Practical Advice on Reconciling when Your Spouse has an Affair
It’s easy to be confused with all the advice on dealing with a spouse’s affair. Here are some principles to help you cut through the false information.
Today, I will address the following questions:
- Why do people have affairs?
- Why should I try to reconcile with an unfaithful spouse?
- Will making my spouse miss me help my spouse to give up an affair?
- Will talking about my feelings help my spouse to give up an affair?
- Should I use a different method if my spouse has cheated before?
- Does it matter that I had an affair before?
- Won’t boundaries make my spouse more likely to leave me?
- My spouse is demanding that I show the proof for his or her affair. Should I?
- I’m undecided about whether to divorce or not. What should I do?
“Why do people have affairs?”
In general, people do things either because they have to or because they want to.
People don’t have to have an affair. Although cheating spouses will often blame their spouse for their affair, this is never true. Cheating spouses blame in order to justify their affair to themselves and others.
The fact is that there is no justification for affairs because even in a bad marriage, people have many healthier options than cheating. For example, they could have progressed through the stages of:
- working on themselves,
- discussing their concerns about the relationship with their spouse,
- bringing their concerns to their religious leader or mutually trusted other person,
- attempted to work with their spouse in marriage counseling,
- gotten individual coaching if they had a difficult spouse,
- separating as an intervention to create change, and if that failed
- initiating divorce as an intervention.
With so many other options available for improving a relationship, no one has to have an affair. This also means that you did not cause your spouse to cheat. At worst, you caused your spouse to be unhappy. Your spouse then decided to deal with it in a destructive way, like a person with a drug addiction.
The bottom line: Your spouse cheated because he or she had the opportunity, the desire, and the ability to cheat.
“Why should I try to reconcile with an unfaithful spouse?”
In general, we need to do things because they are healthy and pleasing to God.
I think people often confuse reconciling with preventing divorce. I don’t view it as healthy or Christian for people to stay married and to have an unloving relationship. That is like trying to follow the letter of the law, while ignoring the spirit of the law.
My understanding of the Bible is that God made laws so that we could understand the difference between right and wrong. That both guides our actions and helps us to understand the need for a savior, since we are unable to perfectly keep those laws.
Reconciling means restoring a relationship. Christians are reconciled with God through Christ so we can have a loving relationship with God. Married couples are reconciled when love and fidelity are restored. If those can be restored, then reconciling is a win-win for husband and wife. To end a marriage in which love and fidelity could be restored would be like amputating a limb rather than healing an infected limb.
If love and fidelity cannot be restored, then there is no reconciliation, even if there is no divorce.
If there is too much damage and a loving and faithful connection cannot be restored, then it makes no sense to try to reconcile. I believe this is why God allows divorce, though his preference is reconciliation. Keep in mind when making your decision, that the lack of desire in your spouse to reconcile today does not determine whether you can reconcile. It just means at this point, you have not created the attraction and connection you need.
An analogy would be a single person asking their girlfriend or boyfriend to marry too soon. Getting rejected may be a reflection of asking too soon. The relationship may simply need to be developed more first. I have helped many people to reconcile with spouses who at first had no interest in that.
The bottom line: There is only one reason to work to reconcile and that is to restore a loving marital relationship, when possible.
“Will making my spouse miss me help my spouse to give up an affair?”
There is only one way to get a spouse to give up an affair.
In order for a spouse to give up an affair, he or she must be put in the position to lose you otherwise. If your relationship is already good, you can give your spouse a choice and initiate separation or divorce if he or she doesn’t choose you over the affair partner.
If your relationship is bad, your spouse is less likely to choose you over an affair partner. In that case you have three choices: divorce, accept an ongoing affair, or work to rebuild your relationship before forcing a choice.
Although in a good relationship, you can make a spouse miss you through lack of contact, that will not work in a bad relationship. When it does work, all it does is get your spouse to pursue you up to a point, but never to the point of reconciling. And, it does not lead to his or her giving up the affair partner. People who use the make-your-spouse-miss-you method at best have a temporarily better relationship, but then become frustrated because the affair continues.
If you are working with a counselor who is advocating the make-your-spouse-miss-you method, they will blame your spouse when the method fails. Then they will continue counseling to help you let go of the relationship. This is a very common ploy counselors use to give you a lot of sessions without helping you to reconcile.
The bottom line: Your spouse will not give up an affair unless he or she has to in order to avoid losing you.
“Will talking about my feelings help my spouse to give up an affair?”
Talking about differences only creates more distance.
You will not find in any of my material a recommendation to talk to your spouse about anything that you don’t agree on. That is the opposite of what counselors recommend. You need to understand the difference in the approaches.
When you talk about feelings, you will be able to relieve an internal desire to get those feelings out. That can help you to feel better temporarily, but makes the other person more defensive and distant, leading to even more bad feelings that you will feel a need to get out. That is a downward spiral that ends many relationships. It works well in helping people to move on from a bad relationship. From the perspective of a counselor, that is a good result.
