Infidelity is a thoughtless, selfish, and cruel act. It is perhaps one of the most painful things we can go through as adults. And yet it is an incredible tribute to the resiliency of the human spirit that many can and do recover their marriages, going on to create a relationship that is loving, joyous, and fulfilling. So then the question is: How do we get from here to there?
Steps to Ending an Affair
The first step must be to end the affair and to guarantee that there is no future contact with the affair partner. This step cannot be overstated, overlooked, or skipped. Without ending the affair and a promise of no future contact the marriage cannot fully recover. Attempting to restore the marriage without ending the affair is like attempting to do calculus without knowing how to add and subtract; it’s not possible.
Most affairs burn out and die. An affair is not a relationship based in reality or founded on lasting characteristics such as honesty, integrity, or commitment. They are usually based on passion and fantasy and exist in deceit and secret betrayal. Sometimes the guilt becomes too much to bear and the affair ends. Sometimes reality and the disapproval of friends, family, and colleagues intrude into the fantasy and the affair ends.
Betrayed husbands and wives can do quite a bit to hasten that process. But to do so they must be able to follow my cardinal rules concerning infidelity:
First rule of what to know when your spouse is having an affair: Your emotions and your instincts will lead you the wrong way 99.9% of the time. Don’t trust them.
Second rule of what to do when your spouse is having an affair: Ignore almost all of what they say they want from you, how they feel about what you are doing to fix the marriage and any talk about it “being over, get over it.”
You cannot base decisions about what to do on either of those things. Neither is objective and both are destined to fail. Instead we put together a two pronged strategy based on intellect that simultaneously addresses problems within the marriage and suggests actions to end the affair.
Address Preexisting Problems in the Marriage
Let’s start with addressing problems in the marriage. When a husband or wife comes to me with the information that their mate is involved with someone outside the marriage one of the things I do is to help them identify issues that might have led to their spouse’s emotional disconnect. We talk about things they may have done or are doing that are painful for their spouse. I especially dig for signs of anger, control, and disrespect since these things are so destructive in intimate relationships. They can cause one partner to put up emotional walls to protect themselves. Those walls also make it easy to create a relationship outside the marriage.
Next we talk about the things that would make the partner happy in marriage and which might have been neglected. Conversation, affection, recreational time as a couple, and sex, are among the top needs, but it could also be the financial picture or a health issue, or something else.
With that information we can put together a detailed strategy to make changes in the marriage. Now let me say loud and clear that conflicts or neglect in marriage are never an excuse for infidelity. Although there are many reasons why men and women have affairs, there are no excuses. It is an unethical way to escape problems in the marriage and to seek happiness for oneself at the expense of the spouse, the marriage, and the family. Ferreting out this information and making changes is in no way meant to cast blame on the faithful partner. It is simply a strategy to entice the straying partner to end the affair and to commit to recovering the marriage.
Most betrayed spouses do this part so well. I can’t think of any I’ve known or worked with who won’t bend over backwards to rectify their part in the deterioration of the marriage. They throw their heart and soul into making themselves and the marriage better.
Be Proactive about Ending the Affair
It’s the second part of the strategy for ending affairs that I have trouble convincing people to do. And that is taking action to end the affair. That’s where the emotions and the instincts get in the way. It’s where fear intrudes, and where the desire to do anything to make the unfaithful spouse happy at all costs creates an atmosphere that is enabling. Because most understand that affairs eventually burn out, they erroneously believe that they must sit back and wait for that to happen. Not so!! They can and should take proactive steps to expose and end the affair. The sooner it ends the better it will be for the marriage.
How and when to confront a wayward spouse is a question that looms large in the minds of all betrayed partners. And then there is the whole question of how much do you disclose in your confrontation. Being somewhat confrontational by nature, and having strong beliefs about the necessity of rigorous honesty, I did a little research on what some of the big name experts have to say on the subject. Most did not have the need for honesty in the marriage at the forefront of their suggestions, and not all were advocates of saving the marriage.
