“I never, in a million years, would have believed they would cheat on me.” I often hear this in my work with couples from a partner who has been betrayed by infidelity. It is quite common, when working with couples, to find out that either in the past, or presently, one (or both) partners has engaged in an affair. It is also common to see many of the same stages of grief people go through when responding to the discovery that their partner has cheated.
Most betrayed partners initially ask the question “Why?” They want to figure out how the affair could have happened and if it could have been prevented. Some betrayed partners have very polarized reactions, either accepting full blame for the affair (“What did I do to drive him/her to this?”) or villainizing the spouse (“You aren’t who I thought you were! Our whole relationship has been a lie”). I always tell couples that both partners must accept responsibility for the state of their relationship before the affair, but only the person who cheated has responsibility for the affair. No one can “make” someone else have an affair.
Some couples find that their relationship had grown stale, disconnected, or toxic and the affair was a way for one person to get their needs fulfilled. Some couples report they felt strong, solid, and deeply in love and the affair was a grave mistake of choosing instant gratification over respecting the relationship. Some people find intoxication led to bad decisions, or a friendship slowly evolved into an emotional and sometimes physical affair. Exploring the “WHY” is an important step in moving through the affair, but often, both partners, even after much therapy and soul searching, cannot fully explain “why” the affair happened and can be left feeling confused and vulnerable.
I encourage people to accept that we are all capable of stepping outside of our relationships and having an affair. Good people have affairs. Loving partners make terrible mistakes. If we are all aware of the potential for harmful choices we can make, we are more likely to engage in choices that protect our relationships instead of putting them at risk. People who think, “That would never happen” sometimes end up in my office saying, “I have no idea how this happened!” Most people who have affairs are not mentally disturbed pathological liars. They are human beings who allowed themselves to make enough small (and large) decisions that led to the affair.
2. I feel like a fool
Along with the “Why” is the question of “How?” Most partners of someone who has had an affair will go through a phase of feeling like they have been made to look like a fool. They want to find out exactly how, when and where the encounters were happening. They want facts to piece together a timeline so they can figure out how they missed the signs of the affair. During this stage, people often go over cell phone records, scroll through e-mail accounts, and review credit card statements looking for facts that will help them better understand what was happening.
Clients often report they hate “spying” but feel compelled to snoop and search in order to feel some sense of connection to reality. They report it helps them feel less foolish, and more in control of information, since often, they have been lied to and can no longer trust what their partner tells them.
As a therapist, I can validate that these actions are very common, and very understandable. Because hacking into your partner’s e-mail can be illegal and there have been cases where people where brought up on legal charges for going into their partner’s accounts without permission, I always caution people to fact-find in ways that will not cause them more pain and suffering later.
Often, finding the facts is quite painful itself. I encourage people to find out enough to have a better sense of what has occurred, but to be able to have good boundaries and not dig for every last detail because sometimes those nitty gritty details are more painful than they are helpful. You want to exercise some caution and self-protection as you grapple through this stage.
3. Oversharing/Undersharing with others
Most people who engage in an affair don’t want anyone else to know. Looking at the above stage (“I feel like a fool), most partners aren’t thrilled to have the world know either. It deepens their sense of humiliation to imagine the entire neighborhood, school circle or work colleagues judging them as a fool. I watch people polarize in this stage as well: some people end up telling way too many people in an attempt to punish and humiliate the partner who had the affair, or I watch them not reach out and talk to anyone in an attempt to protect the family from shame and embarrassment. I recommend having a few safe, trusted friends who you can talk to about what has happened.
It can be reassuring to learn that others in your circle have gone through similar situations, or to simply have a few friends support you and validate your feelings during this time. Sharing the information with family members can be helpful if your family is healthy, compassionate and willing to support you in making your own decisions through the process. You want to talk with people who will not gossip about you later, will not bully you into one particular action or another, and will lovingly support you and the family no matter what route you choose.
Which brings us to the final phase:
4. Do I stay or do I go?
A lot of people come into my office dazed and confused by the discovery of an affair. After struggling through those first few phases, they collect themselves well enough to start trying to figure out how they want to move forward. This stage can be full of fear, anger, confusion, and desperation. “Am I stronger if I leave or if I try and heal my marriage?” “Is it better for my kids if I stay or if I go?” “Am I a fool for leaving, or a fool for staying?” This stage can feel like a roller coaster ride. One day you are committed to working through the pain and trying to stay together.
The next day you find another text message from the affair partner, or see a commercial that triggers your pain, and you are ready to pack it in. The realities of divorce weigh heavy on people: Can I afford to leave? What will my children’s life be like if we separate? The realities of staying weigh heavy on people, too: Will I ever be able to trust my partner again? Will people think I’m an idiot for staying? Will we ever be able to visit my family for Christmas and feel welcomed after this mess?
I want every person who enters my office to feel like they have permission to consider both options: staying and leaving. Both are brave. Both are respectful. Both can be healthy. Each person will need to determine their own bottom line and capacity for healing. I have seen couples who have worked through an affair to create a relationship that was stronger, healthier, and more passionate than before the affair. I have also seen couples try to achieve this and find that because of their unique situation, it was not possible.
I have also seen people who have decided not to try and work on the relationship, but instead, worked on separating and divorcing in the healthiest way possible. I encourage people to give themselves time to ride out the rollercoaster of decisions, to sift through the feedback they get from others, to listen to their own gut, and make a decision not from a place of anger, fear, or reactivity, but from a place of deep wisdom. What I want for people to is to be able to look back 10 years from now and feel proud about the way they handled things.
Affairs can be devastating. But they can also be an incredible opportunity to evaluate your relationship and your priorities, as well as find strength you didn’t know you had. It can be a great chance to open your eyes and make some incredibly intentional decisions about what you want for yourself.
About the author
Shelby Riley is a licensed marriage and family therapist, author, speaker and clinical supervisor in PA. She is the owner of Shelby Riley, LMFT and Associates, LLC. She is currently the President of the Pennsylvania Association for Marriage and Family Therapy (PAMFT). Remember to check out Shelby’s website www.shelbyrileymft.com for useful information about therapy for individuals, couples, and families.