"Tell Me the Truth!"
Why betrayed partners need to talk about infidelity.
Posted Aug 17, 2020
A week before their 11th anniversary, Cathy discovered that her husband, Paul, had been having a year-long affair with a nurse at his medical practice.
Paul received a text while he was out of the room and when Cathy picked up the phone to bring it to him, she glanced down and saw an explicit, racy text accompanied by a photo of a naked woman.
Cathy could hardly breathe.
In a panic, she confronted Paul, who gradually admitted he had been having an affair with a co-worker and that his recent accounts of his ever-increasing late nights at the office were actually all alibis.
When Cathy and Paul married, they agreed that infidelity was totally unacceptable because of their having been traumatized as children by their parents’ affairs.
Infidelity would be a deal-breaker for both of them.
Or so Cathy thought.
Cathy never complained about Paul’s long hours at his practice because she appreciated his work ethic and the fact that his income allowed her to be a stay-at-home mother for their three children, ages 7, 5, and 2. Additionally, she was extremely proud of his accomplishments.
Discovering that Paul had been unfaithful was more than Cathy could bear.
Like many betrayed spouses, Cathy began to struggle emotionally. She lost her appetite and had difficulty sleeping. She started feeling intense anxiety, followed by a deepening depression. Her mood swings—sadness, rage, disbelief, anger, and overwhelming grief—left Cathy barely able to manage even the simplest of tasks.
Cathy felt frozen in time.
Despite Paul’s choice to have an affair, he was certain that he loved Cathy and that he wanted to do whatever he could to win back her trust, make amends and begin the process of healing his marriage. He was very remorseful and quickly ended his affair.
Because Paul had been thinking about ending the affair for several months prior to the discovery, in many ways, he felt relieved that his illicit affair was over. Leading a double life had worn heavily on Paul and his decision to terminate the relationship led to his felt lighter than he had for a long time.
But the same wasn’t true for Cathy. Although Paul’s load was lightened, Cathy stepped into a very, very dark world, one that she never imagined could happen.
Once Cathy moved past the initial shock of the discovery of Paul’s affair, her mind raced with questions about what had occurred—who was the affair partner, what did she look like, what attracted him to her, when did it start, how did it begin, how often did they meet, how often did they have sex, where did they meet, what was the sex like, did he love her, did they talk about a future together… and so on.
At first, Paul understood Cathy’s need to have information and he did the best he could to answer her questions.
Cathy’s reactions to Paul’s responses varied; sometimes she appeared relieved, other times she became extremely angry or hurt. These discussions often prompted uncomfortable setbacks in their recovery.
Over time, Paul surmised that Cathy’s “inquisitions” weren’t helpful to either of them. She seemed distraught and depressed after hearing new information about the affair, and he felt shame and guilt “rehashing the past all the time.”
Eventually, when Paul refused to answer Cathy’s lingering questions, Cathy threatened divorce. That’s when they decided to seek help.
In fact, that’s when most couples decide to seek help—when one spouse has an intense “need to know” and the other is ready to move on and can’t fathom the benefit in talking about something that is no longer happening.
To talk or not to talk—that is the question. Here’s the answer:
First, since no two people are alike, it’s important to point out that some betrayed partners have little or no desire to discuss the details of their spouse’s affair.
That’s absolutely fine. There are no universal rules about how much or little information people need to heal.
That said, countless people really do want to have a grasp of what happened—who, what when, where, and why. And if these gnawing questions remain unanswered, healing won’t happen.
Why the questions?
Let’s go back to Cathy. When she learned of Paul’s affair, desperate to understand what had occurred, she reviewed her calendar over the past year, scrutinizing each day Paul was away, remembering the story he had told her regarding his whereabouts, now knowing the truth.
Cathy was connecting the dots.
She also remembered the evenings he had returned home and seemed to be “off,” keeping to himself and making little eye contact with her.
At the time, Cathy simply wrote Paul’s behavior off to “a rough day at the office.” But now, she realized his guilt probably left him feeling uncomfortable in her presence.
Slowly and painfully, the real picture of what had happened began to emerge.
Cathy, like so many others in her shoes, needed information in order to make sense of her life and to be able to trust her own instincts again.
Betrayed spouses also ask questions to gauge their partners’ willingness to “come clean.” When unfaithful partners become completely and willingly transparent, betrayed spouses begin to feel that they’re tackling this crisis as a team—no more secrets, no more colluding. This is a great relief to betrayed spouses.
How much information is too much information?
One of the most common questions I get asked by couples and therapists alike is, “How much information is too much information?” When does asking questions become excessive or hurtful?
This is an interesting question that in my view, is simple to answer.
When I ask my colleagues at what point they encourage people to stop asking questions about affairs, their responses vary widely. Some therapists nip prying questions in the bud, while others see the merit of in-depth discussions about what happened.
Most professionals have some notion about what’s good to know and what isn’t and how long these discussions should take place. But I think these decisions should be made by betrayed spouses, not therapists.
I believe that each person knows the amount and kind of information he or she requires to heal and become whole again after betrayal. That’s why I ask clients, “After you asked your husband those specific questions, did it help you to feel better?”
If the answer is, “Yes,” the plan moving forward is obvious. More information is helpful.
If the answer is “No, not really. I was really upset with what I heard,” I help my clients devise a plan to resist the temptation to ask questions in the following weeks. I say, “The next time you feel tempted to ask your spouse detailed questions about what happened, and you will, what could you do instead? What could you do to resist the temptation to ask questions that might be hurtful?”
Hopefully, I will hear things like, “Go for a walk, call a friend, play my guitar, pray, meditate, write in my diary, and so on.
I’ve noticed that the need to ask questions fades over time if questions are answered openly, honestly, and willingly. This open dialogue, while painful for both partners, actually expedites the healing process.
It’s important to remember that often in the midst of a crisis, the only way to the other side is through.
Weiner-Davis, M. (2017). Healing from Infidelity, MWD Training Corp.