Michele Weiner-Davis, author of Divorce Busting, The Divorce Remedy, and The Sex Starved Marriage, has a few things on the topic in her book The Divorce Remedy. (She also has some great comments about divorce attorneys, but that’s a topic for another day…) Davis addresses the issue within the context of internet infidelity, and there she recommends that you do these things if you suspect your mate is involved in an internet or real life affair:
- Be specific about what is troubling you and why
- Own your feelings
(From The Divorce Remedy by Michele Weiner-Davis © 2001 published by Fireside pp.221-222)
She goes on to discuss reactions that you may encounter, and how to address different scenarios. Davis’ goal is to do everything possible to save the marriage and to restore love and trust. This is very much in keeping with my views on confronting and on being a strong advocate for saving marriages.
Shirley Glass in her new and very highly acclaimed book, Not Just Friends, has this to say:
She starts of by stating that “confronting is not the same thing as attacking,” that confronting is a meeting for clarification and that attacking is a “hostile offensive that involves accusations, criticisms, and abuse.”
Glass’ guidelines for before you confront:
- Know what you want to gain and be open with your partner about that goal.
- Don’t set truth traps – discover the truth directly rather than through ensnarement. She gives the example “If your child leaves a trail of cookie crumbs you shouldn’t ask, ‘Did you have a cookie today?’ Start out by saying, ‘I saw the cookie crumbs, tell me the truth about how many cookies you ate before dinner.’”
- Give yourself time to cool down and become calm
- Consider writing your thoughts first in order to gain clarity
Glass’ guidelines for the confrontation:
- Choose a time and place where you are unhurried and free from distractions
- Do not confront on the telephone
- Stick to the facts as you know them: What you know. What you saw. What you’ve been told. The contradictions between what your partner has told you and what you’ve discovered.
- Say how these lies and discrepancies make you feel.
(From Not Just Friends by Shirley Glass, Ph.D. © 2003 published by Free Press pp. 77-79)
Putting all that together, here are my thoughts on confronting. I am so strong in my beliefs regarding the need to be honest in marriage that I believe only the fear of abuse should be reason to withhold information about how you feel, what you know, or in this case what you suspect. I think that honesty is so essential to the well-being of the marriage that fears of repercussions based on honest sharing are not grounds for withholding information — with the exception stated above regarding the fear of abuse. So having said that, this is what I recommend.
As soon as you are uncomfortable with something your mate is doing, speak up! You don’t have to accuse your partner of anything, remember, honesty is about you. Say, “I’m uncomfortable (worried, afraid….) of the time you are spending at work or with such and such a person.” Speak up every time you feel uncomfortable or that information you have doesn’t match what you’re being told. Don’t let time (and an affair) drag on while you dig for hard evidence. It’s more important to do your best to stop a suspected affair by sharing what you know than it is to be able to prove you are right. You don’t even need to call it an affair, simply state that you are uncomfortable or offended by the relationship your spouse has with the other person. There’s no need to get caught up in arguing about what it’s called, the point is to express how you feel.
If your honest sharing of how you feel goes unaddressed, continue to dig for information and to share what you find and how you feel about it. Use the information elsewhere in this newsletter to address problems in the marriage and to work on enticing your partner to end the affair and to recommit to the marriage. Expose the affair as soon as you are reasonably certain your suspicions are correct.
Exposing the Affair
Affairs flourish in secrecy; if affair partners thought for a moment that their friends and family could see them or would find out, infidelity would be far less common! So one of the first things I suggest is that the faithful spouse tells. Tells who? Tells the spouse of the other party, tells their family members, tells their church leader, tells the boss if it is a workplace affair. Exposing an affair to the harsh light of day and to the scrutiny of friends and family will almost always hasten its demise. I encourage the faithful partner to contact the spouse of the lover. Not only is this a likely ally in working to end the affair, it is certain to cause repercussions for the betraying partners.
