Robin had been feeling for a long time like she was unimportant to her husband. He didn’t seem to be interested in talking with her anymore. He would if he needed to, and he wasn’t complaining to her about anything. He said, “thank you,” and “good meal,” and “good morning,” but there was something missing from the way he said things. She couldn’t exactly put her finger on it, but she was afraid that her husband didn’t love her anymore. What Robin didn’t know was that her husband was having an affair. It wasn’t until another year went by before she found out. That’s when she contacted me, because I offer coaching for people whose spouse is having an affair.
My First Session with Robin
In our first session together, Robin told me a story I often hear from women in her situation. Her marriage had been very good at first, but the talking and the activities together declined over the years. There had been some intense arguing for awhile, mainly about unimportant things, then they just kind of gave each other space. They didn’t really dislike each other, but the love wasn’t there like it used to be. At least it wasn’t visible. Their marriage had been almost sexless for the past two years without either of them complaining about it. Nevertheless, the affair came as a complete shock. It was something she felt physically, like a punch in the gut.
I asked Robin what she wanted to do and she didn’t know. She was hurt, confused, and angry. Part of her just wanted to end the marriage and another part was scared that her marriage was ending. She didn’t believe that she could talk to her husband without falling apart, and she didn’t know how to talk to him. At that moment, Robin needed emotional support, focus, perspective, and clarity.
Robin’s Marriage was in Her Hands
The main thing Robin wanted from me was to tell her what to do. To answer that question, I would need to know what Robin really wanted. If she really wanted out of her marriage, then she needed a lawyer and counseling if she didn’t have enough social support. If she wanted to save her marriage, then I would need to help her to have a plan so that she wouldn’t constantly be obsessing about what she should do. Then, she would need help in knowing how to confront her husband and work on winning him back. A big part of this would be helping her deal with her anger and not see her husband as the enemy. That would be helpful if she were divorcing, but not for reconciling. From long experience I know that women’s largest difficulty in reconciling is staying balanced between love and protection and not flip-flopping from one to the other.
An Affair is More of a Result than a Reason
We were not sure what Robin’s husband wanted, but it was a good guess that he didn’t want to give up his affair and just have a business as usual relationship with his wife. It was also a good guess that their marriage had become as dissatisfying for him as it had for Robin. And, that was probably the real issue—as it almost always is. With good men, affairs are a coping response to dissatisfaction with the marriage, job stress, or mid-life crisis. than it is a statement about their love for someone else. What I needed to help Robin to see was that except for the affair, she and her husband were basically in agreement–neither of them wanted their relationship to continue as it was. It was inevitable that they would have severe problems at some point, even if her husband wasn’t having an affair.
There is no way that a marriage can continue when one person is having an affair. Any woman who would allow her husband to have a sexual or emotional affair with another woman will rapidly lose the respect of her husband as well as her own self-respect. Robin had more than enough evidence to know for certain her husband was having an affair. We needed to leave no wiggle room for her husband and also not let her confrontation deteriorate into a discussion or an argument. Robin’s confrontation would need to do two things: 1) bring the affair out into the open; and 2) encourage her husband to talk. What she needed to avoid was making demands of her husband or getting into a discussion. Her task would be to say her short piece, then to listen without comment or questioning. There is a time for talking, but that’s not when you surprise someone with knowledge of their affair or when your emotions are ready to spill over. There would be time for talking later. It would be important not to make demands nor to give in to any that her husband had, such as showing proof of his affair. Both making demands and giving in to demands cause loss of respect–that’s the last thing you want to happen when you are confronting your husband. Robin and I rehearsed her confrontation in session and prepared for the different kinds of responses that he could have.
Building a Bridge
After putting boundaries in place that would prevent an ongoing affair at Robin’s expense, Robin would need to build a bridge of communication between her and her husband. The most obvious way to build this bridge in her case was by agreeing with her husband that their marriage had not been good, even before his affair. Agreeing about a troubled marriage is an important piece that can be used to build a bridge between spouses who are on their way out of a relationship. It works far better than trying to convince a wayward spouse to just come back into the relationship. If Robin confronted her husband and soon after tried to convince him to come back to her, it would make her seem very needy and like she had recovered quickly from her husband’s affair. Not only that, but it would most likely fail. Reconciling would be an important goal, but one that would follow rebuilding their relationship. True reconciliation occurs between two people who want to be together. This soon after an affair, both Robin and her husband were likely to have mixed feelings about that, at best.
Love and Strength Need to be Used at the Same Time
Robin told me that if possible, she wanted to have a good relationship with her husband again; that it wouldn’t really be enough just to go back to living together in a loveless marriage. I was in full agreement with that. A loveless marriage is not something I would wish on anyone. I told Robin that to do this, she would also need to make a plan for how she could leave her husband. That would be important for two reasons: 1) her husband still might reject her; and 2) she had to conquer her fear of her husband leaving her. Such a fear would make it hard for her to follow through with having good boundaries. Her husband could also play on her fears. That would keep Robin in a perpetual state of anxiety, make her more needy, and make it more likely that her husband would resume his affair. Robin agreed and worked diligently on an exit plan. It helped her to feel more in control, like she had options, and like her future was not doomed even if her husband rejected her. Robin had already grown a lot only a couple of weeks into our work together.
To help Robin rebuild her relationship with her husband, we practiced her empathizing with her husband. Although what Robin really wanted was her husband to empathize with her, their relationship had not been rebuilt yet. He was still defensive and resistant to talking openly with her. We needed to help him take down the walls and that wouldn’t happen if Robin demanded his empathy before she would give any of her own. She would need to be able to get support from her friends, and from me, while she was working on reconnecting with her husband. He would need to apologize and to rebuild trust–there was no way around that, but the time for that would be after he wanted to reconcile. Robin needed to help him get to that point. Also, their marriage problems would need to be set aside. Those, too, would need to be addressed, but after they both wanted to reconcile. Until then they had a lot of talking and listening to do.
As time went by, Robin discovered something that really surprised her. She was surprised to find that her husband still loved her. That did not come out at the initial confrontation, as it rarely does. Life isn’t the movies. It came out in one of their times of reconnection that we had practiced and prepared for. It was a turning point for their relationship. I cautioned Robin not to rush into reconciling, but rather to start to address some of the issues that got in the way of their loving each other before the affair. For that, they both needed a more structured way to talk about problems so that they didn’t fight and undo the connection they were building. Sometimes people want to avoid talking about problems because they are afraid it could damage their relationship again. But, this new honeymoon phase of reconnecting is an ideal time to work on old problems that would be likely to resurface. Robin did this with the skills she learned in coaching, but some couples get couple’s counseling or couple’s coaching at this point. The main thing is having a positive and practical way to deal with the daily issues that caused problems before.
A New Beginning and Letting Go of Anger
Robin’s husband had done a terrible thing, but not because he was a terrible man. If he had been, Robin would not have worked to save their marriage. Once they were able to start talking, they were doing something that they had neglected to do for the past two years–be honest and open with each other. Although her husband’s actions are not justified by the results, they did create an opportunity for them to get to know each other again and to relate without expectations and fears. Her husband’s choices did damage, but it was Robin’s choices and work in coaching which saved their marriage.