Facing Infidelity with Courage
Instances of infidelity can take on many different scenarios and occur for varied reasons. However, many affairs seem to take on a common pattern that I’ve watched play out many, many times. It’s a pattern where everyone involved becomes stuck in that “in between” state where two are engaged in a secret affair, emotionally and/or physically absent from their spouse(s) and family(ies), but unwilling to end the marriage, end the affair, and/or repair the marriage. In general, the pattern looks something like this:
1) The marriage deteriorates (more rapidly) as the betrayed spouse becomes more suspicious of the cheating partner’s abnormal behavior and responds to the cheating partner’s withdrawal with increased hurt, anger, and fear (further pushing the cheating partner away).
2) The affair partner grows hurt/angry/frustrated with the cheating partner’s continued indecision to leave the marriage and makes empty threats to “move on” without the cheating partner.
3) The cheating partner feels paralyzed because s/he figures as long as s/he doesn’t make a concrete decision to stay or go, then s/he is avoiding the “real” pain and consequences of any particular path. Therefore, the cheating spouse continues to lie, manipulate, and sneak around, returning to step 1.
The result: No one involved sets a boundary, no one makes a decision to repair or move on, and they all seem to be caught in a horribly painful and traumatizing cycle that I call Purgatory. I’ve seen clients cycle through this stage for months, even years.
The irony, of course, is that this dreadful “in between” stage brings even greater suffering and indelible trauma, than the affair, itself. So why, then, do so many find themselves imprisoned by this painful web of lies, hurt, fear, and betrayal? The quick answer: Sometimes we’d prefer to be consumed by the drama and chaos around us rather than face our poor choices and the harm we have caused others. We tend to lie to ourselves about the motivations behind our actions. Why? Because being honest and owning our shortcomings is freaking tough. The outcome is unpredictable and scary, often shaming.
Hence, the genesis of this article….
This is for those currently engaged in an affair (or other secretive, acting-out behaviors such as porn addiction or regular, inappropriate boundary-crossing with others). The BOLD COMMENTS are things commonly said by those in an affair. Its followed by an "expanded perspective" of the big picture, considering all parties involved. This article is not meant to shame those who have betrayed nor help one decide whether to “stay or go”. It’s meant to create empathy for everyone involved while unraveling the truth, regardless of the consequences.
PLEASE NOTE: IT TAKES GREAT COURAGE TO READ THIS ARTICLE WITH AN OPEN MIND AND ASK FOR HELP. YOU’VE MADE IT THIS FAR. WHY STOP NOW?
Things I’ve heard from those engaged in infidelity/betrayal:
“Our marriage was done before I had an affair. Our marital problems aren’t because of the affair.” Or "I don’t want my spouse to know about the affair because I don’t want him/her to think that this marriage ended because of my affair. It ended because of other things. We have so many problems."
These are the most common statements I hear from those in the throes of an affair. I have yet to hear a client directly admit that their marriage is ending (or struggling) because they have been unfaithful. Granted, affairs are rarely born from a "healthy" marriage (i.e. Honest, healthy communication, boundaries, the absence of passive/direct aggression and unspoken resentments, etc.). In fact, the genesis of most affairs can be drawn back to realizing and fulfilling unknown/repressed needs. Nonetheless, that is NEVER to say that an unhealthy marriage is a green light for someone to have an affair. So in response to the rationalizations on the left, let me ask this: Is your spouse aware that your marriage is over? Did you both discuss it openly and honestly? If so—and you both feel confident that you truly have “irreconcilable differences”—then why wait to get a divorce? No need to carry on with such a charade. If you're certain of the terminal state of your marriage and your affair is separate, then own that you've been having an affair, make amends for anything you'd like to apologize for (hopefully your spouse can do the same), and maybe you can leave the marriage with a clearer conscience and life lessons learned the hard way. The biggest error in these beliefs and rationales is that you may never fully assess whether your marriage or diminished relationship with your partner was ever reparable or salvageable as long as you’re “otherwise engaged” outside the marriage. Any opportunity for growth or repair within the marriage ceased the moment you began to engage yourself emotionally outside of the marriage. It takes two to have marital issues. Always. However, if you divorce while engaged in an affair, the divorce will be BECAUSE of the affair and you may never know if it could have been repaired. If you’re ok with that, than so be it.
"My spouse wouldn’t be able to handle the truth about the affair or me wanting a divorce. S/he is too fragile/wouldn’t know what to do/might go crazy if s/he knew the truth."
