Rebuilding After The Affair
Written By: Mark Smith
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This is another difficult issue that we obviously deal with quite regularly. Just as with other marital issues, there is a healthy and proactive way to deal with this situation and there are many other very unhealthy and destructive ways to deal with it. I will cover 5 extremely important principles concerning the issue of extramarital affairs. Most of the insights that I have gained from my years of working with these issues are boiled down and covered in these five principles.
1. There are NO victims in marriages, even if your spouse cheats on you! I am serious as a heart attack. This is by far the most important concept that you will need to come to grips with. You will certainly feel victimized initially. Family and friends will certainly view you as a poor unfairly betrayed victim. In my many years of experience as a marital therapist and from all the professional reading that I have done, the evidence is quite clear; affairs do not occur in highly emotionally and sexually intimate marriages. They do occur with startling regularity in marriages that are distant, emotionally cutoff and lacking in intimacy and commitment. Our marriages are not about the other person. They are about us. Whom did you choose to be solely in charge of loving you? It is so important that you get this. Our marital choices are based on our unconscious "radar system" which attracts us to partners who basically will give us the same type and quality of love that we grew up with. Bummer, huh? It is absolutely the truth though. If you had some form of abandonment from parents during your childhood-a father who died or abandoned the family when you were very young, a mother who wasn't there for you, or if you are adopted, there is a very strong chance that you will unconsciously select a marital partner who will abandon and betray you by having an affair once the "enmeshment" or the close honeymoon over-idealizing is over with. It just might be who they are. God and we are in charge of our destinies, not other people. We are responsible for the choices that we have made in our lives. Our learning about the affair is our invitation to work really hard on our issues and ourselves and to learn what it all means about us. If you get this insight, then the recovery process will be in full swing. If you don't, then you will be mired in a dark, bitter, nasty, depressing and powerless place for a long, long time.
2. Playing the victim role will destroy whatever chance you had left of saving your marriage. Oh the stories that I could tell. Let me contrast the stories of two couples that will help me to illustrate the right way and the wrong way to deal with the revelation that your spouse has had an affair. The examples that I use here are not specifically about two actual couples that I have worked with, but rather they are a mixture of many couples that I've worked with through the years. The first couple we'll call Dave and Sue. They are in their mid-fifties by the time they cross paths with me. Dave is still obsessed with a brief affair that Sue had 30 years before! Dave was a hard charging lawyer clocking 80 to 100 hours a week during the early years of the marriage. Sue was desperately lonely and a womanizing acquaintance picked up on what was going on at home and he started to give Sue what she needed from Dave but wasn't getting on an emotional level-attention, compliments and romance. Although Sue never thought that she would ever cheat on Dave, the new relationship did become sexual. And, for the past 30 years she has paid dearly for her indiscretions. Dave still gets tearful as he talks about the affair. It has been the major issue around which all other conflicts have centered. I like to share a little story to help such husbands understand their responsibilities in marriages like Dave and Sue's. If you go away on a vacation and you not only leave your front door unlocked, but you also leave it standing wide open, and you return home to discover that your VCR has been stolen, then you have not been victimized. You invited it. If you have a pretty, young wife and you check out of the marriage in your insecure pursuit of "success," if you stop meeting her emotional needs, then somebody is liable to come along and start to meet those needs in your stead. You have to own your part. Affairs happen for a reason and there are no victims.
The second fellow was a workaholic accountant who ignored his pretty, young wife. He was devastated to learn of her affair. However, in the next few months, he focused on his own issues. He learned that an affair was all but inevitable in any marriage that he would be part of because he knew very little about emotional intimacy. He even got to such a wonderfully proactive place that he held no bitterness towards his ex-wife and he stated that the affair was actually the best thing that had ever happened to him! It was his emotional and psychological wake up call. The things he learned about himself and the ways in which he grew were priceless to him.
3. It is natural to try to grovel and to cling to the betraying spouse, but it is exactly the wrong thing to do. Affairs touch people on a very deep level. The knowledge that your spouse has been with somebody else brings up powerful feelings of abandonment. These strong feelings many times sort of override our judgment in terms of what the next step should be. Non-emotional men usually become an absolute mess, but they then attempt to process the whole matter in 2 to 3 days, which is not healthy. They can't stand the pain so they skip the grieving process and arrive prematurely at a stance of "let's forgive and forget." It is natural to want to compete with the new challenger for your spouse's affections. Many couples have reported that some of the best sex of their marriages occurred just after the revelation of an affair. However, clinging, pursuing and prematurely forgiving are all wrong moves at that point. You need to feel your anger without getting victimy. Your anger needs to get bigger than your abandonment issues. I tell my clients that they need to take an invisible tape measure out of their pockets, measure just how far their spouses have backed up and then back up from them an equal distance. That does not mean for them to go out and act out sexually themselves. It means treating yourself with dignity, value and respect. It means putting them on relational probation. It means setting boundaries and expectations. Dr. James Dobson has a very helpful book on the subject of how to handle your spouse's affair in his book "Love Must Be Tough." Get a copy of it and read it through about three times. It will encourage you to set healthy and appropriate boundaries rather than weakly giving in to your spouse's inappropriate behavior.
4. Therapy is an absolute must and separation will probably be necessary as well. If your spouse is truly penitent and if they desperately want to work on the marriage, then therapy together as soon as possible is a foregone conclusion. You have to fix the underlying problems that caused the affair to begin with. "I'm sorry and I promise to never do it again" just won't cut it. Is there an intimacy problem? Are there many unresolved marital conflicts? Are there problems with addictive behavior? Does your spouse have an addiction to relationships? Do they have a sexual addiction? If they do, then they will need some serious therapy as well as involvement in a 12-step group. Your marriage is crying for professional intervention. The affair isn't the problem; it is a symptom of a bigger problem. If you stick your head back in the sand and just move on without fixing anything, it will happen again. The pain of your marital crisis is the perfect opportunity to get into therapy and to fix whatever needs fixed. Having an affair is a big deal. Part of the placing of your spouse on marital probation might very well mean separating while you work hard to repair the damage and while you both work hard at repairing the damage that occurred during your childhoods. They do not deserve to be in your bed just days, weeks or months removed from bedding down with someone else. They have some things yet to prove to you. Do you have the courage and the self-esteem to step back from them? You had better have it. If you gloss over the problems, they will not go away all by themselves. Desperate times call for desperate measures.
5. Divorce is not necessary or the best option as long as your spouse is sincerely engaged in the recovery process. Although scripture indicates that infidelity is grounds for a divorce, it still leaves the door open for the better option of a healed marriage. Literally millions of couples have worked out their issues with each other concerning an affair by one of the spouses. Do not run out and consult an attorney to start divorce proceedings immediately. The only winners there will be the attorneys. Call a good therapist-one who won't just let you vent your spleen while they kiss your boo-boos. Hook up with a therapist who will hold your feet to the fires of your choices and your responsibilities in the marriage. Give it time to see how it will play out. If your partner leaves you for the new lover, then obviously it will be time to seek legal representation.
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