By Liz Currin, Ph.D.
Reactions to a spouse's infidelity vary considerably, from anger, rage, anxiety, depression, or some mix of all of these. Some individuals may even experience a paradoxical sense of relief. Their mounting suspicions that a partner was having an affair may have caused them at times to wonder if they were paranoid or even "going crazy". At least now they know for sure. Others may react to the news with a form of denial. "This can't be happening to us." "If I ignore this mess, perhaps it's not real." But, in the long run, it's difficult to ignore the reality of betrayal. Couples affected by the pain of infidelity will eventually cope with it in one form or another, even if it's only to decide not to actively cope with it.
Both the betrayed spouse and the one who engaged in the infidelity are likely to have many questions after the affair comes to light. Some of these relate to the day-to-day running of a household and raising children. Others relate to how spouses are to interact and talk with each other. Still others have to do with financial and legal matters. Finally, perhaps the most difficult questions focus on understanding the affair, as well as the future of the marriage. What follows is a look at some of the questions that may be most pressing immediately upon revelation of an affair.
1. Is it OK to talk about it? Absolutely, but with certain guidelines and constraints in mind. The betrayed partner's mind is likely to be roiling with questions as to what happened, with whom, when and how often, whether the affair is still going on, and how the unfaithful spouse could possibly have done what he or she did. Perhaps the question that haunts the betrayed spouse most is "why"? But, as critical as it is to eventually address this question, the spouse who had the affair may not yet have sufficient clarity to begin to adequately answer it.
While the news of the affair is still so raw, it's generally best to deal with the most basic categories of information, such as whether the affair has ended, when it began, and with whom, although it may not always be prudent to disclose the actual identity of the partner. For instance, if you think your partner might become violent or assaultive upon learning the identity of the affair partner, it may be wiser to refrain from naming him or her immediately.
Some betrayed spouses become obsessed with learning every detail of the affair. Every time their partner met with the lover, where they met, sexual acts they engaged in, what they talked about can become all-consuming. Individuals differ in their need for information and their tolerance for knowing specifics. While some information of this sort may need to be conveyed (e.g., "Did you go to see her when you said you had to run in to the office on Thanksgiving morning?"), knowing the details of each and every rendezvous may do more harm than good. Once you know something, you can't "unknow" it. Insisting that a spouse share highly detailed information about what he did with an affair partner may very well translate into images that will haunt you for a very long time.
2. What does the betrayed partner have a right to demand? Individuals and couples differ in this regard, too, but it's very common for the one who's betrayed to need a great deal of detailed information about his spouse's activities and expenses in the near future. For example, a wife may request to see her husband's phone log, text messages, emails, as well as receipts for all expenses and purchases. A husband may feel entitled to insist that his wife not travel out of town on business or work late nights at the office. A spouse may request that the partner who had the affair stop going to the gym where the affair began. Again, couples differ in how they will handle this time during which some level of security needs to be restored. While a new level of transparency in one's activities may be in order in a relationship going forward, it may not be realistic or desirable to maintain such an intense level of scrutiny over time.
3. "My spouse had the affair. Does he/she have any rights?" Of course. The partner who had the affair owes the betrayed spouse information about the affair, an understanding of the circumstances leading up to the affair, accountability for how time and money are spent, as well as people with whom he is interacting, and a commitment to actively participating in the rebuilding of the marriage (if both parties desire that). But the partner who violated the marriage still has a right to physical safety. If conversations about the affair threaten to become violent, both parties are free to end them, with a promise to return to the topic when emotions are less volatile. And, while this may be difficult for both partners to acknowledge initially, the spouse who had the affair is entitled to his or her feelings. He may experience an entire cauldron of emotions, including guilt, shame, remorse, as well as a sense of loss about the positive aspects of the affair. He may miss the exhilaration of clandestine meetings, as well as the feeling of being appreciated, the comfort, as well as the escape from the responsibilities of home and family, that often accompany an affair.
4. Should we live apart? Probably not, if you think you want to work on restoring the relationship. The exception to this guideline is when the risk of one or both of you becoming violent is significant. While you may have to make major alterations in your daily routines and schedules, it is much more difficult to begin working on the relationship and building a foundation of trust if you are rarely together. Living apart also increases the risk of continued contact with the affair partner. Discovery of an affair is often accompanied by depression and anxiety in both spouses, and, in a moment when these emotions may feel overwhelming, it may be tempting to turn to the affair partner for comfort.
5. How do we deal with our children? Well, this one gets complicated. It depends on a number of factors, including whether you plan to try to preserve the marriage, as well as the developmental levels of the children. If neither of you desires to work on the relationship, then you're essentially planning for divorce. In this case, you present the situation to your children essentially as you would if you knew the marriage were over (more on this in another article). However, if you're inclined to try to salvage the marriage, you may position it more as differences that Mom and Dad are working very hard to iron out.
The ages and developmental status of your children are critical here, too. Very young children can't begin to comprehend the complexities of adult relationships, betrayal, and the difficult task of building a new, more substantial marriage. The older the children, the more capable they are of grasping concepts of promise and betrayal, loyalty, remorse, reparation, and forgiveness. And, as children enter adulthood and establish committed, intimate relationships of their own, the greater their capacity for empathizing with their parents struggles.
6. Finally, many couples wonder whether they should seek professional help or if they should "tough it out" on their own. Competent therapy involves an investment of time, money, and emotional energy. But considering what's at stake, that might be a very small price to pay. After all, when there's been an affair, serious trauma has been inflicted on your relationship. If you've been in an auto accident, there's no question that you'd seek emergency medical services. The well-being and the future of your marriage, your family, and yourself have been dealt a serious blow. A competent and experienced mental health professional can help you make the decisions you're facing, and to cope with the emotional chaos that accompanies an affair.