At some point after the discovery of infidelity, you will likely face the gut-wrenching task of asking your partner about their affair. But what should you ask? And how do you know if your questions are helpful to both you and your relationship? Asking the wrong questions can aggravate what can already feel like a traumatic experience.
Choosing the Right Questions to Ask an Unfaithful Spouse
Recovering from infidelity involves passing through a series of stages. The questions you need to focus on should match your stage of recovery. In the very beginning, it’s best to only ask about the facts of what happened. Allow this settle before moving on to the middle stage of recovery that involves learning about why it happened. The discussions you hold during these two stages provide the information you need to make decisions in the final stages of recovery about the future of your relationship. This article will focus on asking the right questions at the very beginning – that is in this first stage of recovery.
Preparing Yourself to Find Out About an Affair
At this stage, your task is to create a safe atmosphere. One that will maximize the likelihood that your partner will be forthcoming and honest. Setting the right tone will help you both move towards clarity and truth about what happened. Moreover, it will reduce the chances of denial, silence, despair or hostility.
While it might be difficult, refrain from anger or abusive insults when learning something new about the affair. If this becomes too difficult, seek the guidance of a therapist experienced in this process. Try not to come across as an interrogator. Listen and write down questions that pop into your mind instead of interrupting and questioning contradictions. Your partner, despite their misdeeds, is likely also struggling. Verbalizing your appreciation for their honesty will help you get the facts you need.
You must balance openness to new information with a healthy degree of skepticism. Your partner may need time to prepare themselves to respond to everything you ask about their affair. Also, you may have come to premature conclusions about what happened. This can lead to difficulty believing information that differs from what you already think to be true.
Heightened levels of anxiety can make it difficult to remember what we have heard. You and your partner may need to repeat parts of this process in the weeks ahead.
Confronting Your Unfaithful Spouse
Your motive should be to learn what has happened so that you can decide what immediate measures to take. They should not be to humiliate, justify actions of revenge or mistreatment, shift blame from your misdeeds, or to expose or control your partner.
It is advisable not to ambush your partner with an interrogation. Any such conversation on a topic as difficult as this will require some mental preparation. So let your partner know ahead of time that you will both be having a serious discussion about the affair.
Try and cover as many questions as you can in one sitting. Prolonging a disclosure over weeks and months can lead to retraumatization. The unfaithful partner can help by preparing themselves for disclosure.
Ensure that you both have privacy and will not be disturbed by phones or people, especially children.
Creating a Safe Environment to Ask About Infidelity
You should only approach a conversation about infidelity if it is safe to do so. If you or your partner have a history of aggression, then the conversation is best conducted in the presence of a professional when everyone agrees it is safe to proceed.
You should both know how to monitor your anger or anxiety and recognize when the conversation is getting too tense. Agree beforehand that either of you can signal a need to pause the conversation, by providing an agreed-upon signal. For example, you could agree to say, “This is an important conversation, but I’m feeling too upset. I need a break.” You will have many more conversations in the weeks ahead, and they need to be constructive and focused.
Finally, this conversation must take place when neither is under the influence of drugs or alcohol.
A Simple Guide for Questions
Questions should seek answers about what happened without providing visual images.
Questions are not helpful when they invite comparisons between yourself and the other person.
Stay narrowly focused on the affair. Refrain from discussing past resentments or any other marital issues.
Helpful Questions to Ask
- Where and when did you first meet?
- When did you realize you were feeling emotionally close? (If this was the case)
- How often and at what kind of places did you get together? (Don’t ask for specific names of places, but do ask for types of place e.g. coffee shop, work event)
- When did things become sexual? (If it was sexual)
- How often did you engage in sexual activity?
- Did you engage in oral or penetrative sex? (It is important to know what sex acts took place without seeking descriptions)
- Did you use any protection from STD’s? (Around two-thirds of people do not use protection when unfaithful. Follow this link for a guide to selecting the right At-Home STD test.)
- How often did you talk, text and email?
- How much money have you spent on the affair?
- Has this affair ended? If so, when and how did it end? If not, do you intend to end it? (You may wish to learn about therapeutic separation if the affair is ongoing.)
- Is there any likelihood of running in to this person again? If so, (e.g. it’s a work colleague) how will you handle this?
- Who else knows about this relationship? (It is important to know who may have been unfairly put in the position of keeping this secret.)
- Is this someone I know or have met?
Unhelpful Questions You Should Avoid
Questions that seek specific details are not advisable. The reason is that they add little to your understanding of what happened. Instead, they can burn vivid impressions into your mind that are hard to forget. For example, learning the exact name of the chain hotel your partner visited can trigger painful memories years later when you pass a hotel of the same name. Similarly, you might experience anxiety seeing the exact make and model of a car the affair partner owned. Specific details often only serve to aggravate trauma-like symptoms.
Seeking Help When Needed
Recovering from infidelity is one of the most painful and difficult processes a person can go through. There is no quick and easy way through this. However, many couples use the pain of infidelity to transform their relationship into one that is stronger and more intimate than before. Seeking help from a marriage counselor or infidelity specialist can help you navigate these challenging waters.
Some of the questions above are paraphrased from the text by Baucom, D.H., Snyder, D.K., & Gordon, K.C. (2011). Helping Couples Get Past the Affair. New York. The Guilford Press.