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 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.
Last week, I wrote about several important points for the person whose affair has been discovered or disclosed. This week, I am addressing the injured spouse. Whether your spouse disclosed the affair unprompted (which rarely occurs) or you discovered it another way, you are likely feeling very overwhelmed with emotions and conflicting thoughts. Though the circumstances in each couple’s situation can be very different, there are a few relatively universal recommendations that I give clients in your position during my first meeting with them. The first meeting often occurs within a week or two of the discovery (but not always).
- Do not expect yourself to function like a rational person. This is a trauma and your body will respond accordingly. Many people struggle to eat or sleep, and MANY report having wild swinging moods. “I go from furious to devastating sadness and hurt to numb, and then back to furious- all within about 5 minutes” is not an uncommon description of this emotional roller coaster. I have lost count of the number of spouses who have told me they feel like they have gone crazy in the first few weeks after discovering an affair. Depending on many factors, most importantly how your spouse responds to you during the first few weeks, the “I feel crazy” phase typically begins to subside after 3-4 weeks. During this time, take advantage of some sick days at work, ask a friend to babysit and give you some time alone- don’t expect yourself to be able to do all that you would normally do in a day, as so much physical and emotional energy gets drained by processing the trauma of this injury to your sense of identity and security.
- Do not make any permanent decisions about your marriage. While it is understandable that anyone would want to keep their options open after discovering infidelity, I often see people regret leaving the relationship immediately after the discovery without trying to save the marriage. Give yourself the gift of some time, even getting through the first 4-6 weeks, before making any permanent decisions. Certainly there are exceptions to this recommendation, though, especially if you are concerned for your personal safety.
- Do not tell your children about the affair, at least not yet . Your children know you well, and will see that you are hurting and likely not acting like yourself. You may be distracted, crying, more irritable, or all of the above- all changes that often lead children to ask what is wrong. They love you and are concerned about you, but they are also dependent on you for their own sense of security and predictability. Resist the temptation to say anything that will sound to your children like, “Your mother/father did this- it’s their fault”. This information causes tremendous stress for children. You can say something more like, “Yes, I am feeling sad right now” to validate their perception of your emotions. If they have overheard or been exposed to conflict, you can say “Your father/mother and I are having some challenges right now, but we are trying to work it out”. Do everything you can, though, to protect them from any conflict between you and your spouse or any negative comments about your spouse-you will thank yourself one day when you look back on these days.
- Think carefully before you tell your family of origin. This one is tricky because many people’s first instinct, and strong desire, after discovering an affair is to call a parent or family member with whom they have a close relationship. I suggest caution here, at least early in the process, because a family member’s first instinct is almost always to be protective of their own in this situation. Ask yourself honestly if your parent or family member is likely to be able to genuinely forgive your spouse and support your marriage if you choose to stay. If you do confide in a family member, it will be important for your spouse to repair their relationship with your family separately from the repair of your marriage. In many ways, these are separate injuries. Healing one relationship doesn’t automatically repair the other.
- Talk to SOMEONE. A very easy way to make yourself go crazy is to try to deal with this completely on your own. Reach out to a trusted friend or family member- trusted not only in their ability to honor your privacy and keep you from inflicting bodily injury on anyone (hopefully- see #8), but also trusted enough as a friend of your marriage that their first advice is not going to be to leave solely because they don’t want to see you hurting now.
- Ask questions slowly . One of the most common themes I see for anyone trying to wrap their minds around their spouse’s affair is the barrage of questions that flood their minds. “Where did he meet her?”, “Did you tell him you loved him?”, and “How many times were they together?” are just a few of the questions that are often asked. These questions come from a strong desire to fit all the pieces together in order to see a coherent puzzle picture. None of us can make sense of anything with incomplete or conflicting information. An event as traumatic as an affair is certainly something that your mind and heart will want to make sense of. But know that this ‘coherent puzzle’ will not come from a 24 hour marathon of questions. If your mind is racing with questions, write them all down. Often, though, the underlying questions that you want answered most desperately are fairly few, “Are you someone I should ever trust again?” and “Is the affair a reflection of your true character or a mistake you made because of an area of weakness that can be fixed?”. These are questions that are only answered over time with actions.
- Do not assume the affair is your fault, or necessarily a reflection of a broken marriage. So often the assumption is that an affair is a ‘symptom’ of a bad relationship. I honestly don’t believe this is necessarily true, or at minimum is too shallow of an explanation. The vast majority of affairs that I see in my office are much more complicated than that. Yes, the marriage likely wasn’t at its high point when the affair started. But no marriage stays at that high place constantly, especially through career challenges, parenting struggles, deaths of loved ones, financial hardships, moves, promotions, or any of the multitude of challenges that we face in relationships over a lifetime.
Instead, when we really dig deeper to understand how an affair happened, almost always what is present in some form for a variety of reasons is the inability of the person who had the affair, at least in the current phase of life, to directly name their deep emotional needs with enough vulnerability for their spouse to hear it and respond in a way that allows for a continued connection in the relationship. Addressing these reasons together, over time as security and trust begin to be reestablished, can possibly build a marriage that is stronger than it has ever been before.
- Do not confront the affair person. This is a very common fantasy- telling him or her off, defending your relationship, protecting your family from a threat, and/or seeking vengeance against this person you see as responsible for your pain. The reality, though, is that the vast majority of times these confrontations will not result in anything that will be helpful for your healing, either personally or for your relationship. Play out the fantasy in your mind- that can be helpful. But don’t act on it.
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.