This is probably the second most common rationale I've heard from clients when I ask why they haven't divorced their partner and told their partner about the affair. But let's be honest: Despite your attempts to hide your betrayal and out-of-the-ordinary behavior, your partner has instincts and can tell something just isn’t “right”. And that is making him/her sad, confused, scared, and angry. There is no doubt that learning about an affair or having a partner ask for a divorce can be devastating and trigger many powerful feelings (including rage and deep pain). However, statistics and my own experience have shown that once the immediate devastation and hurt settles down after disclosing betrayal, the betrayed partner often feels some level of relief (or at least clarity) to finally confirm one’s reality that something has been “off” and understand the reasons one’s partner has been engaged in odd behavior for the past several months or even years. The truth still hurts, it still devastates a family, but there is a little less trauma involved when one no longer has to go weeks, months, or years with unanswered questions, deeply confusing emotions, and lies/gaslighting due to a loved one trying to keep an affair secret.
“The idea of going back to my marriage makes me die a little inside, like I’d have to give up myself.”
Affairs often emerge from unknown or unmet needs, so these sentiments are understandable. However, I would argue that both spouses have probably lost themselves to some extent at this point. Its common to grapple with one’s identity over time: one’s values, passions, goals, spirituality, and one’s role in a long-term relationship. Mix in kids, jobs, life stressors, years of poor communication, unrealistic expectations, built-up resentments, and you get a heaping pile of entitlement to do “whatever makes me happy” because “I deserve better.” That’s the usual recipe of for an affair….or a divorce…or some intense couples counseling/conversations which might trigger some needed change.
Sometimes a relationship's damage is irreparable. However, that can never be accurately determined while one is currently lying to/betraying their partner. Sometimes, with a good therapist and MUTUAL willingness and effort, partners can repair their hurt, change destructive behaviors, process and heal their resentments, and healthily redefine their relationship. Sometimes…
“I just don’t think my spouse can give me what I need.”
“I just don’t have romantic or passionate feelings for my spouse and I don’t think I ever did.”
“Every time I see my spouse cry I get so turned off. S/he is so sad and I’m so emotionless.”
Almost all of those engaged in affairs have a hard time conjuring up genuine feelings toward their spouse. They may “like” parts of their spouse or family life, but their romantic feelings, compassion for the pain a spouse may be going through, or even “hope” for the marriage are all long gone by the time the affair is in full swing. But its important to explore the following: Do you struggle with connecting to your spouse or his/her emotion (i.e. sadness or hurt) because you’re truly incapable connecting with him/her? OR, is it because you’ve cut yourself off from your spouse as a defensive mechanism because you realize you’re partly to blame for your spouse’s pain? In order to have an affair, one has to build some pretty high walls with their loved ones. One has to cut off the emotions of guilt and shame when lying to or betraying an intimate partner. Combine that with the raw feelings of hurt, confusion, and sadness that a betrayed partner might (ungracefully) convey and that will definitely cause someone having an affair to feel emotionless toward a spouse. That “emotionlessness” can seem even more apparent when you come home after an intensely powerful interaction with your affair.
Sometimes cheating spouses think that when they’re “unemotional” toward their spouse’s pain that’s a sign that they don’t love them anymore and will never love them again. Maybe that’s the truth. Maybe its not. You may never know if the absence of feelings for your partner was instead unspoken resentments or, perhaps, shame from your current, nefarious behavior. THAT is the piece that should be explored.
"I’m just doing this because it feels good.” Or “We’re only having fun.” Or “At least my life isn’t boring now.”
My mentor used to say people who are unhappy in their marriages or bored or requiring more intensity have a lot of choices. They could buy a fast car, go skydiving, travel, join a social club, go through a spiritual journey, or, perhaps, get a divorce. These are all options that do not require you to lie and manipulate your loved ones. In other words, you have lots of choices when confronting a disappointing life or relationship. One makes a purposeful decision to have an affair, namely because one feels entitled to have the affair, despite one’s commitments, promises, and values, or the negative affect it will have on your partner and family.
“The only way I can end this is if I break up with my spouse. I’ve already lied too much, crossed too many boundaries, and did things that are unforgivable. If the roles were switched, I would have wanted me to just leave.”
Maybe. Maybe not. If you’ve determined all of that for your spouse and marriage already, then maybe you should just come clean about it all and see where the chips fall?
Maybe I'm overly optimistic, but I’ve witnessed some pretty heinous acts be owned, honestly conveyed, and forgiven by loved ones. In fact, a popular saying amongst sex addiction therapists is “Your partner is more likely to leave you for the lies you tell than the things you do.” Translation: You’ve been lying. A lot. So stop. Give your spouse some say and “power” in this chaotic cycle. Let him/her determine if your acts have been unforgivable. You're not the only one writing this relationship story.
“I don’t want to hurt him/her.” (the spouse or the affair partner)
As you’ve read in the columns above, the truth is that everyone is already hurting. Damage is currently being done to everyone. That is what happens when there is lying and manipulation between trusted loved ones. Being truthful may not end the pain, but it will end the suffering and allow everyone a better understanding of what’s been going on, what their TRUE choices are now, and the REAL lessons that must learned from all the pain.
