What do you do after an affair? You are devastated, your spouse has cheated, he says he’s confused and doesn’t know what he wants. You feel more devastated. “What does he mean he doesn’t know what he wants and why is he hurting me this way!?!? This is my worst nightmare!”
A couple, who I’ll call Dave and Susan, are struggling through the first few weeks of surviving an affair. Susan is devastated and says that she never thought her husband would be a person who would cheat. Susan saw her husband as a good person, someone who is honest and able to handle their children, work, and life with integrity. Once she found out about the affair, her world fell apart. She didn’t know what to trust and worst of all she couldn’t trust herself. She and Dave have been working hard to recover from this painful event every week, by coming into Family Tree Counseling, discussing their pain with me. What has happened is two fold. First, they both believed in the marriage myth, that if they behave in loving ways, they will be happy. The second thing is that they forgot who they really are as individuals. The marriage myth is believing that marriage, being married, or being in love, is easy, doesn’t hurt, and is built to make you happy. These are many of the marital myths people believe in before getting married and continue to hold onto for years.
Once married, people often say that the other person has changed, that the person is not same as before they got married. The truth is no one is changing, they are revealing more and more of who they are, how they feel and respond to the world, and how they were raised as children. They are behaving more as the individual person, based on their past life before you met as a couple. All the ways Dave and Susan learned to handle stress, lack of intimacy, pain, suffering, and loss over their childhood is showing up in their married lives. Susan has perfectionist tendencies, anxiety, abandonment, and shame while Dave is a lost little boy looking for affirmation, approval, and acceptance. As the marriage has ripened over time, Susan’s anxiety has influenced Dave’s feelings of inadequacy, loneliness, and shame. When the affair presented itself, Dave found a tool to numb out the pain he felt in the marriage. Though Susan saw him as an honest person, Dave was able to lie, be deceptive, and withhold love. This drove Susan to dig into his life to discover that he had been having an affair.
Having an affair happen to you doesn’t mean the marriage has to end or that the marriage should continue…it just means it’s been a while since you looked at yourself and need to do a lot of soul searching work to make changes so this kind of betrayal can become a learning moment in both your lives!
What do they do now? They each have to work on protecting their relationship by using boundaries to create safety for both of them from the outside world, to build trust inside their marriage, and work on their family of origin issues so they can have a stronger marriage. A marriage that is fulfilling and not based in insecurities. They work every week to make behavioral and cognitive changes and learn new tools to have real intimacy. Now they have real hope!