Friday, July 26, 2013

Five Steps to Healing A Marriage After An Affair -- Revisited


This post is frequently cited as the most viewed on my site (it originally ran in May 2012)...which indicates that there's a whole lotta women (and men) trying to navigate their way through the wreckage of an affair to rebuild their marriages. It's tough. But so, from what I hear, is divorce. There is no right path out of this. For some people, it's to rebuild their marriage; for others, divorce is the only option. For some, sadly, it's to stay silent and accept their partner's cheating.
If you're here, chances are it's because you're hoping to rebuild. No matter why you're here, you're welcome to share your story or simply relish the support and compassion of those who've been where you are.
Read on...

It seems presumptuous as well as pompous to suggest that I possess any great wisdom about healing a marriage after an affair. Yes, my husband had affairs. And yes, I'm still married. And yes, I would even consider myself and our marriage somewhat "healed" (if by "healed", one means that I no longer cry in grocery stores or fantasize about smothering my husband in his sleep). But wisdom? Not so much wisdom as life experience...which I suppose amounts to the same thing.
And I certainly know that, back when I was struggling to get through each hour of the day and wondering if I/my marriage was going to survive, I desperately wanted to know how others got through.
So, herewith, my thoughts. (And they are MY thoughts.  Take what you need, leave what doesn't work.) And remember too, this advice is for those who want to save their marriage...or at least preserve it long enough to determine if you want to save it.
Step #1: You have to both commit to putting the relationship first. Before your needs, before his needs...you serve the needs of the relationship, almost as if it's a child you're both nurturing. Once that is in place, you're far more free to hash stuff out without fear that one of you has one foot out the door.
This step is impossible with someone who's still deep in the fog of an affair. It takes two to save a marriage. You can try valiantly...but as long as he's refusing to take responsibility for the damage he's done, forget it. It doesn't mean it's over...but it does mean it's time for some tough love.
Step #2: You need to focus on healing yourself... Your main job in the early days following D-Day is to focus on taking care of yourself (and kids, if you have them). That means sleep, eating properly, avoiding excessive (or any!) alcohol, drugs, shopping, gambling. It means surrounding yourself with supportive people. Avoiding toxic people. Steering clear of drama. And staying away from the OW. It's time to wrap yourself in a cocoon and nurture yourself back to a sense of safety.
Step #3: ...and don't manage his healing. As much as it will kill you to acknowledge, he's hurting too. Yes, he detonated the bomb that caused the damage...but likely you both built the bomb together through years of slights, lack of appreciation, misunderstandings. And as much as it will also kill you (and you don't need to be privy to much), he's possibly missing the OW and very likely missing the sense of excitement that the affair provided. You don't need to (and should NOT) have to listen to his tales of woe and self-pity. He brought it on himself. But you would do yourself and him some good to allow him to heal on his own. You don't get to dictate his feelings. You DO get to dictate the terms of what you need to give him another chance but (and here's the catch), they must be terms that are focussed on your marriage healing, NOT on punishing him. (Sometimes it may seem to be both...but always check your motives.) For example, you get to insist that he cut off contact with the other woman as a condition of you staying. You do NOT get to insist that he doesn't miss her. Get it? Stay focussed on YOU, what you need and what you can reasonably control.
Step #4: Don't take his affair personally. I know it sounds wacky. In the days and weeks following discovery of my husband's affair, I went crazy trying to figure out what she had that I didn't. And for a perfectionist like me, it was excruciating! I was fit...she wasn't. I was smart...she wasn't. I was an overachiever...she wasn't. I raised money for orphans...she didn't. You get the idea. My husband kept telling me it had nothing to do with me and I would scream at him "How could this NOT have something to do with me. You chose to spend time with HER not ME? How is this not personal?" He had no idea...he only knew that it wasn't.
Finally, one day the light went on. I wish I could tell you what made me realize but I guess months of analysis along with my husband's reassurance finally clicked and I realized that it truly, honestly had nothing to do with me. It wasn't that there was something wrong with me, it was that there was something wrong with HIM. And he took that brokenness to someone else because it felt safer. Because if she rejected him, it wouldn't hurt the way it would with me. Counter-intuitive, yes. The thought process of a fairly screwed up psyche, yes. But also a thought process that so many of us have and simply don't realize. We seek outside ourselves what is missing inside.
So...I'll say it again. Don't take his affairs personally. They're about his broken-ness, not yours.
Step #5: Don't use his affair as an excuse for your own bad behaviour. His cheating does not give you an excuse to cheat, lie, steal or be physically or emotionally abusive. I said some horrible things in the wake of finding out. I said he was a lying scumbag (which, at that point, was factually validated by his behaviour). I said I hated him. I said he had "killed me inside". I smashed a watch of his, broke a television. I was pretty wacked out. Discovering a spouse's affair can make you crazy. Just keep crazy to a minimum as best you can. It doesn't help you, definitely hurts your kids...and can hurt your marriage to unleash crazy. If necessary, schedule your breakdowns -- rage and kick and scream in your bedroom when the kids are at school. Pound on your pillow, imaging it's his face. But keep yourself inside the law...and the boundaries of decency. Which also means NO revenge affairs. That's simply inviting another person into an already nutty situation. It's tempting, I know, to seek solace in the arms of someone who reassures you that you're still sexy and appealing. But you are. You never stopped being so (unless, of course, you did...in which case, get thee to a gym. Physical health can go a long way toward emotional health and to self-confidence.)

7 comments:

  1. I have to say you have offered the best pearls of wisdom I have read. I have been pouring over books and websites but they didn't offer anything that spoke to what I need. They all addressed repairing the marriage. But what do you do before you can get to a place of safety to do that. I wish I read this a few weeks back. But nonetheless, it helps me to refocus on myself and not on him, what he did and how I can take away the pain.

