By Gail Unruh-Revel, LSCSW, CSAT, CST
If you just learned your partner had an affair, you are most likely wondering how on earth you can possibly handle this. You may be asking yourself, “How can I live with my partner when I know he or she has been with someone else?” You may also be very focused on what others think of how you respond, whether others will pity you, or think less of you if you stay. You may not be able to fathom leaving. You may also have an incredible urge to just chuck it all and leave immediately. If you have children, this adds a whole other level of considerations. It can all feel incredibly overwhelming. So how do you decide?
Moving through the crisis stage
First of all, unless your safety or your children’s safety is at risk, resist the temptation to make any major decision right away. When someone first learns of their partner’s participation in an affair, emotions can be all over the place. Suffice it to say, feelings of anger, hurt and betrayal may override all your waking hours. This is not a time to make major decisions. This is a time when self-care is incredibly important. Eat even if you don’t want to. Eating little bits through the day is sometimes easier. If you can’t sleep, ask your doctor for help. Sleep is critical as
decisions are many, energy is essential, and good sleep will help you manage your emotions. The idea is not to get rid of your emotions or not to feel, but rather to manage them in order to get through each day and make effective decisions. Exercise your brain. Take a daily walk at least, or do more walking if you are already in an active exercise program. This again helps with decision making and general energy and well-being. Confide in a trusted friend with whom you can share worries and frustrations.
As you move through the crisis stage, and you are no longer frequently lashing out at your partner and you are managing your emotions such that you are not regularly in the depths of despair, consider whether you are ready to look at whether there is hope for your marriage. Staying through this evaluation stage can be really valuable, as choosing to leave immediately deprives you of a tremendous opportunity for growth. If you leave immediately, the chances of ending up in a similar marriage are much greater than if you stay long enough to evaluate what has happened.
Evaluating if there is hope for a new monogamy
Tammy Nelson talks about creating a “new monogamy” in her book, The New Monogamy (New Harbinger Publications, 2013). The goal is not to go back to the way it was; that did not work. Creating a new monogamy is about working for a new way to be together in a new and better relationship, a way that is less vulnerable to the intrusion of an affair, a way that involves work from both partners.
How do you determine if this is possible? Ask yourself a few questions regarding your partner and a few regarding yourself. Is your partner saying anything that makes you think he or she gets how hurt you are and how seriously this affects your relationship? Your partner may not know the exact words to say at this time, but do you feel and hear a sense of responsibility and genuine remorse from your partner? Are the two of you able to communicate without name-calling? Can you now be in your partner’s presence without engaging in conversation or behavior designed to punish your partner? This evaluation phase requires the ability to listen respectfully to one another. If you are considering staying, then assess your willingness and your partner’s willingness to look at what made your relationship vulnerable to an affair. Determine whether each of you is willing to look for ways to connect on an emotional level. Both of you need to be willing to discuss how you might move forward in order to heal and create something new and better. This new and better relationship is different than staying together and just moving on, hoping to forget what happened and hoping it will never happen again.
Committing to a new monogamy
If you and your partner decide to stay in the marriage, then there is work to do. If you go on as you are, just assuming your partner’s show of remorse is enough to make everything okay, that is risky for your marriage. It will remain vulnerable to toxic intrusions of all sorts.
If you want a new, healthier relationship, it takes hard work. Take a close look at your marriage. What do you each need to work on? What worked, what didn’t? Take time to discuss the things you were never willing to discuss before. Talk about your hurts and frustrations, and do it in a respectful way. Otherwise, your partner will not hear you and will focus on your emotion.
If your marriage has been vulnerable because of feeling disconnected from each other, consider how you might promote emotional and physical intimacy. If one or both of you have been frustrated about your sex lives, talk about it. What makes it hard to be intimate sexually? Is there not enough emotional and physical intimacy in non-sexual ways so that when you are sexual, it feels cold and distant?
Once you have committed to working on the marriage, you as the injured partner need to be able to manage your feelings and not continue to lash out destructively. The alternative is not silence; it is sharing what is going on for you in a way that can be heard.
The injured partner needs to be able to examine aspects of self that contributed to the marriage’s vulnerability. The partner who engaged in the affair needs to be able to look at what led to the choice of an affair. This partner needs to be able to commit to staying in the marriage, focusing on the marriage and on no further infidelities. A genuine acceptance of responsibility for stepping out of the marriage is imperative – without blaming the injured partner.
Staying in the marriage means being willing to take a hard look at one’s self. It’s about each finding ways to move past the deep hurt and into something new and better. Getting Past the Affair (Guilford Press, 2007) by Snyder, Baucom, and Gordon is an excellent guide for couples moving through this process.
Whether you decide to stay or leave, consider how you will do that in the healthiest way possible. If it clearly will not work for you to stay, resist the temptation to just shove the pain away and move on to the next partner, hoping this time it will be better. It takes hard work either way you go if you want the best chance of moving forward in a new, healthier way.
Gail Unruh-Revel is a licensed clinical social worker, certified sex addiction therapist and certified sex therapist. She is director of the Center for Sexual Health at Prairie View, Inc.