The initial shock of finding out about the infidelity is over. Now what? How do you talk about the aftermath of the affair?
While possible, it is often difficult to find words to even begin such a conversation. Steven Nock, a sociology professor at the University of Virginia states:
If, God forbid, you come home and find your wife in bed with another man, and you are in a stable, gratifying marriage, you need to talk about what happened openly and honestly. If you can actually discuss what is going on and why it happened, those couples seem to survive.
In order for this to happen, partners need to identify their thoughts and emotions and be able to effectively put their feelings into words.
Make the decision to talk to your spouse. Infidelity thrives on secrecy and ignoring it, even after both spouses know about it, only makes matters worse. Acknowledge the pain coming from the broken trust and grieve the loss of the relationship you had. It is normal to experience fear, confusion, bewilderment, ambiguity, embarrassment, or guilt. Be gentle with yourself in the process as you proceed.
Have a Plan
- Check your motivation and expectations. Are you trying to hurt the other person in the way you’ve been hurt? Are you seeking to blame the other person? Are you playing the victim? Are you looking for quick and easy forgiveness? Consider the expectations you have for yourself and the other person. Identifying what you want beforehand will help you stay focused during the conversation and avoid rabbit trails and the blame game.
- Choose a neutral location where you can give each other undivided attention without interruption.
- Select a time that works best for your schedule while considering your emotions. If you know you are normally stressed right after coming home from work, give yourself time to unwind first or choose a different time. Also, set a time limit to keep the conversation focused and productive.
- Commit to effective communication during the conversation. Establishing standards of communication to prevent further injury can be helpful.
- Some good communication rules include no cursing, no name calling, no interrupting, not drudging up past issues, and respecting the other person’s perspective and feelings. For more tools on effective communication, read this article.
- Have a game plan for how to end the conversation if these rules are not met. It may be helpful to have a mutually trusted neutral third party to help mediate the conversation.
Start the Conversation
Whether you will decide to proceed in the relationship or not, initiating a conversation about the infidelity can help each person clarify their understanding of the current condition of the relationship. Looking at yourself objectively in the relationship with reasonable expectations and a mindset of problem solving may help both partners become successful in either this relationship or in future relationships.
- Speak the truth- Be honest about your hopes and desires and the pain you have been experiencing. Resist the urge to withdraw. Psychologist Anne Malec states it is important to avoid “I don’t know.” She continues to explain that “I don’t know” can mean “I don’t want to share” or “I don’t want to feel judged” in a way that may be “intellectually dishonest” and/or “emotionally safe.” Not speaking truthfully in these conversations can create more difficulty in the long run. Consider the needs of each spouse expressed through the answers to the questions raised about the infidelity.
- Consider the meaning- Esther Perel, psychotherapist and relationship expert, discusses the importance of meaning when talking through affairs in her TEDtalk (see below). She explains that questions such as “Where were You?”, “How often?” –and the intimate details of the infidelity tend to lead to more pain. Instead, ask meaning-making questions. In many cases, affairs can mean a loss of identity or hope for an anticipated future. Affairs loudly announce the distance between couples and may serve as a coping mechanism to mask deep rooted feelings of inadequacy, worthlessness, discontentment or disgust. They can also disguise fears of rejection and unmet expectations. Often issues of self-worth, body image, intimacy, fears and desires become revealed. Exploring these meanings help to define which elements of trust have been lost and give a framework for possibly rebuilding the relationship.
Ask for help
Talking about infidelity can be challenging and having a third party available to help may serve you well. Communication about the affair can be disastrous or be a stepping stone towards individual and interpersonal growth. Surrounding yourself with a team, including your therapist, pastor and a trusted friend can help you as you navigate. Healing after an affair is a process and Fuller life is here to support and encourage as you move towards a fuller life.
Clinical Supervision by Amy Fuller, PhD, LMFT, LPC
Elder, S. (2007). Surviving Infidelity Is Hard to Do. Retrieved December 16, 2015, from http://www.webmd.com/men/features/surviving-infidelity-hard-do
Malec, A. (2014, October). How to Talk to Your Partner about Your Affair. Retrieved December 19, 2016, from http://www.goodtherapy.org/blog/how-to-talk-to-your-partner-about-your-affair-1022145
Nelson, P. (2013, March 23). Can I Get Over An Affair? The Three Phases Of Recovery. Retrieved December 3, 2015, from http://www.huffingtonpost.com/tammy-nelson-phd/can-i-get-over-an-affair-_b_2911106.html
Nock, S. (1998). Marriage in men’s lives. New York: Oxford University Press.
Perel, Esther (2015)Esther Perel: Rethinking infidelity … a talk for anyone who has ever loved. Retrieved January 26, 2016 from http://www.ted.com