Michele Weiner-Davis, MSW, licensed clinical social worker, marriage and family therapist, Boulder, Colorado, and author of Getting Through to the Man You Love: The No-Nonsense, No-Nagging Guide for Women. DivorceBusting.com
Little compares to the devastation people feel upon discovering that their spouses have been unfaithful. Some marriages end right away. But many others hit agonizing impasses as couples struggle to get past the intense anger, sadness and mistrust.
These hurtful interactions wreak emotional havoc on both spouses, and typically neither one has a clue how to help the marriage recover. As a result, many couples who do in fact love each other decide to call it quits.
The good news is that it’s possible to move beyond the pain, put the past in the past, rebuild trust and reconnect with your spouse both emotionally and physically. In fact, many couples who have done the hard work of repairing their marriages after affairs report that their relationships are stronger than ever.
The first weeks and months after the affair is out in the open often are the “make-or-break” stage for the marriage. Here’s what the unfaithful spouse and the betrayed spouse need to do…
Unfaithful Spouse’s Tasks
The unfaithful partner needs to rebuild his/her spouse’s trust…
End the affair. It’s not realistic to expect a marriage to improve while an affair is ongoing. Yet sometimes, when an affair has filled a void in the unfaithful spouse’s life, the unfaithful spouse feels unsettled about ending it. This is natural and not to be interpreted as a sign that ending the affair is the wrong choice. It is normal to grieve the loss of the illicit relationship even if repairing the marriage is decidedly the desired outcome.
Answer questions. Most betrayed spouses have many questions about what happened and the meaning the affair had to the unfaithful spouse. As difficult as it might be, it is imperative to answer these questions openly and honestly. Withholding information—even very painful information—that eventually leaks out over time retraumatizes the betrayed spouse and can cause irreparable damage. As counterintuitive as it might seem, honesty is the best policy, particularly in the early stages of recovery when the marriage is fragile and trust is being rebuilt.
Be transparent. During the crisis period, it is necessary for the unfaithful spouse to be willing to be totally transparent and allow the betrayed spouse to have access to personal information including e-mail, cell-phone records, Facebook accounts, credit card bills and so on. Demonstrating a willingness to be an “open book,” though often uncomfortable, goes a long way to rebuilding trust. This level of personal accountability is temporary—it’s not intended to become a way of life. Once trust is rebuilt, most betrayed spouses tire of the constant vigilance and wish to focus on other, more positive aspects of life.
Apologize. Betrayed spouses need to know that their partners are remorseful about the hurt they caused. Apologies must be heartfelt and include explanations of why the unfaithful spouse feels contrite.
Example: It will help to say, “I am very sorry that I had an affair. You’ve trusted me throughout our marriage, and I betrayed your trust. I understand why you are so devastated.”
Apologies that are defensive typically don’t work as well. For instance, “I’m sorry you’re feeling hurt. But our marriage hasn’t been going so well, and I needed some emotional support.” Keep in mind that a single apology is never enough, because a betrayed spouse’s pain comes in waves. Express your regrets often about having hurt your spouse.
Betrayed Spouse’s Tasks
After an affair, if you want your marriage to survive, you can’t leave the ball only in the unfaithful spouse’s court…
Express emotions—but constructively. The betrayed spouse often will be overwhelmed by intense feelings of hurt, anger, sadness and utter confusion. Express those feelings when they arise, but express them in helpful rather than combative ways. Rather than resorting to name calling, use “I-messages” to talk about how you feel.
Example: It’s reasonable to say, “I don’t know if I can ever trust you again because you hurt me so much. I feel like I’m dying inside.” But it simply won’t help your marriage to say, “You’re the worst person in the world. You’re a liar and have no integrity.”
Ask questions—but know when to stop. It is very common for a betrayed spouse to have questions about the affair partner, the length of the affair, the places and times they met, what took place during those times and what the relationship meant to the unfaithful spouse.
Sometimes asking questions can be very helpful—the answers often confirm long-standing suspicions, and that enables the betrayed spouse to regain trust in his/her own instincts. Plus, there usually is an overwhelming need to try to make sense of what happened and to connect the dots. Asking pertinent questions often satisfies this need.
However, knowing more and more details about the affair can cause the betrayed spouse to fume and ruminate even more. It’s important for the betrayed spouse to decide at some point whether these conversations are healing or hurtful…and when it’s time to stop gathering information.
In the early stages of recovery from an affair, many couples have marathon discussions about the infidelity, but eventually they must strike a balance between talking about the affair and focusing on other aspects of their lives—otherwise, the relationship will become too problem-saturated, and it simply won’t feel good to either partner. Intentionally engaging in neutral or even positive interactions will improve the relationship exponentially. That’s because what you focus on expands quickly.
If you ask your unfaithful spouse a question and the honest response is hurtful to you, it’s important not to lash out angrily. It may take courage to share hurtful information, and it’s important for the betrayed spouse to encourage honesty. Therefore, even though your mind may be roiling, state your feelings as calmly as possible by using I-messages and acknowledge the unfaithful partner’s willingness to come clean.
Keep track of what helps you. Although it may seem as if the hurt is ever-present following the discovery of an affair, the truth is, there are times when sadness and anger dissipate. It’s helpful to ask yourself, What’s different about the times during the day when I feel just a little bit better? and keep a running list of what works.
Example: Many people say that it helps to exercise, be with friends, meditate, do yoga, pray, spend time with kids if you have them, keep a journal and so on. After taking an emotional hit, knowing how to help yourself feel more at peace can be extremely empowering.
Examine what might need to change in the marriage. Although it usually doesn’t occur during the initial crisis period, it will be important for the betrayed spouse eventually to take a close look at the factors that might have contributed to the affair. Though some people stray even though they’re perfectly happy in their marriages, others feel that there has been an emotional or a physical void. Addressing these issues leads to deeper empathy and intimacy on all levels.