I had the privilege and honor of interviewing a couple that was able to heal and reconcile after the husband disclosed many years of lies and betrayal (Let’s call the couple Jack and Diane). While I’m passionate about all aspects of the betrayal work I do, I particularly enjoy frankly discussing—in retrospect—the choices made, the way challenges were faced and managed, and the thoughts and emotions that were grappled with during a marital crisis. I find couples’ perspectives and attitudes change DRAMATICALLY once they’re out of the trenches of their crisis and have some distance from the discovery and ensuing chaos. In this couple’s case, it’s been two and half years since the s*&t hit the fan, so to speak.
The Discovery of Infidelity
The betrayal was several one-night-stands with anonymous women over several years, culminated by a long-term affair where the husband was ready to leave the marriage for the other woman (a friend and neighbor). In an effort to push his wife away one final time, Jack came clean to her about every transgression, all at once, and added, “I don’t love you and I don’t want to be married to you.” Diane was devastated by the disclosure but felt like they should try to salvage the marriage, especially for the sake of their two young children. She told Jack that, despite his many transgressions, she was still willing to dig into what happened to their relationship, explore where the breakdowns occurred, and support his efforts to change while promising to change herself. To clarify, she did not take responsibility for her husband’s betrayal nor excuse it. She only stated a willingness to stick it out and see if the relationship was salvageable now that it was no longer drenched in deceit and facades.
Jack was surprised by her response and spent over two months in the state of “purgatory”, unsure where to go with his affair partner or what to do with his marriage. Regardless, he committed to weekly individual counseling. In therapy, Jack wrestled with the absence of feelings for his wife and intense feelings for his affair partner. He grappled with the guilt and the pain he caused with his betrayals. He questioned if he ever loved his wife and what love even means. He had a long list of criticisms and resentments toward her. He felt stuck. He was deeply uncomfortable. Still, he kept coming back each week to face these challenges and explore the honest, real consequences of his decisions. He did this at home with his wife, too, and his affair partner. It was all out in the open. Diane sought her own therapy and set up boundaries while Jack went through his process.
The Work to Repair
After a period of individual therapy, Jack realized that he didn’t want to lose his family for a woman that he slowly realized wasn’t what he originally thought she would be for him. He wondered how much of all of this chaos came from his personal struggles versus the actual marital challenges. While he felt overwhelming guilt for the harm he caused his wife, he felt emotionless toward her beyond that. He also grieved the loss of his affair partner who’d become a close friend and confidant. When he entered couples therapy with his wife, Jack tried to “stick it out” and be present and open in couples counseling. He gave the relationship his full, honest effort, hoping that “something” would happen in him and in the relationship. “Something” did happen nearly a year into the work: A new, enhanced level of intimacy with his wife and, most importantly, an improved relationship with himself.
Fast Forward Two and a Half Years
Jack and Diane sat closely together on the couch and smiled while we said our hellos and began the interview. His arm rested over her shoulders as she leaned into him. Her hand rubbed his leg. I instantly noticed their relaxed demeanor and was struck by their willingness and openness to share the story about the darkest time in their lives. However, today, it is a very different story.
When I speak to partners who have healed and reconciled after betrayal its common for neither to regret walking through the crisis. “While I’m sorry I hurt her, I don’t regret what happened because it changed our lives for the better,” said Jack. Diane nodded in agreement and added, “We were so unhappy for most of our marriage and never fully realized it until the affair.” They owned that their marriage continues to be imperfect, but they are both much happier, individually and as a couple.
What Catalyzed the Affair?
“There was so much resentment from so far back,” Jack said, “It was a vicious cycle where I would resent her for something she said or did, she would sense my anger and resentment and push me away even further, so I would feel justified to keep even more distance from her, getting angrier in the process. It would just keep piling up. I would use the random one-night stands to feel good about myself and to feel wanted. It had nothing to do with the women. I would also use alcohol or I would suddenly obsess over my physique and fitness routine for a while.” Jack realized how his father's abandonment tied into his low self-worth and anger issues. He also identified how he would look to women for validation and worth while growing up, leading him to be devastated when he was dumped. He tried to "protect" himself from feeling vulnerable in relationships by abusing substances, distracting himself with his career, and using women for anonymous sex. Lies and secrets fueled the shame of his actions, perpetuating his destructive behavior.
Fortunately, the vicious cycle stopped. “Its amazing how things change naturally,” he said of his time in therapy, ”Once I started liking myself, being honest, working on improving myself, things started falling in place. Suddenly, I didn’t want to drink anymore. The memory of the woman quickly faded away. I didn’t need those things anymore.” Diane admitted, “We still struggle. We’re imperfect. But then I remember how hard I used to work to maintain a façade of perfection. Now, with everyone knowing our ‘dirty laundry’, it feels good to not pretend to be perfect anymore.”
I asked Diane how one might help betrayed partners like her who come into therapy so hurt, so distraught, and often fragile. “From the moment I showed up for counseling, there was no coddling,” Diane responded, “and I’m happy about that. It was ‘Ok, Diane, whether or not you’re able to stay in this marriage, let’s figure out what’s been going on, what you have control over, what changes you need to make.’” Diane knew Jack’s infidelity was not her fault, though she admitted she blamed herself for a long time. “Still, I had to take a really painful step back and see how much I had my identity wrapped around my children and being a ‘perfect mom’. I was never willing to be away from the kids and I definitely didn’t want to give my time and attention to my husband because I didn’t like him. In fact I gave my time and energy to anyone and everyone except to him. I didn’t realize it at the time but I really hated him. He was such a dick.”
