(5 minute read)
After Your Spouse is Caught Cheating
The discovery of an affair is painful. But learning that your partner is continuing an affair while you are trying to save your marriage is agonizing. There are immense fears around making the wrong decision or sending the wrong message. The turmoil can lead you to feel isolated from friends and family. This article discusses ways of dealing with ongoing infidelity when one partner hopes to save the marriage.
Dealing with Infidelity
No-one expects to tolerate an affair in their marriage. You may have heard well-meaning friends, brimming with confidence, announce what they would do with a cheating spouse. But the truth of the matter is that people are notoriously bad at predicting what they will do in a crisis. And it’s because when one occurs, both the circumstances and our emotional reaction are more complicated than we ever imagined.
Treating Infidelity like a Traumatic Event
Infidelity resembles trauma in many ways. So, it can be helpful to apply what we know about good and bad responses to traumatic events. The healthiest way to deal with a crisis of this nature is to act on what you currently know, accept there are things you will later learn, practice self-care, and regularly review whether you need to change course. In contrast, overwhelming emotions, indecision, inaction, and insistence on certainty tend to lead to problems. With that in mind, let us turn now, and discuss actions that favor your well-being.
Tell Your Unfaithful Partner You Know They Are Having an Affair
It is essential to bring the affair out into the open. Colluding with secrecy in the hope it will end by itself is never a good idea. State in a matter-of-fact manner that you know they are having an affair. State that neither of you can work on your marriage while they are involved with someone else. Assert your unwillingness to accept an affair in your marriage and tell your partner to take steps to resolve this situation. It’s usually best not to make any huge demands, as it risks setting the stage for further dishonesty.
Three Immediate Responses to Infidelity and How to Handle Them
Some partners show little to no remorse or guilt when found to be unfaithful. A sense of entitlement or disregard for you can be a sign of an emotionally abusive relationship. Others might deny any wrongdoing and become more secretive. These kinds of responses suggest the marriage is facing other complex problems in addition to infidelity.
Some partners advocate an ‘open relationship’ when caught cheating. You may feel tempted to go along out of fear of being alone, or perhaps seeing yourself as too conservative. But negotiating an open relationship after infidelity has occurred is not the same as discussing it at the beginning of a relationship. The issue at hand is one of deceit, not the number of partners. Some people in open relationships still break the rules because their problem is with honesty, not monogamy.
By far, the more common response is an unfaithful partner who is unsure which relationship to let go. They do not want to end the affair because they find it gratifying. And they don’t want to let go of their marriage and family because it too is rewarding. So, they hang on to both relationships until making a decision is necessary. Therefore, you need a strategy that makes it necessary.
A Strategic Response Will Save Your Marriage
It is not advisable to corner your spouse into making a rash decision. They may impulsively pick the affair partner as a way of escaping their problems. Or, they might opt to move out ‘to get some space’, and to reduce tension. Physical distance often ends up propelling couples more toward separation than meaningful engagement. Instead, restate your unwillingness to accept an affair in your marriage and direct them to work towards making a decision. Understand that it can be difficult for your partner to give up a gratifying relationship on which they have come to depend. Enforce safe boundaries, but do not give ultimatums that you will not carry out. Try not to punish your partner with silence, anger, or other vindictive behavior as this may well lead them to see the marriage as irreparable.
According to infidelity expert and best-selling author Michelle Weiner-Davis, most affairs die out after passing through a series of stages. When out in the open, an affair loses any excitement afforded by secrecy. Unfaithful partners may then start to ask themselves if they are ready to lose their family. Thoughts turn to the impact on family members, the financial costs of divorce, what it might feel like to tell friends and family, and how well this new person will integrate with their life. When this happens, the costs of the affair start to outweigh its pleasure.
Getting Your Partner to Break off the Affair
If your partner is attached to their affair or finds it fun or comforting, then breaking it off won’t be easy for them. Demanding or expecting an immediate end can be unrealistic and set you up for further deception rather than set the stage for honesty. You are unlikely to get lasting peace of mind from demanding a phone call in your presence to end the affair.
Instead, try and engage your partner in a calm, serious conversation that focuses on the facts. One such conversation could be to ask about the affair itself. Avoid attempts to persuade your partner to act differently. Acknowledge that it is difficult for them to give up the affair, but that continuing is a clear violation of their promise to your marriage. Though an obvious point, it highlights the negative impact of an affair. Explain that it creates a barrier between the two of you and makes addressing marital and personal problems more difficult.
Even when a married person is having an affair, there are still boundaries to consider. You can lessen the likelihood of further deceit by making boundaries sensible and getting your partner’s buy-in. They should include rules around where they talk to the affair partner (e.g. only at a busy work lunchroom), limits on time and money spent, the frequency of phone calls and where these take place, and whether your children have contact or knowledge. Do not allow battered self-esteem compel you to agree to arrangements you find abusive or grossly unfair. And finally, in the interests of encouraging honesty, agree that any breach of these rules is disclosed promptly and received without hostility.
If you pursue therapeutic separation, ensure it is helpful to you both, and not simply convenient for the unfaithful spouse. Keep in mind that by default, when living separately, most couples eventually separate. Discuss a plan for sharing domestic responsibilities, parenting obligations, finances, outside relationships, and review it weekly. You and your partner must meet regularly to discuss what you are doing to work on reaching a decision about your relationship.
A time-line for making decision
It is helpful to deal with this crisis in terms of both short-term goals and long-term goals. Short-term goals would be to make some decisions or implement specific actions. For example, agreeing to a day of the week to discuss boundaries, to cease all in-person meetings with the affair partner, to withdraw from paying the affair partners bills, to schedule an appointment with a therapist, or for you to make an initial appointment with a divorce attorney. These can be accomplished without reaching a resolution on the long-term goal, which would be to make a decision about the marriage. Having short-term goals will give you something with which to gauge progress and help you feel more in control of the situation.
Just remember to review your situation regularly and make any necessary adjustments. Everyone differs in what they can tolerate. A partner who gives their unfaithful spouse three weeks to make a decision might find it intolerable after three days.
All too often, couples get stuck in a place of permanent indecision. This is where neither partner is taking steps to let go of either the marriage or affair. Countless scenarios can explain this, originating in either one of you or the dynamics of the relationship. If you find that despite taking appropriate action, your partner is unwilling to make any decisions, they may greatly benefit from discussing their perspective with a therapist. A counselor would not impose any judgment but help them process and explore their position. Likewise, if you are finding it impossible to make decisions yourself, seek help. Sometimes, taking action toward separation, however undesirable, may be necessary to break the deadlock.
It is vital to take a break from your troubles and spend time taking care of yourself. At times it may feel like the fate of your family rests on you holding it together. It is okay to feel sad, angry and lost. Instead of burying your feelings, find a healthy outlet for them. Spend time with activities that bring you joy, connection, and self-worth. Look at what is going well in your life and appreciate those things. Remember that their affair was a choice your partner made and not a comment about you. Choosing to look after ourselves is empowering. Blame renders us powerless. Learning to live and love after a betrayal is a subject explored more thoroughly by Dr. Steven Stosny.
Keeping Your Options Open
Ending a long-term relationship affected by infidelity enables you to detach from a partner who hurt you deeply. It may salvage your self-esteem, give a sense of control, and allow you to forgo the painful work of rebuilding. And in some cases, it is the right decision. But by choosing to work on your relationship, at least for now, you get an opportunity to confront the affair and retain the option of separating if things don’t work out.