partner, friends, and family and not this person of the affair. Of course, this choice has to be made over and over again, moment by moment, day by day. It's reassuring for your partner to hear you say that you are making this choice.
In this letting go, it's important to give yourself compassion. You don't function like a lightswitch. As particular needs go unmet, your mind will bring up the person of the affair again and again as a possible solution. Rather than criticizing yourself or tightening down around the thought, it's helpful to name it for what it is - "that's just my mind looking for __________(insert unmet need(s) here). My partner and I are working towards meeting that need in new ways like_______." The longing doesn't necessarily go away immediately with this practice, but your ability to stay focused on what you are creating with your partner is strengthened.
If the person you had the affair with is someone at work or in another setting in which you participate regularly it's important to be explicit with yourself and your partner about how you are setting boundaries in that environment. Setting a firm and distant boundary includes the following:
Little to no eye contact
Avoid intersections (like at the coffee machine, breakroom, etc.)
No physical contact
No conversation (or if you are co-workers, conversations are only about work)
Watch for excuses that you or the other person might make to create contact
No time alone together
Personal physical space boundary is larger than for anyone else around you
The last boundary to be considered here is in regards to where you might "run into" this person of the affair. Often affairs occur in places that have been a resource for you like a sports team, arts community, or spiritual group. You might be faced with the choice of withdrawing from a community group in which you met the person of the affair. As you consider this, it's important to keep track of a few things. First, name the needs that are met for you in that group and name other ways you meet those needs. Second, consider whether it is possible to negotiate a schedule with the person of the affair so you won't run into each other. Third, if you do continue with the group and the person of the affair is also in attendance, consider how you might set up systems of accountability for yourself. For example, you might tell another member of that group how you will be holding boundaries and ask if she or he would be willing to hold you accountable.
As you set these kinds of boundaries and create your marriage/primary relationship anew, it's important to stay connected to your sense of choice. If you get caught in the mindstate that you are having to sacrifice for your partner, then you will likely resent your partner for it. Each time you choose to set a boundary and do something you wouldn't normally do, remind yourself of what you are moving toward, the vision you have for the relationship with your partner.
PracticeWhether you have had an affair or not, take a few minutes now to reflect on the choices you are making to maintain and nourish your relationship. Notice if these choices are coming from a place of generosity or even slight resentment or obligation. Speak directly with your partner about the choices you are making and if needed re-negotiate until all you offer is freely given from your heart.