Learning that your spouse has been unfaithful is a very dark day in most people’s lives. They often feel as if their lives are shattered. They’re deeply hurt, devastated, enraged, and disoriented. Once the shock subsides, betrayed spouses typically try to make sense of their upended lives. Their minds fill with endless questions about the affair- “How could you do this to me?” “Who was this person?” “Is it still on-going?” “Where did you meet?” “How long has this been going on?” “What was your sex like?” “Do you love him?” “Are you still in contact?” “Is she a better lover?” “How will I ever be able to trust you again?”
In the early stages of recovery, many couples have marathon talk sessions. Frequently, the unfaithful spouse is willing to engage in these conversations in an effort to help the betrayed spouse regain equilibrium. But when the “need to know” lingers, unfaithful spouses begin to question the value of talking about the affair. After all, talking about what happened doesn’t feel very good.
And it is at this juncture that many couples seek professional help. They’re looking for some direction about the usefulness of discussing the details of the betrayal. They want a mediator, someone who can tell them who’s right and who’s wrong.
After decades of specializing in work with couples who are reeling from the aftermath of the discovery of an affair, I can tell you this: they’re both right.
On one hand, my experience has taught me that if a betrayed spouse has unanswered questions that plague him or her, there must be transparency. The questions need to be answered honestly and thoroughly. One of the worst things an unfaithful spouse can do is to withhold information. Having information leak out gradually over weeks or months is re-traumatizing to the betrayed spouse, damaging trust-building efforts, sometimes irreparably.
The betrayed spouse needs to assess whether the Q & A sessions are helping or hindering by asking, “When I get the information, do I feel better or worse?” If the answer is better, it pays to persist. If the answer is worse because now there are images, flashbacks and hurtful ruminating thoughts, the betrayed spouse must find ways to resist the temptation to ask additional questions. The key here is that the betrayed spouse gets to determine how long conversations about the affair persist.
Another point needs to be made about the times when couples discuss the affair. Answers to questions about the infidelity often are painful for the betrayed spouse to hear. And when the pain arises, it’s fairly common for the betrayed spouse to feel like lashing out at their unfaithful partner. Although this may be understandable, it’s not an effective way to encourage honesty and openness in the marriage.
Betrayed spouses need to be coached about the importance of expressing appreciation to the unfaithful spouse for being willing to share uncomfortable details. This fosters collaboration and minimizes the shame unfaithful spouses often feel, shame that gets in the way of being emotionally available.
On the other hand, it’s also important to create times when there is no discussion about the affair, when the couple focuses on neutral or even pleasant topics and activities together. After all, if all you focus on is the pain, it becomes challenging to heal. That’s because what you focus on expands.
How a therapist navigates this common disagreement between spouses who are attempting to heal after an affair can greatly affect the therapeutic outcome. In the early stages of recovery, it’s important to provide concrete guidance and a healthy dose of hope in order for marriages to survive.
For more information about helping couples work through the pain of betrayal and restore their love, read my new book, Healing from Infidelity.