When your spouse is having an affair, your world becomes a confusing, scary place full of hurt, shame, and anger. You will wonder why this has happened and what action(s) to take.
“Love is understood, in a historical way, as one of the great human vocations – but its counterspell has always been infidelity. This terrible, terrible betrayal that can tear apart not only another person, not only oneself, but whole families.” – Junot Diaz
What Should I Do When My Spouse Is Having An Affair?
I concluded my previous article with the question, “What Should I Do When My Spouse Is Having An Affair?” This might be the question most often asked on the forums at Marriage Advocates, and I fear that it says something more about the world we live in than most couples consider when tying the knot.
I believe it says that the biggest reason people are online looking for marriage advice might very well be that they just discovered that their spouse has been having an affair. That it is the question people ask more than any other might make one wonder if there are any faithful marriage partners left in this world. I can assure that there are, but not many spouses of a faithful wife or husband search online in the middle of the night for help solving a crisis that threatens all they once believed was real.
What is your goal?
The question of what to do when you learn your spouse is having an affair will have a different answer at different times and under different circumstances. What you should do in your specific situation might be a lot different from what someone else should consider doing, but in most cases, it starts by deciding what you really want to take place, and why you want the answer. If you have decided to divorce quietly, move to another country (or planet) and just forget the whole ordeal, what you should probably do to make that happen smoothly will be a lot different than if you really want to know if you’re likely to still be married to the same partner 10, 20 or more years from now. As a guess, you aren’t online looking for advice that supports that choice, since that path seems pretty clear for most people, once chosen.
Assuming that what you are really looking for is advice to help your marriage survive, let me make a few suggestions about what you can actually do. Some of those suggestions aren’t as much a matter of what you should do as things you should probably avoid doing. I’ll give you some things to think about doing in a minute, but I’d like you to think about the decision to try to save your marriage first. You don’t have to decide right now; that is really my first bit of advice to you.
Marital unfaithfulness might be one of the most emotionally demanding and hurtful things anyone will ever experience. In places like this one we have had debates about what sort of emotional pain ranks above and below other sorts of pain and whether infidelity causes more pain than the death of a loved one or is somehow less painful. I’ve never been sure that those kinds of comparisons mean all that much, any more than losing a leg in an explosion or getting run over by a locomotive limits your options for significant pain and trauma. Whether you ever experience anything more painful than discovering that your spouse is cheating or if this is the most painful event you’ll ever have doesn’t really matter much. I would not pray that my enemies experience that sort of pain. Pain is painful, whatever the cause and the suddenness or severity of an injury, how long it might take to heal, or other ratings of horrible experiences in an effort to make the experience somehow less horrible can never make it hurt any less.
Whenever we experience something so traumatic, our response is greatly influenced by our emotions. That can lead to trouble for our life’s outcomes because our emotions are fickle, and not much of a standard to make judgments by. Most therapists and others who help people get through traumatic times and events agree that while in the middle of emotional turmoil you should avoid making choices and decisions that will change the course of your life significantly, at least for a period of time. This helps you make sure you weigh factors more stable than emotional reactions alone.
You don’t have to make a decision about your marriage in the next 5 minutes!
Unless you got married last weekend (or this morning), your marriage didn’t get to this place in a day or a week. Except for a one-night stand, or a sexual liaison with someone your spouse met and had sex with after getting drunk while out of town on business (and is less likely to see again than they are to see a living dinosaur), most affairs don’t happen so suddenly. They build up gradually, like any relationship between two people. It is because you found out so suddenly that it seems to be a single catastrophic event. Once you have gotten your emotions under control and had some time to analyze what happened, you will end up questioning many events and things that happened weeks or months before you found out about the affair. In the end, that might be the biggest challenge you will face in trying to salvage a marriage with a spouse who has cheated. Because you have no frame of reference for the affair as it relates to the actual timeline of your life, you will find connection and meaning in the most mundane and unusual events over the course of your life. If you are like most people, you will at times even question if what you have memory of is real.
Which brings me to the next question:
Has our whole marriage been a lie?
If this is one of your questions, your spouse probably told you that your marriage has been long dead and all that remains is the disposal of something no longer of value to anyone.
I’d like to share a few of the things those who have been through this before you were told by their spouses when confronted about an affair.
- I love you, but I’m not IN LOVE with you. (This is so common that it warrants its own abbreviation – ILYBINILWY.)
- I haven’t been happy in months/for years/ever.
- I haven’t loved you in a long time.
- I never really loved you.
