How and when to confront your spouse’s affair is part of the solution. The other is knowing how to rebuild following the confrontation.
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 several more months went by before she found out. That’s when she contacted me, because she wanted to save her relationship, as well as end her spouse’s 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 said it depended on the day. 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 help her, 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.
If she chose to save her marriage, she would need help in knowing how and when to confront her husband. It might be necessary to work on reinteresting her husband in the marriage before confronting him. That would mean working on attraction and connection skills.
A mental shift she would need to make to deal with her anger would be to not see her husband as the enemy. Seeing him as the enemy might 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 extreme 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 dissatisfying for him. Perhaps other parts of his life, too. It became obvious that he had not ended his relationship with his wife, but carried on as usual. This showed that her husband was supplementing his marriage by adding another relationship to it. Some people supplement their relationships with affairs; others replace their spouses with affairs.
If Robin’s husband had ended his affair he would again be in an unhappy and unsatisfying situation. While Robin couldn’t take away her husband’s natural desires for other women, she could fix the part that made him dissatisfied with their relationship. Like many women, she had the false belief that her relationship couldn’t improve unless her husband wanted to work on it with her. In actuality, there were many things she could do to reattract and re-interest her husband without ever talking to him about it.
That work needed to happen long before her husband started cheating on her. Because neither of them did it, the relationship was becoming worse. Even if there had not been an affair, their relationship would have just continued to get worse for both of them.
Even though Robin needed to learn how to reattract and reconnect with her husband, that alone would not end his affair. He would just end up enjoying his relationship with Robin while continuing his affair as well. And, if Robin allowed the affair to continue, she would become resentful and reactive. That would make it even less likely her husband would give up his affair to keep her.
The fact is, people do not willingly give up a good relationship unless they have to in order to keep another relationship they care more about. This is why we can’t end a spouse’s affair just by improving our behavior.
A confrontation should never happen without proof of the affair. 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 three things:
- Bring the affair out into the open,
- create a point of connection, and
- present choices acceptable to Robin.
What she needed to avoid was becoming either rejecting or needy. Her task would be to say what we had practiced in coaching, then to listen without comment or questioning. She needed to avoid turning the confrontation into a discussion.
To be effective, boundaries are stated rather than discussed. Some people need to put their boundaries in an email because of their tendency to be drawn into discussion and debate.
The confrontation was simply informing her husband of the knowledge of the affair, what she wanted, and what his choices were. Before confronting her husband, Robin needed to be certain what she wanted, what choices she would permit her husband, and the actions she would take depending on the choice he made. Being fully prepared would make her confrontation effective.
Many women give choices to their spouse, expecting their husbands to respond in one particular way. When their husband responds differently, they either become very needy or very rejecting, causing further damage to the relationship. When we give a person options, we need to be ready for any option they choose. We must also be prepared for them not to follow through.
Robin and I rehearsed her confrontation in session and prepared for the different kinds of responses that her husband could have, both before and after the confrontation. Even when people agree to end an affair, they often return to it soon after. She needed to be ready for what to do in case that happened.
Building a bridge
A bridge is a connection between two places or two people. Bridges are built by similarities, whether by agreeing, empathizing, or by having common interests. Discussing differences never builds bridges and is the main reason that most marriage counseling fails. A couple who clearly want different things should never go to marriage counseling.
The most obvious obvious bridge for Robin to make with her husband would be her agreement that their marriage had not been good prior to the affair. She could also strengthen that bridge with her empathy for her husband’s desire to supplement their relationship with another woman.
Bridge building can happen at any time, as long as good boundaries are used to prevent further damage. A person without good boundaries can never empathize or agree with their spouse for fear of pushing their spouse even further towards divorce or an affair.
Empathizing with a man’s attraction to other women only makes sense when accompanied by boundaries that spell out the consequences of cheating.
Although Robin really wanted to reconcile with her husband, it was important that she not make that too easy for him. She needed to require that the relationship be rebuilt and remain stable, as well as the affair ending. Women who reconcile too soon or who don’t require improvement beyond giving up the affair frequently end up with a cold and distant husband who soon cheats again.
The likelihood that a man will cheat a second time depends on how easy it was for him to reconcile the first time. Getting caught in any bad behavior is a bad experience, but doesn’t deter further bad behavior. Only serious consequences can do that.
Reconciling before a relationship is positive and stable is like getting married before a relationship is positive and stable. Growth will stop at that point. Can you imagine a single woman saying, “my boyfriend cheated on me for months, but because he stopped that last week I can now marry him ”?
Reconciling has the same requirements as getting married. Reconciling too quickly carries the same risks as getting married to someone you don’t have a good relationship with.
Robin and I continued to work on attraction skills, connection skills, and appropriate boundaries during the rebuilding period, following the confrontation and her husband ending the affair. Although she still had urges to confront her husband with her residual anger, this decreased as she realized that she also played a role in creating a poor marriage prior to the affair.
She discovered she could be angry without doing damage, by using her anger to have good boundaries rather than expressing it to her husband. It made her feel better as a Christian as well, since the Bible tells us we are to love our spouse and to not seek revenge. She found by not feeding her anger, her relationship improved faster and her desire to hurt her husband for hurting her also decreased over time.
How does Robin’s situation compare to yours?
Robin’s husband had done a terrible thing, but not because he was a terrible man. If he had been, Robin would not have wanted to save their marriage. If your husband is having an affair, you will also need to consider several things:
- Is it a result of a bad marriage or a bad husband?
- did you do anything to contribute to your spouse seeking an affair?
- will you need to rebuild before confronting or is it better to confront immediately?
- what options do you have if your husband refuses to give up his affair or soon returns to it?
- what will be your requirements for reconciling so that you can reduce the chances your husband will cheat again in the future?
- do you have the skills necessary for rebuilding your relationship or do you need to learn them?
My book titled, A Christian Guide to Preventing and Ending Men’s Affairs (without Being Patient or Submissive) will help you to consider each of these questions and help you to make a plan for preventing or ending your husband’s affair. In addition, I offer a coaching package for ending a spouse’s affair so that you can get my help the way that Robin did.
Affairs happen in many different situations. The most effective advice will not be general advice, but advice that takes into account your particular circumstances. For any given situation in life, there are some people who succeed and many who don’t. Learn to do what the successful people do and you can be successful, too.