Affairs: How to Effectively Respond to Cheating in Your Marriage or Relationship
See how one woman used the correct actions, at the correct time, to save her marriage.
Robin was in her mid-30s and had been married for seven years when she contacted me for help.
She was married to a difficult man and she knew it. That’s the one thing she didn’t have any doubts about. What she did have doubts about was what she should do. She made a promise to herself a long time ago that she would not divorce like her parents did. And she also knew that although her husband made her very upset, that she loved him. But, it was getting harder and harder to stand him. She was mad, sad, hurt, and confused all at the same time. When I asked Robin what she wanted to do, she didn’t really know. She just knew that she didn’t want things to keep going the way they were.
First, I helped Robin to stop her mind from constantly trying to figure out what went wrong and what to do.
When we are missing pieces of an important puzzle, we can get caught in a loop of trying to figure things out, upsetting ourselves more and more. To stop this, I helped Robin to build a mental path that led past her relationship problem. First, we put things in chronological order from the beginning of her marriage until now. Had her husband always been an untrustworthy man? Did he suddenly become that way? Was there a gradual transition in their marriage? What was Robin doing right now to change the situation? and what would be our next steps (creating boundaries, improving communication, and making two long term plans)? Not only did this help Robin to think more clearly, it helped her to feel more calm and to focus on moving forward rather than simply being upset.
Robin had recognized warning signs earlier in her marriage, but wasn’t able to communicate with her husband about them.
First, she had noticed how her husband had become more and more distant and was less interested in spending time with her. Their talking became more businesslike. There was less small talk. She started to wonder if there were someone else other than her in her husband’s life. She felt ashamed to do it, but she looked through his pockets, checked his cell phone messages, and sometimes made an excuse to call him when he was supposedly working late. What she discovered was that she was being lied to. Her husband was frequently texting other women (not just one) and his overtime wasn’t really spent at the office. She wondered if this was a sexual affair or an emotional affair, or both.
When Robin finally did communicate, it didn’t help.
Instead of revealing right away what she knew, she decided instead to ask her husband if he was satisfied with his marriage with her, and if he thought that he might be happier with someone else. Her husband had told her that was a ridiculous idea and that everything was fine. It was then that Robin confronted her husband about the text messages and the lying about the overtime. Her husband had become very angry, protesting about the invasion of his privacy and blaming his wife for “making too much out of a few “harmless” messages.” As for the overtime, he said that sometimes he just needed time for himself, that she didn’t own him, and that it was none of her business. He told her that after several years of marriage she should trust him and that if she couldn’t, then something was wrong with her. This created self-doubt in Robin, along with her confusion, frustration, and anger.
After this, they had several very heated arguments.
The arguments just resulted in her husband becoming more secretive about his behavior and making more efforts to hide his actions. Their marriage became worse than it ever was. Robin struggled with this for a long time, finally deciding that things were not going to change unless she did something. And that’s when she had decided to contact me. She admitted that she really had very little hope for her marriage, but really needed to be sure.
Robin had correctly determined that she had a marriage problem, not an emotional problem.
Robin didn’t need to work on low self esteem or overcome an emotional problem in counseling. And, she wasn’t paranoid. She was perhaps, a little too patient and slow to take action, but that’s understandable when you don’t know what to do. Robin couldn’t talk with her husband about these things without a big conflict. And there was no way he was going to marriage counseling with her. She had thought about going by herself but didn’t really want to be told that she needed to divorce. She had read on my website that “love cannot happen without respect,” and that “bad behavior has to be stopped before good things can happen.” She didn’t know how to do that, but she knew that had to happen. She couldn’t just accept her husband’s words or behavior.
We started to look at her husband’s behaviors to understand better what he wanted.
We knew almost certainly that her husband was having an affair and that possibly there had been other women. We didn’t know when the behavior started though it probably started after the marriage became more distant. We didn’t know whether he felt guilty or not about his behavior, but we knew that he was not about to stop on his own. We knew that her confrontations with her husband were ineffective—they just created conflict and lost her husband’s respect. She knew that she couldn’t trust him. We also knew that her husband wanted to stay in the marriage with her. What we didn’t know, was why he wanted to stay in the marriage with her. This was the piece of information that Robin hadn’t considered.
Convincing her husband to change was ineffective. Robin would need to make the changes, but not in the way that her husband wanted.
As is typically the case with difficult men, words alone mean little. Still, it was good that Robin made an attempt to talk to him. Continuing to argue, though, was counterproductive. If Robin was to make real change, she would need to take real action. And she would need to focus on changing what she did, rather than what her husband did, because that was the only thing that she had control over. She had to take actions that either convinced him to stop, or convinced her that the marriage was not savable. Either way would get her unstuck. Though she preferred a good marriage, she preferred no marriage to a bad one. Preparing for both possibilities would empower her to talk to her husband from a position of strength and security.
Saving Robin’s marriage would depend on a few things.
First it depended on how much her husband wanted to continue his relationship with her. Secondly, it depended on her willingness to put her anger aside and see her husband’s behavior as an ineffective attempt to take care of himself while holding onto his marriage. Thirdly, it depended on her willingness to learn to effectively deal with her husband’s arguments and to set firm boundaries. Based on his protests and attempts to hide his behavior, we knew that the marriage was important to him.
Robin’s husband was having affairs, but the fact is, he had a bigger problem.
He was getting some benefit from other women, but he was losing out on his marriage. Something was not right with him. We would focus on helping him, rather than on getting revenge, because revenge wouldn’t help anybody. Robin ‘s last attempt to save her marriage would be for the benefit of her husband as well as herself. Then, if he continued to destroy their marriage, and himself, it was his responsibility– not hers. She wouldn’t need to get revenge–he would bring it down on his own head. Being both tough and loving, Robin could walk away with a clear conscience if she needed to.
