I am often asked, “How do you help people survive an affair? What do you tell a couple when this actually happens to them?”
My plan to achieve that remarkable result takes a couple down a very narrow path. There are plenty of rules to follow, and without the complete cooperation of both spouses it won’t work. But when the plan is followed the results are outstanding, and there are thousands of happy couples who bear witness to its amazing rate of success.
Step 1: End the Affair
The first step on the path to surviving an affair is for it to end. An affair ends when the straying spouse ceases all contact with his or her lover and never sees or talks to that person again. Time and again I’ve watched what happens when a drastic and decisive break with a lover is not made. They try to remain “friends” and maintain casual social contact. But inevitably they find their way back to their lover’s arms. It seems that when it comes to this one person, they exhibit incredibly flawed judgment and almost irresistible force draws them back.
But even if there were to be no risk of rekindling an affair, if any contact continues, the affair still remains alive in the mind of the betrayed spouse. Since an affair is the most hurtful and selfish act that one spouse can inflict on the other, any contact restores the memory and perpetuates the pain. Wives have told me that their husband’s affair was worse than being raped. Men have said their wife’s affair was worse than losing a child. It’s the ultimate betrayal.
For some, the affair ends the right way. The unfaithful spouse sends a letter to the lover that communicates how much suffering the affair caused the betrayed spouse and how thoughtless it was, a desire to rebuild the marriage, and that all contact would be terminated forever. The betrayed spouse reads the letter and approves of it before it’s sent. After the letter is sent, extraordinary precautions that I’ll explain in the next step are taken to avoid future contact with the lover.
But most affairs end the wrong way — they die a natural death. Instead of taking control of the situation, and making a decision to end it, most unfaithful spouses continue in the relationship as long as possible. Affairs, however, don’t usually last very long. I estimate that 95% of them don’t last two years. Those few who eventually marry are extremely fragile — much more likely to divorce than the average couple. So if an affair doesn’t end the right way, it will almost always end, even if it’s the wrong way.
Plan A – Expose the affair
If your unfaithful spouse is unwilling to end an affair the right way, I know of a way to help speed up its demise: Expose it. Your own family should know: Your parents, your siblings, and even your children. The family of your spouses lover should also know, especially the lover’s spouse. The pastor of your church should be informed as well. Exposure of an affair is like opening a moldy closet to the light of day. Affairs do well when they’re conducted in secret, but when they’re in full view for all to see, they appear as they are — incredibly foolish and thoughtless.
Even if exposure were to be ineffective in ending an affair, I’d recommend it anyway. The betrayed spouse needs as much support as possible, and exposure helps friends and relatives understand what’s going on. Keeping an affair secret is no real help to anyone. But I’ve been amazed at how well it dismantles the illusion that affairs rest upon. Instead of assuming that the relationship is made in heaven, an unfaithful spouse quickly senses that it’s a one-way ticket to hell on earth.
The first reaction of an unfaithful spouse to exposure is to try to turn the tables on the betrayed spouse. “I will never be able to forgive you for hurting me this way. Don’t you ever think about how I’d be affected by this?” Of course, it’s really the affair that hurts. The exposure simply identifies the source of the pain. The unfaithful spouse should be the one begging for forgiveness.
In spite of the suffering that an affair inflicts on a betrayed spouse, during this period of exposure he or she should try to make as many “Love Bank” deposits and as few withdrawals as possible. If you argue about the affair, you’ll damage recovery. Insist on the unfaithful spouses complete separation from the lover (no contact for life), but don’t fight about it.
Plan B – Complete separation
If exposure itself doesn’t end the affair immediately, my advice regarding what to do next is usually different for husbands and wives. I encourage husbands to try to stick to avoiding arguments and meeting their unfaithful wives’ basic needs (Plan A) as long as possible (six months to a year). But I usually encourage wives to separate after about three weeks if their husband is still in contact with his lover. My experience has taught me that the health of most women deteriorates quickly and significantly while living with an unfaithful husband. Men, on the other hand, tend to be able to weather the storm longer with fewer emotional or physical effects.
In addition to avoiding health problems, a separation also helps a betrayed spouse hang on to what remains in their spouse’s Love Bank account. Daily interaction with an unfaithful spouse causes such large withdrawals, that a separation with no contact between spouses can actually help the marriage by temporarily freezing the betrayed spouse’s Love Bank. When the affair is over, the betrayed spouse is less likely to divorce when the unfaithful spouse wants to give the marriage a chance to recover.
