Sunday, April 28, 2013
If your wife or husband just found out about your affair, I'm so sorry for both of you. Your spouse is now in a world of shock and pain, you are probably in a world of regret and shame. A terrible spot for each of you, I truly understand.
What you do right away can make a tremendous difference in how quickly the two of you heal from this trauma. I'd like to give you some suggestions on how you can immediately make it better and encourage you to do as much of the following as you can.
DURING THE INITIAL CONVERSATION OR IMMEDIATELY AFTER YOUR SPOUSE HAS FOUND OUT:
1. Offer to talk, but don't push.
Your spouse may or may not want to talk. Don't push, allow them to do what feels right to them. If they want to yell and scream, that is ok, but hitting and any physical violence is not. If physical violence is happening, tell your spouse that you want to help, but can't be in a dangerous place, so you will be going out for a little while and will be back in a couple of hours. If necessary, take any children or pets with you. Physical violence like this is not the norm, but just in case, I want to make sure you know what to do.
2. Be very soft, gentle and apologetic.
Focus on listening and let your spouse vent their frustration, anger, and hurt. Where you can, be soft, apologetic, genuine, and empathetic. Say things like, "I can only imagine how hurt you are," or "It makes sense that you'd feel that way." Your spouse is craving validation and support, give that to them. Now is not the time to explain why you did what you did or what it meant to you. It's all about your spouse at first.
3. Take frequent breaks, but don't leave.
If things are getting very heated, ask for a break, but don't leave the house. Leaving sends the message that when the going gets tough, you get going. Your spouse needs to know that's not what you will do, they need to know you're going to stay with them, even when it's hard.
DURING THE NEXT COUPLE OF DAYS:
4. Become as transparent as possible.
Once the initial shock has passed, you can start to offer more information to your spouse. I'd like you to become an open book, where you become as transparent as you possibly can. Share your email, your passwords, your facebook account, twitter, linked in, your phone, anything and everything you use to communicate. This may seem like an invasion of privacy, and candidly, it is. If you acted in a way that broke the trust in the relationship, you must take some drastic steps to show that there are no more secrets and that you're willing to do whatever it takes to be trusted again.
5. Encourage questions.
Encourage your spouse to sit down and write out as many questions as they have for you. Some people want to know every detail of the affair, some want less detail. Please let your spouse ask you every question they have. Answer those questions as painfully honestly as you can. Holding anything back will create major problems in the future. You may think you're protecting your spouse by sparing a painful detail, but what usually happens is that the truth will come out later and your spouse will assign tremendous value to the details, so please, don't skip or whitewash anything. If you don't know, it's ok to say you don't know, but do try to offer a rough idea. If the conversation is getting too hard or too much, ask for a break and agree on a time when you'll come back and continue.
6. Be friendly and kind, but not over the top.
Sometimes we have the instinct to go over the top and start sending flowers, candy, new cars and other goodies to the loved one after the affair. In my experience, this usually creates more hurt, so resist doing this. Your spouse is likely to think, "Oh great, you didn't think to send me flowers while you were hooking up with that woman from the office, but now you can think of me...you're a jerk!" So really, resist. Much better to be "normal," be kind and friendly and offer to help, but nothing over the top. Make yourself available to listen and talk whenever your spouse wants to.
AS TIME GOES ON:
7. Recognize that healing is a process, not an event.
It takes most couples about 9 months to heal from an affair. This is an average, not a hard rule. Some couples take longer, some shorter. How you responded in the beginning will usually determine how quickly you heal. The healing process is much like the grieving process after someone has died, so try to keep supporting your spouse and empathizing with their feelings.
8. Think about the why question.
The thing that most spouses really want to know after an affair is why you did it. I'd like you to really dig deep and think about this. Your initial answer is not going to be the most complete one, so please let yourself contemplate why for a while. Ask yourself how you felt before the affair, what the affair meant to you, what you got out of it, what you were missing, and what you feel now. Talk about this when your spouse asks.
9. Don't be defensive or justify it.
One of the worst things you can do at any point is to say, "Well, I had the affair because you were such a b**ch and you completely ignored me for years." Even if this is partially true, it's the wrong thing to say. You need to take responsibility for your choice: you had an affair and that was wrong. Your spouse might have done some wrong things to, but you should focus on you. At some point in your conversations, you can say, "I remember feeling really lonely and unimportant. It got so bad that I was just craving any attention and I was vulnerable that night and I gave in to a moment where I thought I could feel better. That was the wrong choice; I should have found a way to talk about it and get you to understand how bad it was for me."
10. Get some further help.
I'd love for you and your spouse to work with someone like me to guide you through the healing process. If that's not possible, I highly recommend Dr. John Gottman's book - What Makes Love Last and Janis Spring's book - After The Affair. Both are excellent and offer practical advice to help you heal.
Finally, let me reassure you: you can heal your relationship after an affair. Affairs are quite common and nearly every couple that I've taken care of in a situation like yours has stayed together and built a stronger marriage. I think you can too and if I can help you, just give me a call.
Wishing you the best!
Dr Kathy Nickerson is an expert marriage counselor in Orange County, California. Her practice focuses on preventing divorce, helping marriages thrive, improving communication in couples, and affair recovery. You can learn more at www.DrKathyNickerson.com.