Handled correctly, discovery of a sexual or emotional affair is a chance for rebuilding your marriage.
Commonly, one partner discovers the other to be having an affair after collecting evidence, or after catching their partner “in the act.” The partner who discovers the affair reacts in a hostile or threatening manner and demands that the unfaithful partner get out. Either that, or the person who discovers the unfaithfulness leaves or breaks off the relationship. But, what about the partner who was caught? Does how they respond make a difference? And, do the circumstances which led to the affair make a difference? The answers to these questions have implications for whether you should try to reconcile and the approach you take if you want to.
Confronting a spouse or significant other who is having an affair can have different kinds of outcomes.
One possibility it that the person who is caught in the act or found out will beg forgiveness. This can then be followed with marriage counseling. This is a good outcome. Both partners will be on the same page in terms of wanting to get past the stress and conflict created by the adultery. Their presence in counseling will help them not only to address the unfaithfulness, but also to work on some of the issues that were present in the marriage or relationship prior to the unfaithful behavior. It is very unusual for there to be no issues in a relationship prior to the affair. The issues may have been hidden, but they were there on both sides.
Is rejecting an unfaithful spouse the best choice?
It is well within the rights of the person making discovering the affair. He or she will then soon be available to seek out a partner who will be more faithful. Although many people would applaud this as a good outcome, I only consider this to be a good outcome if that is what both people really want. There are very many marriages that have not only survived affairs, but gone on to become even stronger. This doesn’t happen overnight. It also does not happen with instant forgiveness or just trying to put it behind you. It takes a lot of work. I would encourage anyone contemplating leaving a cheating spouse to at least explore first the reasons for the affair, and if there is still a basis for love and commitment, to work it through.
The unfaithful spouse may also end the marriage
If this occurs, it is not because of any confrontation by the faithful spouse. It could only be if the unfaithful spouse were already preparing to leave, and in fact, was close to actually doing just that. Your partner may have even not so accidentally let you find out about the affair in the hope that you would break off the relationship. The issue to deal with in this case is not really the affair. It is the issue of your spouse wanting to end your relationship. It will be helpful for you to follow guidelines for preventing divorce. If you get focused on the affair, you will just be giving your spouse more reason or even justification for rejecting you. It will work against you if you are wanting to save the marriage or relationship. Of course, the affair still wouldn’t be acceptable, but the main issue would be the loss of relationship between you and your spouse.
The non-confrontation approach to affairs
Many men and women will actually turn a blind eye to their spouse’s affair. There are many reasons for this, but it never creates a healthy situation. If you are such a person, I recommend you enter counseling and understand what makes your spouse’s behavior acceptable to you, although you probably don’t like it. The answer to that and dealing with that is a bigger issue than the presence of the unfaithful behavior. You will likely need to work on overcoming neediness. There has to have been a tremendous loss of self respect that needs to be rebuilt before you can hope to get respect and love from your spouse. The affair definitely was not your fault–you are never to blame for someone else’s behavior, but earning respect and self-respect is your responsibility. No one else can do it for you.
The most common question I get from my clients is, “What should I do?”
As a marriage and relationship coach, it is not my place to tell people what to do, but I can help them know how to get what they want. So, if you have this question, “What should I do?” I encourage you to first ask yourself,“What is the outcome that I want?” The answer to that will guide you to what you should do. If you want to end your marriage, then you can talk to a lawyer. If you want to save your relationship, then you can either get marriage or relationship coaching with your spouse, or get relationship coaching on your own. But, pay attention here–you can’t work on both at the same time. What I mean by that is that you can’t take out your anger on your spouse at the same time you are trying to rebuild your marriage; and you can’t expect to hold onto your spouse if you are making moves to reject him or her.
“Are you saying that I can’t be angry about my spouse’s affair? I just have to emotionally stuff it and move forward?”
No way. I never encourage people to stuff their feelings. I think if you weren’t angry, it would mean that you didn’t care very much. That would be a bad sign and not a good one. There is a difference though, between being angry and using your anger to get revenge. Revenge damages. We should never, ever, try to hurt someone we love–no matter what he or she has done. We do have to put boundaries in place, and keep ourselves safe. If we can’t stop ourselves from getting revenge on our spouse or partner, then we truly are not the best spouse for him or her. In that case, we need to get help (such as counseling) and let our partner’s move on. Think about it. You might be able to work with a spouse who was angry with you for something you did wrong, but it would be very hard for you to work with a spouse who wants to hurt you. The same is true for your spouse.
“I don’t think I will ever be able to forgive my spouse, even if we work things through. Should we just get divorced then?”
Instead of starting with the problem of whether you will be able to forgive or not, the place to start is with the outcome you want to have. If you really want to have a close relationship with your spouse, you can find a way to forgive (or get help learning how to forgive). But, if you really don’t want to have a close relationship, and just feel you have a duty to stay married, then maybe you will never be able to forgive. You will cling to that lack of forgiveness reason to justify your distance in a marriage you don’t really want to have. This kind of pretending wouldn’t help either you or your spouse. It’s not worth it to stay in a relationship just to make his or her life miserable while you keep your own miserable as well. Learn how to prevent marriage failure and really work on it before deciding your marriage is over.