“My affair partner is my soulmate. S/he meets my needs in a way my partner was never able to.”
To some extent, those statements may be true as many affairs are born from unknown or unspoken needs. However, an affair is experienced in a vacuum, heightened with intense secrecy, newness, and risk. An affair is spared from the day-to-day monotony and stressors of daily life. In addition to those circumstances, positive feelings for an affair partner may seem greater when compared to a spouse one’s currently resentful toward or angry with. It is common for a cheating spouse to become highly critical of his/her primary partner; pointing out every little thing that has ever annoyed him/her—often its a way of justifying the affair (i.e. “See what a nag she is? This is why I can’t be with my wife. Suzie never nags me. She appreciates me and tells me what a great person I am.”).
Here’s an important thing to consider: As long as you’re lying to your spouse, sneaking around, acting suspicious and disengaged, you are behaving in ways that will make your spouse feel deeply unsafe in the marriage (Everyone has instincts and will sense SOMETHING is off). When someone is in a state of feeling unsafe, s/he is not in his/her true state because they are in fight/flight/freeze survival mode. S/he can feel your emotionlessness and hear your heightened criticism. Often the terror of losing the marriage (and family and security) also puts them in a hyper-aroused state. On the opposite end you have your affair partner, where it is newer, dopamine-driven pleasure that has an intensity due to its forbidden nature. That, along with the absence of monotony and built-up resentments with your spouse make it difficult to fairly compare and assess the desirability of either partners (your spouse and your affair partner). They are both totally different people, dramatically different circumstances, with distorted environments.
“My spouse doesn’t even think there was anything wrong with our marriage. S/he’s not willing to change.”
Denial can run on both ends. Sometimes betrayed spouses can be so terrified of losing the relationship and all that it entails (the emotional safety, the financial security, less custody with the kids, and any other dramatic life changes that come with divorce), that they will convince themselves that “everything in our marriage has been great. What’s the problem? Let’s stay together.” Resentments can be very subconscious. Think about this from the perspective of your spouse: if you felt your spouse and your marriage/family slipping away from you in a confusing and scary way, do you think you’d respond with, “There are so many things about you and our marriage that have made me so angry, so hurt, and so frustrated!” Heck no! That would pretty much be the final nail in the coffin of your marriage, especially when your partner already has half his/her foot and body out the door. Instead, you’d wrap yourself up in a warm blanket of “I’ve always loved you. We have a great marriage. Please don’t leave.” Bottom line: both spouses can become manipulative and untruthful during this crisis. But only courageous, vulnerable honesty can save this dire situation.
"I don't believe in divorce"
But you believe in this way of life? Hiding phone calls and messages? Excuses to get away from your family or distracted even when you are present with your family due to your affair? Lying to loved ones? Making and breaking promises/commitments? Quick to anger? Is this the life you had in mind when you planed a future with your partner, got married, and started a family? Is this the type of person you meant to become? Are you demonstrating characteristics you value and would want others to show toward you?
I could keep going, but you catch my drift.
"Its better for the kids if we just stay together"
Many of my clients—probably not coincidentally--have stories of discovering a parent's unfaithfulness or an implied understanding within the family that one parent cheated on the other. Family betrayal, a traumatic divorce, unhealthy second marriages, or married parents who chronically argued or are disengaged emotionally are all things my clients lament in my office when they’re exploring why they struggle in their own intimate relationships. There's a lot of research on the impact of divorce versus unhappy marriages on children. You’re welcome to hold whatever opinion you want about that. However, I come from the school of thought that children learn how to love, relate, emote, trust, and share with others by watching other people do relationships and by trial and error in their own lives. Their parents’ primary relationship(s) can be the most influential. So please ask yourself if the current dynamic in your home (and outside your home) is the dynamic you would want your children to engage in when they have their own intimate relationships. Because chances are, your kid’s relationships may take on similar traits. There is no “Do as I say, not as I do.” Instead, imagine the potential impact of demonstrating to your child(ren) that you are imperfect but you can still courageously own where you fall short at times, make amends where necessary, and now that you know better, do better. Honesty and accountability are our bravest acts, which is why so few people take that path.
So there you have it. Hopefully that was thought-provoking, informative, and uncomfortable. If any of this material resonated with you, I would encourage you to explore it further with a mental health professional who specializes in infidelity or betrayal trauma. As I’ve said, it is absolutely understandable that a marriage may have truly “run its course” and the best plan for everyone is to move on and heal separately. Some marriages experience hurt and resentments too complex to unravel and repair. However, I also want to make sure that that decision isn’t made with blinders on. Shame, guilt, fear, hurt, defensiveness, and lust can all blind you from the truth.
I wish you the best on your journey.