Exposing the affair creates conflict within the unfaithful relationship. The coupling that seemed to be so perfect, so wonderful, so special, suddenly takes on an air of sordidness. Dealing with the disapproval of friends and family can make the relationship seem less than the ideal fantasy it once appeared to be. Hurt feelings and arguments are likely to ensue within the affair relationship as each partner struggles with layers of conflict, guilt, embarrassment or even shame. Eventually the partners become less attractive to each other as the fantasy evaporates under the light of exposure.
In addition to telling, and perhaps more importantly, I encourage the faithful spouse to be honest with the mate about how s/he feels regarding the affair. It is essential that the straying partner hear loud and clear from their mate that the relationship they are having outside the marriage is painful in the extreme for their spouse. Honesty of this sort is difficult. I help men and women learn the skills to share their feelings honestly without being disrespectful or losing their temper in the process.
For men and women caught in the nightmare of a mate’s betrayal taking these steps to expose and to express how they feel can be, and almost always is, incredibly frightening. Husbands and wives doing all they can to persuade their erring partner to end the extra marital relationship and to commit to the marriage are terrified of doing anything that might upset the other person. It’s a natural fear, and one that must be overcome in order to do everything possible to end the affair. Remember, emotions and instincts will take you down the wrong path more often than not, when it comes to dealing with a spouse’s affair.
I tell husbands and wives to think of infidelity as an addiction, which indeed it is, and to keep that in mind when they are making choices about how to handle it. If their spouse was addicted to cocaine or heroin they would be willing to do whatever it takes to get them away from the source of the addiction and into recovery, regardless of how upset their addicted partner becomes. Ending an affair is much the same. The straying partner is addicted to the other person, and the only way to get to recovery is to end the relationship and ensure that contact never occurs in the future.
Yes, they will certainly become angry when necessary steps are taken to do just that. The waiting partner must look beyond the anger to see that it is triggered by the addiction and that the person they love and married is not able to think clearly or rationally. When the source of the addiction is removed and other steps for recovery are taken, eventually the fog will clear and the anger will dissipate over time.
Separating to Save the Marriage
Dealing with the infidelity of a spouse is emotionally draining and incredibly painful. The longer the affair continues the more wearing it is on the waiting spouse. Given enough time the betrayed partner will eventually lose all respect and all feelings of love for their mate. When that happens, the likelihood of reconciliation and of restoring the marriage is virtually nil.
To avoid getting to that place I recommend that the injured partner set a time limit for executing the above suggestions. If the affair has not ended and the spouse recommitted to the marriage in that time then I strongly encourage the faithful partner to separate from the marriage. I have a several reasons for doing so.
First is to safeguard whatever energy the faithful partner has for reconciling when the affair ends, and to maintain whatever feelings of love still remain. This is accomplished when there is no contact with the unfaithful spouse and the daily pain of witnessing the affair is no longer taking place.
Second, it sends a clear message to the wayward spouse that the affair is no longer going to be tolerated. Explicit in the way the separation is implemented is the message that the spouse wants the marriage to continue but only in a way that is beneficial for both of them. Separation under these terms returns a level of empowerment to the betrayed spouse who has probably been feeling very disempowered throughout this ordeal.
When the betrayed spouse sets this boundary affair couples are often thrown together even more than they were before. Although this may seem counter productive to ending the affair, with more time together it is likely the fantasy world of the affair will collapse and that reality will begin to set in. Issues that never came up in the past suddenly intrude. Things such as finances, child care, irritating habits, and even laundry can serve to destroy the illusion of the affair.
And finally the hope is that with the changes that the faithful partner has been making, eliminating hurtful behavior and learning skills to meet the partner’s needs, when the affair ends the spouse will be willing to consider returning to the marriage.
Separation is risky, and it is not to be undertaken lightly. But there comes a time when continuing to be available within the marriage and enduring the pain of the affair is counter productive. It becomes enabling. And it can become the final death knell of the marriage when the faithful partner experiences enough pain to completely destroy any willingness to reconcile after the affair.
© Penny R. Tupy 2004