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Ending an Affair

It’s easier than you might think.

Creative Commons
Is your spouse's affair really over?
Source: Creative Commons

For the past year and a half, Sue has been struggling to feel herself again after the discovery of her husband’s 6-month affair. Len was the last person Sue imagined would ever cheat; he simply had too much integrity to stray. Or so she thought.

When a co-worker flirted with him one evening during “a business dinner,” he found himself on a slippery slope. Several martinis later, he and his co-worker ended up in a hotel having sex. After that night, the pace of “business dinners” picked up dramatically.

Although Sue noticed the increase in Len’s “work obligations,” she felt it important to support his career goals and kept her feelings about missing him to herself.

Then one night, she opened Len’s computer where she accessed his emails and discovered that Len had been lying about his whereabouts and that he was in the throes of a hot affair. Sue could hardly breathe as she rifled through months of racy emails between Len and his affair partner. Her world fell apart.

When Sue confronted Len, he immediately confessed, telling her how he had really been spending his time over the last six months. Despite Len’s being contrite and taking full responsibility for his actions, Sue was enraged, hurt beyond words and in a state of shock.

Len promised to end his affair immediately and devote himself fully to repairing his marriage and helping Sue heal from the pain he caused. He was unequivocal about his commitment to staying married. Despite his 6-month affair, he never intended to leave Sue and loved her very much. Sue simply could not believe that Len could love her, yet without hesitation, lie straight to her face for six months. She was devastated.

Nonetheless, Len followed through with his promise to end his affair cold turkey. He wrote his affair partner a clear and direct email detailing his intention to completely cut off contact with her. His affair partner encouraged him to have one final in-person conversation, but he simply didn’t respond. He repeatedly told Sue he was done cheating. Forever.

But despite his willingness to call it quits with his affair partner and to be transparent about any and all future communications with her, naturally, Sue had her doubts. She couldn’t fathom how her husband could, on one hand, have invested so much of his energy prioritizing his duplicitous life, and on the other hand, end that relationship so abruptly with no regrets or lingering longing for her. She worried that agonizing ambivalence would put him at risk of cheating again.

Sue isn’t alone. That’s how most betrayed spouses feel when their partners do a sudden turnaround after the discovery of an affair. But I’ve been specializing in helping couples heal from infidelity for several decades, and if I’ve learned one surprising thing about ending affairs, it’s this: It’s often not as complicated as most people think. Here’s why.

Research shows, and my clinical experience corroborates, that many, many people who choose to have affairs consider themselves happily married. Most people—including many mental health professionals—aren’t aware of this counterintuitive fact that an affair is not necessarily a symptom of a flawed marriage. And even when marital unhappiness does prompt people to have affairs, with some exceptions most people don’t leave their spouses for their affair partners. In fact, the majority of unfaithful people I’ve worked with never intended to leave their spouses.

So, when their marriages are truly jeopardized in the wake of the discovery of the infidelity, ending the affair becomes a simple decision: it’s over.

There is another factor at play here as well: Although betrayed spouses understandably believe that affairs are about nothing but pure, unadulterated pleasure, for most conscientious people, it’s more complex that than. Although especially early on, affairs are exciting, passionate and compelling, they often trigger unrelenting feelings of guilt and shame. This is particularly true for people whose decisions to stray defy their own moral codes.

So, each illicit tryst, despite its sexual or emotional rewards, leaves many people feeling self-contempt about their deceitful choices and dishonesty. This is why so many actually feel relieved when they are caught or come clean.

Betrayed spouses find it hard to believe that a person could feel wracked with guilt, yet continue in the behavior causing it. But they can and they do. And it’s also true that once the affair is uncovered and the facts are revealed, unfaithful people often feel tremendous relief that they no longer have to hide their dark secrets or attempt to keep their lies straigh. When the time has come to step into the light, it's a much-welcomed passage.

Paradoxically, this is also the time when betrayed spouses find themselves at the lowest points in their lives, making their partners’ newfound enthusiastic commitment to monogamy that much more difficult to believe. Compounding this is the warning betrayed spouses often receive from friends and family or from articles on the Internet: “Once a cheater, always a cheater.” This is both untrue and unfortunate.

It goes without saying that there will always be people who feel entitled to continue affairs, experiencing no guilt whatsoever, and others who leave their spouses and families to be with an affair partner. That’s why it behooves betrayed spouses to remain cautious during the healing process. But caution shouldn’t preclude the possibility that people often end affairs without ever looking back.

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