Your marriage CAN survive an affair. No, it is not easy- quite the contrary. Yes, it will take time, maybe a long time. In this blog series, I will discuss some of the most common issues I have witnessed for couples working through an affair in therapy. Many couples not only survive, but even go on to have the strongest relationship they have ever had. Others do not. There are several key differences between what happens in couples that strongly predicts each outcome.
The first days and weeks- Relationship ICU
The phone call to me often goes one of two ways- “I made a terrible mistake and desperately want to save my marriage- please help us”, or “My life has just been turned inside out- I am furious, heartbroken, and terrified. I never thought my spouse would do this to me.” Affair, infidelity, cheating… whatever you want to call it, it is one of the most difficult, heart-wrenching things that a couple can experience. Discovering an affair is a traumatic event, emotionally, psychologically, and physically. Having an affair discovered can often be traumatic in its own way- conflicted emotions, guilt, shame. During this phase, partners are experiencing very different emotions and have very different needs. Actions in the first days and weeks have a tremendous impact on the trajectory for the relationship moving forward- making the difference between the beginnings of repair and confirmation of warranted mistrust.
Below are several points for each partner to consider in the first days and weeks if you are the spouse who has been caught in or disclosed an affair. Next week, I will focus on this phase for the spouse who has discovered an affair.
- Your ability to be consistently emotionally responsive to your spouse in this critical time is the single biggest predictor of the outcome of your marriage.Emotionally responsive means that you not only really listen and hear what your spouse is saying and feeling, but respond in a way that reflects your love and care. If your goal is for your spouse to genuinely believe that he/she can again put their heart in your hands, you must show that your hands are not going to hurt their heart. This does not happen in one conversation- it happens over repeated conversations and interactions that all consistently point to that safety. Be patient. All spouses I see who have discovered an affair are in a form of a traumatic response in the first weeks after the discovery.
- Do not make excuses or blame your spouse. You can ease your spouse’s traumatic injury with your responsiveness, or you can make it dramatically deeper with defensiveness. Defensiveness is often a knife in the heart of a relationship, especially around an affair. It is important to understand the difference between defensively blaming your spouse for their role in problems in the marriage prior to the affair in order to justify your actions versus learning and processing together what happened, in the relationship and/or individually, that culminated in the affair. Affairs don’t happen in a vacuum (a topic I will address in a future post), and you may have spent a lot of time thinking about this for yourself prior to the affair being discovered. But at this point in the process your spouse will not likely be able to process this information from you as anything beyond you not taking responsibility for your actions in the affair. Be aware that the REAL process of understanding together how the affair happened will happen in the next phase of the affair recovery process- it will not happen until your spouse begins to feel safe again with you. Also, your personal understanding of the reasons behind the affair are quite likely to change over time (see #7 below).
- Be honest, but not ‘too honest’. A significant part of the therapy process in this phase is often spent processing information- putting all the pieces together into a coherent puzzle that allows your spouse to gain a sense of completeness (i.e., I have all of the information I need) and trustworthiness (i.e., “all of the pieces fit together to show that my spouse is being honest with me”). You will likely be asked a LOT of questions, repeatedly, and often in the context of very emotional conversations. While it can be difficult to be fully honest due to fear and shame, being dishonest at this point can be devastating to the chances of saving your marriage. Too many times I have seen couples moving positively through healing together only to be significantly set back when “the other shoe drops” after new, hurtful information is discovered. On the other hand, it is generally best to not bombard your spouse with details and information, even if they are asking or even begging, and especially when it comes to sexual details. Let me be clear- this is not an instruction to refuse to share the information, but rather a caution to consider what will be helpful versus only hurtful. It can sometimes be helpful to say something like, “I respect your right to ask for that information, and I am not opposed to telling you. I am afraid that it will hurt you right now. Can we wait and discuss this in therapy?”.
- Do not expect your spouse to be empathetic about your feelings for your affair person, your concern for his/her well-being. Depending on the type and duration of an extra-marital affair, the emotions and concern for the affair person can be strong due to your genuine concern for that person’s well-being. These complex emotions are not something your spouse is likely to understand or appreciate. Similarly, avoid defending the affair person to your spouse- it is a normal human emotion to feel intense anger and resentment toward the person having an affair with your spouse. Don’t expect anything else.
- Avoid making permanent decisions about your marriage. Many people in this situation can feel torn between the two relationships, and are very tempted to leave the marriage out of despair and hopelessness that things will recover after the affair discovery. However, the odds of a relationship with your affair person becoming a lasting, healthy relationship are not high- research shows that only 2% of these relationships last. A good therapy process will help you identify together what a path to saving the marriage will look like in comparison to the reality of ending the relationship. I have seen too many people with significant regrets after ending a relationship. Don’t make that decision in this phase.
- Do not tell your children about the affair. This is also strong advice for your spouse. It is very rare that a couple can really completely hide marital problems from their children. Your children know you both very well and can sense when there are problems. Instead of divulging all details to them, though, it is often sufficient to say something like, “Yes, we are having problems right now, but we are trying to work it out together” if your children ask.
- Brace yourself for some serious soul searching and self-reflection. Almost always, I hear the person who has had an affair describe a psychological compartmentalization process that allowed them to justify the affair to themselves. Somehow, the reality of their marriage and the alternate reality or fantasy world of the affair existed separately until the moment when this separation was no longer possible. When that division breaks down, the logic in your own mind that kept it going often no longer works. A significant part of repairing your marriage, as well as recovering from the shame and despair that can result from having an affair discovered, is looking inward and making personal changes that allow you to engage differently in your relationship going forward. Your ability to genuinely reflect and articulate this self-reflection process to your spouse will often go a long way in bringing about a new connection and trust in your relationship. A major milestone in the recovery of your relationship occurs when your spouse can see that you not only understand how the affair happened, but also take responsibility for your role in preventing yourself and/or your relationship from getting to a place again where there is vulnerability for an affair.
Above all, though, I want to stress the importance of seeking out a therapist to guide your relationship through the process. Friends and family can offer valuable support, but are not neutral. Often couples are also reluctant to share details about affairs with family and friends for a number of reasons, desiring instead to deal with it privately. Clergy and religious leaders can also play a positive role for many, especially when there is already an established connection within the religious community. However, most clergy are not trained to provide couples therapy. A good couples therapist can facilitate the healing process, sometimes preceded by a decision making process for the relationship, in a neutral and private environment. Unfortunately it can be difficult to know how to identify a good couples therapist. Look for someone with training and supervision in marriage and family therapy or relational therapy. Many mental health professionals advertise that they work with couples, and many do good work, but be aware that there is a great deal of variability in training, supervision, and experience specifically in work with couples. A good resource can be the therapist locator service through the American Association for Marriage and Family Therapy ( www.aamft.org ). In the San Antonio area, you are certainly welcome to contact me or one of my colleagues at the Institute for Couple and Family Enhancment ( www.icfetx.com ). We are all licensed marriage and family therapists (LMFTs) or licensed marriage and family therapist associates (LMFT-Associate) with extensive training and experience working with couples.