So then, why didn’t Diane just talk to Jack about her hurt and anger toward him? Or better yet, why didn’t Jack discuss his resentment with her? They both agreed that they were never fully aware how they felt until the crisis happened. Diane added, “and we had zero communication.” “Plus,” Jack confessed, “I would run away. I don’t do that anymore.” And then there’s the mindfulness aspect that they’ve learned to incorporate into their new relationship. “We can feel it now when there’s the built-up anger or tension between us. I feel that ‘F#*k you’ kind of thing,” said Jack. Diane laughed in agreement, “Yes, that’s when we know its time to get a sitter and spend some time together talking and connecting with each other.”
And What About Trust?
“I didn’t trust myself at first,” Jack admitted. “I had to travel a lot for work and I didn’t want to go to a restaurant and eat alone. I was afraid of putting myself in the wrong situation.” Diane added, “Yeah, I struggled with it, too. I would lie to him and say I wasn’t tired and I wanted him to call me whenever he got to the hotel, no matter how late. I lost a lot of sleep back then.” Now, they admit, they have no issues with trust. “I can go to sleep without hearing from him and I’m ok,” said Diane. Jack shared, “I have an understanding of why I did what I did back then and I know I don’t struggle with those issues anymore. I like myself and I love my wife and family.” How long did this trust-building process take, I asked. “At least a year. Maybe longer,” they both agreed. It was an extremely rough and painful year for them.
One thing became crystal clear for Jack during his process: Secrets and lies will only destroy a person’s self-worth and cannot exist in a successful marriage. “Trust is honesty,” Jack said while Diane nodded in agreement. “No more little white lies even, which is something I used to justify doing all the time.”
Another potential obstacle to their healing and repair work was the added stressors of how to deal with the gossiping community and how to manage Diane’s very large, enmeshed, and, now, angry family. “I had to learn to put my marriage first. Boundaries had to be established. We had to make changes with how we did everything, including how I interacted with my family.”
What was the hardest part of the whole discovery, crisis, and recovery, I asked. “All of it,” Diane quickly answered. “Every bit of it was so hard, I can’t think of one thing that stands out as being harder than any other thing.” But it was worth it, they both agreed. While it was difficult to endure so much pain, they are grateful it catalyzed such a significant, positive change in both of them and their relationship. Plus, both agreed that their children are much better off with them remaining together and they’ve enjoyed watching their children benefit from the improvement of their marriage.
And what was the most difficult thing for Jack? “Liking myself,” He answered without hesitation. “I had to learn to like myself for the first time in my life. Once that happened, everything fell into place.”
What Would You Say to Others in the Midst of a Crisis Like Yours?
What if someone is focused on blaming a spouse for their marital woes? Perhaps a spouse doesn’t want to have sex anymore? Or maybe one feels s/he’s “tried everything” to fix the problems in the marriage and nothing has worked. Then what, I ask? Diane responded quickly, “I’d challenge that person to explore why they think their wife doesn’t want to have sex with him. Maybe she’s pissed with the way he’s been treating her. Maybe she can feel that he’s already left the marriage and isn’t acting in their best interest. Maybe she can feel he’s become emotionlessness. I didn’t want to have sex with my husband because I hated him. Now I love having sex with him.” Jack added, “And this probably makes me sound like a girl, but I’m not interested in having sex with Diane unless we can also connect. I would use other women for just the sex before. Sex without the connection seems cheap and meaningless now.”
So what kind of rationalizations would you tell yourself during the affair, I asked Jack. “I thought that she couldn’t change. That’s why I was so reluctant to come back,” Jack confessed. “But I would challenge anyone in that state of mind to really explore if they’ve given her or the marriage a full chance. I was telling myself I had. But in retrospect, I constantly had my head and heart outside the marriage.”
He added, “I remember I didn’t want to fully re-engage in the marriage because I didn’t want to give her a false hope that the marriage was salvageable just in case I decide its not salvageable. But the truth was, it was going to be painful and harmful for her no matter if I quit that day or in six months from then. It all sucks and it’s all painful at that point.”
They both stressed that the healing process takes time and patience. Jack adds, “I would tell myself, ‘What’s the worse that could happen?’ You give your all to the repair and if no feelings return then you leave with a clearer conscience. Your affair relationship would probably have never worked out anyway.”
My final question to the couple was the following: What happens to your perspective on love, marriage, and your partner once you realize how flawed and vulnerable your partner and your marriage really is? Jack thought pensively and explained, “Marriage before all of this was two people living their lives individually with jobs and kids. Almost like two people traded off and sacrificed in order to make sure things get done while maintaining a perfect exterior. Marriage to me now is trust, honesty, and togetherness.” Diane’s answer focused on love and her partner, “I feel love is different now, it’s more complete, there is now a physical, mental, emotional, and social component to it. Its funny how you can go from fake perfect in everyone’s eyes and not be happy to truly being happy when everyone now sees your marriage as ‘tainted’. We can’t erase what happened or dwell on the past but we have to remember how we got there and use that information to prevent us from repeating those mistakes.”