You’ve been married for several years and consider your union strong and loving. But one day, your spouse comes to you with a confession: he has been having an affair. He swears it is over and he wants to stay in the marriage. But your world is shattered and you don’t know if you can ever trust him again.
Coping with an affair is neither pleasant nor easy. Learning that your husband has been intimate with another woman is traumatic news and takes time to process. Your first reaction may be to want to walk out of the relationship and not work towards reconciliation. This is a big decision and needs to be thought about very carefully. Some things to examine when listing the pros and cons of leaving are:
- Prior to the affair, were you happy in the marriage?
- Did you look forward to seeing your husband at the end of the workday and on weekends?
- Did you feel he was your best friend?
- Did you share the same goals and values for your life together?
- Take time to reflect on the state of your emotional connection with your spouse. Is there still a spark there? Do you want to work on rekindling it?
If the answer to these questions is yes, then let us look at some strategies for coping with your spouse’s affair, moving past it and onto a new normal in your marriage.
The initial shock: Coping with the emotional pain
In the days and weeks following the news of your spouse’s betrayal, you will cycle through feelings that include:
- Anger: What an awful man! How could he have done something so immoral?
- Disbelief: This couldn’t be happening to me. Affairs only happen to other couples.
- Self-doubt: Of course my husband sought the arms of another woman. I’m not pretty. I’ve gained weight since we got married. I’m boring.
- Numbness: It is common to feel numbness when confronted with traumatic news. It is the brain’s way of protecting you; it “shuts down” so that the news can be processed slowly, in bits and pieces, rather than overwhelming you
How do you manage this flood of feelings? First, allow yourself to feel each and every one of them. If this means staying home so you can cry privately, that is what you should do. When you are ready, it will be important to create and draw on a trustworthy support system to help you through this difficult time. Include a marriage counselor in your support system so that you have a safe, neutral space in which to express all of these feelings and get feedback from someone who has the expertise to help you navigate the situation.
You may choose to seek marriage counseling alone at the beginning. This can be a positive decision, as it will allow you to speak freely during the sessions without worrying about your spouse’s reactions to what is shared in the supportive environment of a therapist’s office. At a future point, you can consider seeing a marriage counselor as a couple.
The next step: Repair work
Both you and your husband agree that you wish to work on the marriage and restore trust. This must be a fully mutual decision, as rebuilding the relationship is a long road and it takes both of you travelling together for this to be successful. This is another step where you want to enlist the expert skills of a therapist to help you communicate productively. How do you start?
- Talking: Lots of talking. Together. You will want to dedicate time to these conversations. You have some important issues to unpack, such as the reasons behind your spouse’s affair. What might he have been missing in the relationship? Can he identify concrete problems? What can you both point to as areas that you need to work on?
- The need to know about the affair: It seems counterintuitive, but knowing the details of your spouse’s affair actually helps you cope better with the aftermath. Without the details, you are left to speculate, obsess and imagine scenarios that may or may not have taken place. While your husband may be reluctant to talk about what he did, it is essential information for you to have in order to get closure and move on.
- Approach this time as a couple: The rebuilding of your marriage needs to be tackled together as a couple. This will give you both a sense of power and ownership of the situation. If only one of you is expending the effort it takes to heal the hurt, it will not work, and you will likely end up feeling resentful towards your spouse if you are the person doing the heavy lifting.
- Map out points to work on: Your conversations should include concrete points that you have identified as issues to be improved, with clear suggestions on how to make these improvements. If your spouse states “I had an affair because you never paid attention to me,” an appropriate suggestion to improve things might be “I’d love it if we could put the kids to bed earlier each night so you and I can have time together as adults.” “I don’t know how I can ever trust you again” might be answered with “I will always let you know where I am. If I am not home, I will always be reachable by cell phone…whatever I can do to help restore the trust I have broken.”
- Suggestions must be clear: Suggestion to repair the relationship must be doable and related to the issues that led to the affair.
Down the road: Evaluate how you are doing
Your therapist will give you a schedule of benchmarks, or typical dates where you and your spouse will want to pause to evaluate how you are doing in terms of relationship recovery. She knows the timeline a hurting marriage follows as couples work to bring their relationship back on track. Keep meeting with your therapist even after you think you’ve got it all figured out. Consider these sessions as relationship “tune-ups” so that you can keep everything running smoothly once you have put the affair in the past and moved on.