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  2. It was Spring when I found out my husband of 17 years had been having an affair for over 2 years. I was devastated and to this day it is still hard to believe he had been this selfish. It was also hard to believe when he said he was in a dark place and did not feel good about himself as a man and that it did not have anything to do with me but it was true. She was fat and not as successful and not as pretty as me. I just could not understand. It finally occurred to me that he needed someone that he could pretend like everything was ok; an escape from all the things he fely like he was failing at. I never made him feel less than a man. I always tried to encourage him. This blog has been a help as it helped me to come closer to my attempts to heal and forgive.

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    1. It is often shocking to us when we finally understand that this really didn't have anything to do with us. It really is about them working through their own issues with someone who's available and convenient. I'm glad you're finding support here.

      Elle

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  3. I also found out that my husband of 14 years has been involved with someone for some time apparently. He says that he wants to work things out. We are attending counseling, but I do not see any effort on his part to try to mend the relationship. He thinks I should just 'forget about it'. I can't. In the meantime, I have been reading lots of books and searching the internet for some glimmer of hope.

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    1. There isn't much hope as long as he thinks you're going to just "forget about it." You can' heal from something by pretending it never happened. It did happen and he choose to make it happen. Now, if he's interested in rebuilding his marriage, he needs to do some heavy lifting to make up for that choice.
      Counselling is a good start but he needs to do more than just show up. He needs to recognize how much damage he's caused and how the only way to rebuild trust is to work through what happened, understand why it happened and figure out how to ensure it doesn't happen again. Often guys are so shame-filled (about the affair but generally about previous family-of-origin stuff) that they can't stand the thought of sifting through their actions to get to the "why". But too bad. They detonated the bomb, now they need to clean it up.
      The good news is that you really can have a relationship that's so much deeper and richer, but only if you work through the pain together and come out the other side.

      Elle

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  4. I recently found out my husband has been having an affair . It was with a woman he met through his work. They became very close, very quickly and although he says their physical relationship only began a few months ago, the emotional relationship had been going strong for two years.
    So my question is: Can a husband and wife work towards a healthier relationship if they remain living in the same space after the husbands affair? Can they stay married after he has done damage? The reason I am asking is, that I am very reluctant to separate from my husband of ten years. YES he had an affair. But it has ended, at my request and with his realization of how much we stand to lose, he stands to lose. There is alot more to the story; my hand in the beginning, or how he perceived my injurious behavior. Because believe it or not, I am at fault as well. How he felt when he met the other woman and how she made him feel. In the beginning it wasn’t a physical relationship. It began as a professional friendship. They found they had a common problem in their respective marriages and leaned on each other for moral and emotional support. It just progressed from there.
    I am not excusing his behavior. What he did was selfish, cowardly, and destructive. But there are always two sides. A relationship takes two people be it friendship or marriage.
    We have decided through alot of counseling, through alot of communication, through the love we still have for each other and our family, to try our very hardest to stay together. Not because we need to. Because we WANT to. We don’t what the future will bring. It may work out to be better and stronger than before. It may not work out that we stay married, but that we remain friends and move on with our lives separately. But we both feel the need, the desire, the want to try.
    Elle, I have read most of your blog and have found so much of it extremely helpful. From the Five Ways We Hurt Ourselves..... to the Five Steps to Healing a Marriage after an Affair.
    I even suggested my mom read your blog. She seems to be having a harder time than I am. Any suggestions how I can help her to understand why I feel the desire to rebuild my marriage?
    As I told her "This happened to ME. Not you. Please don't act like it did." Because that is exactly how she is acting. Makes for a pretty tense relationship whenever she comes to see the kids. Besides I am afraid if I leave her alone with my husband I will return to find one less husband.

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    1. You've raised a really interesting issue re. your mother. It's one of our biggest challenges as parents, to acknowledge that we don't get to control our children's actions. To understand that our job is to keep them safe while they discover who they are. And that, when they become adults, it's THEIR job to keep themselves safe while they continue to discover who they are.
      Your mom is clearly struggling with this. And I know you know that she's coming from a place of fear -- fear that her daughter, whom she loves, is unsafe.
      I understand that fear. I wish I could protect my children forever. But I can't. None of us can. And, frankly, none of us always know what's safe or right for anyone else.
      It sounds as if both you and your husband have done a lot of soul-searching to come to the decision you have. What I hope your mom can come to understand is that her refusal to support you in your thought-out choice is hurting you. It's making it harder for you to stand solidly in your decision, and, perhaps, forcing you into a choice that you don't want to make re. whether your mom is a large part of your post-betrayal marriage or a peripheral part.
      Your mom's anger toward your husband masks a deep fear that this person she trusted to value her child screwed up. No-one's disputing that he screwed up. But I'm curious what her thoughts would be had you been the one to screw up. Is she as unforgiving? Did she raise children who never allow themselves to make mistakes, and certainly don't allow those who do the chance to make amends? Those are questions for you to think about.
      In my own case, my mother had been an alcoholic when I was younger. She became sober when I was about 19 and stayed that way for 25 years. By the time she became sober I was pretty done with her behaviour. I was close to writing her off. Instead, I gave her room to get sober and we ended up having an extremely close relationship for the rest of her life. She died 7 years ago and I don't regret for a second allowing her to stay in my life. It was better for her presence in it. So...she taught me forgiveness. She taught me that people could change and become better selves. Some don't deserve that second chance, but some do.
      I hope your mom can recognize that it's your right to decide if your husband is one of the those that do. And that her job is to simply love you no matter what.

      Elle

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