As a marriage coach, I help people to express themselves in ways that will help the other person to have more attraction, more connection, and more respect. That improves the relationship, and done consistently, leads to an upward spiral leading to relationship restoration. To use this method effectively, you will often have to stop yourself from expressing anger, frustration, and sadness to your spouse.
So, expressing your feelings openly and honestly with a cheating spouse will lead to distancing and letting go. That is desirable if the relationship can not be reconciled. Withholding negative feelings while working on the relationship is initially more difficult but leads to relationship restoration. That is desirable if the relationship can be reconciled.
The bottom line: Decide whether you want to reconcile or not before you decide to be open and honest about negative feelings.
“Should I use a different method if my spouse has cheated before?”
What didn’t work before won’t work now.
The best predictor of future behavior is past behavior. Once having cheated and gotten away with it, it becomes much more likely that your spouse will cheat again. And, if the consequences are the same as before, it then makes it even more likely to happen again. People who have repeatedly gotten away with something are not going to stop unless someone stops them. That’s true not only for criminals, but for your spouse, and for you, too.
If the last time your spouse had an affair, all you did was leave for a week, then all your spouse learned is that having an affair means you will temporarily leave. That’s not much of a deterrent. And it’s not enough to end cheating. You will still need to put your spouse in a forced choice position of either choosing you over the affair partner or losing you.
But, you will need to require at least three months of faithfulness and relationship building, while separated, or you will move onto divorce. Your only alternatives to that would be accepting that your spouse will continue to cheat on you, or to just divorce.
Needy people are far more likely to have spouses that cheat and continue to cheat because their spouse knows they are unlikely to divorce. Secure people are likely to take swift and secure action from the first instance of cheating and to continue to behave securely throughout the marriage. The secure person’s spouse knows, if I cheat, my spouse will divorce me.
The bottom line: If you become more secure and more willing to divorce if your spouse cheats, your spouse is less likely to cheat on you again.
“Does it matter that I had an affair before?“
There is no way to even the score for a wrongdoing. Your spouse doing a wrong because you did a wrong will just make things more wrong. You may feel less guilty if you allow your spouse to cheat on you, but you will be far less likely to reconcile after that. Allowing a spouse to cheat will result in repeat cheating that will destroy your marriage.
“Won’t boundaries make my spouse more likely to leave me?”
Good boundaries preserve good relationships.
People never like boundaries, so boundaries temporarily create more distance. If your relationship with your spouse is already poor, then boundaries may be the final straw that kills your relationship. This is also true for parents who try to use boundaries for children they have a poor relationship with.
If your spouse values you and would not want to lose you, your spouse will care about your boundaries and they will help you to stop the cheating.
If you have a good relationship, but don’t use boundaries, then your spouse will not give up an affair because he or she won’t have to.
The bottom line: Boundaries are necessary for ending affairs, but they will only be effective if your relationship is strong enough to use them. You must do the right steps in the right order.
“My spouse is demanding that I show the proof for his or her affair. Should I?”
Requiring proof is the same as lying about the affair.
If you have proof of an affair, your spouse certainly already knows he or she is having an affair. It’s not something you need to prove.
Spouse’s usually demand proof when they are confronted for having an affair. Just treat such demands as continued lying about the affair and proceed as though your spouse is refusing to choose you.
There is no benefit to you for showing your spouse proof of his or her affair. Your spouse, however, will learn how to hide the affair better, and will blame you for how you came about the proof.
If you do not have proof of an affair, then DO NOT confront your spouse. Needy people do this seeking reassurance, but worsening their relationship.
The bottom line: Do not prove to someone what they already know. Just focus on doing the right actions regardless of their claims of innocence. Do not be gaslighted.
“I’m undecided about whether to divorce or not. What should I do?”
Indecision leads to lack of action. Action leads to better decisions.
If you don’t know whether to divorce or not, start working on what it takes to reconcile. You will still have the option to divorce if things are not working out or you change your mind.
If instead, you work to divorce and later change your mind, you will be going from strong boundaries to weak boundaries and your spouse’s affairs are more likely to continue into the future.
The bottom line: A positive action will get you further than no action.
I want to give you a few more recommendations before finishing.
Never have a trial separation. Either separate or don’t. Trial separations make other people feel more comfortable to cheat.
Do not try to live separately in the same home. This will not create the same dynamics of loss necessary for reconciling. This goes for nesting as well.
Do not confuse sadness and sincere apologies with actual change. Sadness and apologies are good, but without boundaries your spouse will not have to give up the affair, so will soon return to it.
There is a LOT more that could be said about affairs and reconciling. If you are a woman, I recommend my 300 page book on preventing and ending mens’ affairs. For both men and women there is also more information on my website and I have a coaching package you can get to take you through the steps of ending your spouse’s affair and reconciling.