I got a call from a TV reporter after the infamous “blue dress” incident during Clinton’s presidency. He wanted to do an interview about the likelihood that the Clintons would break up, given the stress of Hillary discovering Bill lying and cheating.
I started smiling. Arkansans, and I am one, have a long history with the Clintons.
Then I stated, “If most couples didn’t make it through affairs, the divorce rate would be even higher than it is now. You just hear about the ones that don’t.”
Working through an affair is tough. It takes tremendous energy and vulnerability on both sides. The reported numbers of affairs are growing, with the percentage of women cheaters rising dramatically, although the numbers are still less than men.
Here are my caveats of treatment. I have done a lot of it. If you don’t go into treatment, these are still good to know.
- Always see your therapist together. Trust is an obvious issue. For some reason, some therapists will see people separately after there has been an affair. I believe this is a huge mistake. It sets up a dynamic of further potential secrecy. It’s my strong belief that all need to hear what is being said all the time, even if it’s his or her feelings about the other person. It’s time for openness. Trust has to be regained.
- Know that the “truth” rarely comes out all at once. This is a tough one. The cheating spouse, whether they have been caught or whether they have actually come forward, rarely tells the whole story initially. Often it’s because they feel protective of their spouse, or of the person with whom they had the affair. Of course, the latter reason can infuriate the spouse.All of this has to be recognized as a process.
- The problems in the relationship did not cause the affair, but they are important to talk about. The spouse who had the affair is totally responsible for going outside the marriage to get his or her needs met. That is clear. I generally point out that the couple wants to create a fresh, better relationship where both can recommit. They need to leave behind the relationship that was not working. They also need to learn new skills and new ways of communicating so both can feel better about their marriage.Sometimes the cheating spouse is adamant about blaming the marriage. That’s not a good sign. It should be a red flag for anyone trying to make a decision about the future.
- The regaining of trust goes both ways. The cheating spouse’s job is evident here. Ties with the person in question should be cut. The cheating spouse needs to provide whatever information the other asks for to help them heal. Some people seem to want a lot of information; some very little.I have a particular structure that I recommend. I ask the couple to agree to planned meetings where they talk about the affair. It could be daily, or twice a week, for 15 minutes or 30 — whatever feels like it is enough. The further agreement is that, other than in those meetings, the affair is not discussed. This structure allows for the importance of continuing to talk, but helps prevent the one who had the affair from feeling constantly under the gun.
There should come a time when the non-cheater finally believes, “You know, I just don’t need to ask that question. I am okay with not knowing,” or not checking the cell phone or email, or whatever. That’s their goal. Further, the non-cheater must realize that their job is to give reassurance to their spouse that trust is building so that hope can be established. The last thing that someone wants to realize is that 10 or 15 years down the road, their spouse says, “You know, I never really forgave you for that affair. I want a divorce.” Perhaps the hurt spouse doesn’t even say that, just acts on it. The unforgiving spouse is bitter; the unforgiven, lonely.
- It takes time. The process does take time. Like all grief, it comes in waves. Usually it can’t go slow enough for the non-cheater nor fast enough for the one having the affair.There are many variations to the above. Such are the complications of being human.
- Forgiveness always involves a leap of faith. The non-cheater will be, hopefully, receiving information that is reassuring. However, the ultimate decision to trust always involves a leap of faith. You can never have enough information. Trusting again involves deciding to risk again. And that’s a leap. The good news? It can be accomplished. And a marriage can be richer than ever because of the work done to make the new marriage a better marriage.