- We got married too young/too soon/too late/too early/for the wrong reasons/without knowing each other/almost by accident.
The list could go on and on…
Let me ask you a question about all of this. You just found that the person you trusted more than anyone else in life has been lying to you about where he has been, who she has been with, why you came home to an empty house after work tonight and why the kids have had to find their own source of help with their homework for the last month or more. Are you suggesting that suddenly, when confronted, he or she is instantly telling you only the whole truth? Maybe he or she told you when first confronted that this other person was “just a friend.” Do you believe that to be true? If you did, you probably wouldn’t be reading this now.
I am not telling you that your spouse doesn’t actually believe all those things. I just want you to realize that those are some of those emotional-reaction kinds of things that affect the way we see ourselves and those around us, and convince us of what the truth must be. Why this might happen is something I will perhaps post about in the future.
For now, you just need to know that you can at least discount many of those comments without having them weigh heavily on your decision to try to save your marriage.
Ten things to do (and not do) if your spouse is having an affair:
- Don’t make major decisions about your marriage (or moving to another country or another planet) until you get your own emotional responses under control.
- Do take things one day at a time. You never really knew what the future held anyway, so don’t expect to know what next year will bring during the turmoil you are experiencing today.
- Do take care of yourself intentionally. This event or series of events can affect your sleep (too much or too little) and might make you eat too much, or lead you to forget to eat at all. If you fall apart during this time, doing much of anything is going to get a lot harder, whether you choose a divorce or to work on your marriage to resurrect it.
- Do take care of the parts of your life that you still have! If you forget about your kids, you might lose them as well as your spouse in a divorce. If you lose your home because you forgot to make the payment, your life will get a lot more difficult.
- Do educate yourself. Read a book about infidelity and surviving an affair or recovering from one. Find resources online that will benefit you in coping with the affair. Marriage Advocates can help you find many such opportunities to learn what will help you in the long run. Just be sure you avoid trying to educate your spouse by badgering and teaching them all you learn.
- Do find ways to deal with the emotional roller coaster you find yourself riding. Start working out, running or just taking walks. Take a class at the community college or clean out the garage. Plant a garden or finish that project you have been putting off for so long. Join our forum or one like it and vent your anger to folks who understand what you are going through. Avoid letting your anger make your spouse’s life so miserable that he or she will want only to get way from you.
- Don’t be afraid to seek help in coping if you begin to feel hopeless! The rate of suicide and spousal homicide goes up radically during an affair. Find someone to talk to who can help you cope, and see your physician to see if medication can help you get through this.
- Do realize that feelings are not right or wrong, they just are! What you are feeling is perfectly normal. If you feel like you want to walk away and never see your spouse again, that is a normal reaction. If five minutes from now you feel like you are willing to sacrifice anything for another chance to be together, that too is normal. Your feelings will change more rapidly than the weather in Minnesota in March.
- Do know your rights! Talk to a lawyer, even if you hope to save your marriage. Knowing what to expect should this end in divorce can help you decide what you are willing to invest. Preventing your life’s savings from being spent on a trip to Cancun for your spouse and the interloper might be far from your worries right now, but might matter a great deal ten years from now, whatever happens to your marriage.
- Do make a plan. For some that means writing down your goals and steps you can take to reach them. It could be as simple as following the advice of someone who deals with this kind of thing all the time. It might involve taking a look at what you need to do in order to make yourself someone your spouse will want to spend his or her life with. The forums on Marriage Advocates can assist you in finding a plan or developing your own.
I might add one more thing to consider:
We’re here to help!
Whether you decide to start over with someone else, or want to try to save your marriage, Marriage Advocates wants to help you reach your goals. We offer no guarantees and won’t tell you that 75% of couples who follow some plan that costs thousands of dollars live happily ever after, or that reading a bunch of books and learning to sacrifice your own happiness will get you back a spouse who seems destined to run off with someone else.
Many of the people at Marriage Advocates have had the same experience you find yourself involved in right this minute. Some were able to restore their marriages while others survived the pain of infidelity and have gained new insights that can help them in a new relationship.
Everything we do here is free of charge. We don’t sell books and don’t have a paid staff of counselors or coaches who will send you a bill or take your credit card number before offering advice. We won’t sign you up for a weekend seminar in Costa Del Mar or a six-week course in learning to accept the reality of your life. Some of our members might know about such programs. We don’t have any of those things here. What we have is the combined experience of a group of people who have dealt with marital problems that range from minute to monumental and can offer advice on what worked and what did not work for them.