Robin’s clarity and strength made her ready to take control
She wasn’t afraid her actions would risk her marriage, because she didn’t want it to continue like it was, anyhow. As far as setting boundaries, she thought it was something that she really needed to learn. She didn’t want to be in a “one down” position from her husband or anyone. People could treat her badly, but she did not need to put up with it, and she wasn’t going to give them something to laugh at behind her back. Losing more of her husband’s respect would mean not only losing her marriage, but also her own self-respect.
For her intervention, Robin needed to choose between fast, drastic action and consistent, deliberate action.
I helped Robin to look at an obvious choice–She could take drastic action or deliberate action. I usually recommend drastic action when someone is in danger (such as physical abuse), but this was not a dangerous situation. If she suddenly packed her bags, gave her husband an ultimatum, and filed papers against him, she would bring extreme pressure down on her husband. She would feel powerful and she would be within her rights. But, it would be a message of toughness without the message of love. It would emotionally satisfy her for a short time, but it could also bring severe conflict, a drastic reaction on her husband’s part, and prematurely end the marriage before it had a chance. And, if she took that stance and changed her mind, she would lose even more respect.
Consistent and deliberate actions bring change with less conflict.
The cheating had been going on for some time and we were going to put a stop to this, one way or the other. But we didn’t have to do it in one night. That really wouldn’t be in Robin’s best interest, anyhow, as she would need to have a good exit plan for herself, just in case. We could take a little time to work on two plans — one for saving her marriage with her husband; one for continuing her life if she needed to end the marriage. Although we weren’t working on a divorce approach, being prepared for the worst helps people to not be afraid of it. And, it would put Robin in a much more respectable position if she did decide to give her husband a choice between her way and the highway. Robin liked that idea and thought that if she really knew what to do in both cases, then she could have more peace of mind.
As we started our work together, Robin had good days and bad days.
Some days she found herself struggling so much emotionally that she could not do her coaching work. On those days, we needed to review what had happened, what we were doing about it, and how her future also included plans that her husband couldn’t mess up. She was really learning to take control of her life. And, her happiness did not depend on her husband. My job at such times really is to help people balance love with self-preservation. She was doing well, and I knew we would soon be able to move forward again.
Robin learned from me how to talk with her husband in about his affairs and more importantly, about their marriage.
She learned how to stop his avoidance by blaming game. In our skills work, I was helping Robin to see her husband’s arguing as his way of defending himself and avoid talking about things he was afraid to talk about. She learned that all the emotion behind his arguments came from his biggest fear. To her amazement, he feared losing her. If he didn’t fear losing her, he wouldn’t need to argue so strongly. I helped her learn how to turn his arguing off and how to start the both of them really talking. I knew there would be tears in it for both of them and that they needed to get to that rather than fighting. Robin learned that she did have real power–to listen or not, to walk away or not, to fight or not , to be in the marriage or not. She used her power not to beat her husband, but to talk at an equal level. And, she got his respect.
I would like to tell you that it was a smooth ride and that everything just got better for Robin quickly.
Real life isn’t like that. But things did get better and remarkably faster than Robin had though possible. As we had guessed, the relationship, the marriage, was important to her husband. Once he could no longer use arguing to avoid talking, he talked with Robin about many things. He never reluctantly worked on anything, because Robin didn’t allow him to “reluctantly” work on things. He had a choice –to work on them wholeheartedly or not. Robin didn’t accept anything less than that.
Robin also needed time to forgive.
Actually, Robin got a little too strong and when her husband was emotionally broken, she had to really work on not breaking him more. She was very tempted to hurt him for hurting her. I could see they both really loved each other and that they both needed a lot of help. Her husband needed to learn how to take care of her at that time and also not to allow her to abuse him. Suffering never repays an emotional debt. Only forgiveness can do that.
The work doesn’ t end once marriage coaching is over.
Like many of my former clients, Robin keeps in touch. To this day, her husband continues to occasionally be tempted to have other relationships, but they talk about it. Robin always gives him that option, but she maintains good boundaries. Her husband knows that he has the freedom to see other women, but that it would cost him his marriage with his wife. That was something he was not clear about before. Although it may sound bad to you that he still has temptations, the truth is we are all tempted by something. After wrestling with her desire for revenge, Robin knows that better than anyone.
What Robin struggled with and what she learned could be applied to many kinds of marriage problems other than affairs.
People can break trust with money, with drugs and/or alcohol, gambling, abuse, neglect, and selfishness. The principles and the choices are always the same. To keep your husband or let him go. To wait or not. To do something drastic or to try to work it out. To get help or not. You can’t be in the middle for any of these choices, because the middle won’t work for any of them. The other tough thing is you can’t hate your husband and save your marriage at the same time.
When you are a victim of affairs, emotional abuse, or other extreme selfishness, you first have to earn respect with your actions.
And those actions must always be in the best interest of the relationship. It’s not fair, but it’s the way it is. Lastly, you have to deal with your husband’s behaviors in an effective way–in a way that ends the damaging behavior. Your husband will have one main job of earning your trust. That will be his or her part in making your relationship go forward. If he or she won’t do that, then the decision to divorce will have been made for you.
Your spouse chose to have an affair; the next choice is yours…
If your spouse has broken his or her commitment to you, you certainly have the moral right to end the marriage. You can also work to save it. But, you can’t do both at the same time. Your heart must be committed to your actions for them to be effective. If you decide to save your relationship, you need to have an effective strategy for making the relationship work, and get it into place as soon as possible.