Yet another advantage to separation is that some of the basic needs met by the betrayed spouse suddenly disappear. This is especially true when a couple has children. An unfaithful spouse often overlooks the betrayed spouse’s contribution to the family. While the lover may meet two basic needs that were unmet by the betrayed spouse, the betrayed spouse may have been meeting the other three that cannot be easily met by the lover. During a separation, the unfaithful spouse can become acutely aware of what he or she is missing.
When a betrayed spouse decides that it’s time to separate, I recommend complete separation with absolutely no direct contact (Plan B). The unfaithful spouse should be given the choice of having contact with the betrayed spouse or the lover, but not both. Someone should be appointed to go between spouses, delivering messages and children during visitation. But until the unfaithful spouse promises to completely end the affair, with absolutely no contact with the lover, the separation should continue. After the separation has lasted two years, with the unfaithful spouse’s contact with the lover continuing, I generally recommend a divorce.
Step 2: Create Transparency
When a wayward spouse ends the affair, and agrees to rebuild the marriage, extraordinary precautions must be taken to guarantee that there will be no relapses. Affairs thrive on what I’ve called a secret second life. It’s what you do under the radar. You know, or at least suspect, that your spouse wouldn’t approve, so a part of your life is hidden from him or her. When a spouse is able to come and go without any accountability, men like Alex can have an affair with relative impunity. The temptation of an affair is great because there’s little to stop them.
So I encourage couples to end their secret second lives by being transparent in the way they live their lives. It not only guards against affairs, but it also helps create intimacy and build compatibility. It’s not a punishment for bad behavior — it’s an essential ingredient for a healthy marriage.
Transparency occurs when couples follow the “Policy of Radical Honesty”. Reveal to your spouse as much information about yourself as you know — your thoughts, feelings, habits, likes, dislikes, past history, daily activities, and future plans.
Nothing should be hidden. Passwords, email, text messages, telephone logs, computer histories, and all other forms of communication are made readily available to a spouse.
Create a twenty-four-hour-a-day schedule of each others whereabouts. Such a schedule is essential in a great marriage because spouses who are partners in life check with each other throughout the day to coordinate their decisions and activities. This can include several phone calls during the day as well. How does this twenty-four-hour-a-day checking feel? Admittedly, it can feel quite annoying at first. Being accustomed to an independent lifestyle, you must now account for your time and activities.
Typically a straying spouse, confronted with the demands of transparency and having no contact with his former lover responds with total depression. He is trying to save his marriage, but he feels miserable. Now, cut off from Harriet — somebody he loves very much and who met some of his most important emotional needs — and with the checkup going, he finds himself feeling trapped.
Step 3: Meet Each Other’s Basic Emotional Needs
When the decision is finally made to reconcile and to avoid all contact with the lover, it’s usually with the hope that the spouse can learn to meet needs met by the lover much more easily than the lover can meet needs met by the spouse. This is certainly true when the couple has children. The lover will simply never be able to take the place of the spouse in the family, but the spouse can take the place of the lover.
My primary goal in helping couples recover after an affair is for them to establish a romantic relationship that’s just as passionate as the affair. I don’t want their choice to be between passion and reason — the affair offering passion and the marriage offering reason. I want them to have passion and reason, something that can only be found in their marriage. All this could take many weeks and months.
I’ve found that breaking a man away from his lover after he reconciles with his wife usually proves more difficult than breaking a woman away from her lover. I am not sure why this is so. Perhaps women feel more uncomfortable loving two men, while men adjust better to multiple relationships. Throughout history, in the common system of polygamy, men have supported many women, but most societies have not permitted women to do the same. Usually sociologists have assumed this discrimination had an economic base (men could support women, but women could not usually support men), but the reason may also turn out to be emotional — men usually enjoy having several wives, while most women find having several husbands to be repulsive.
Your Marriage Will Become Stronger Than Ever
A person who discovers his or her spouse in an affair experiences one of the most severe blows anyone could possibly sustain. It also sends both partners on an emotional roller coaster. But when a couple follow my narrow path to recovery, they often tell me that they have built a better love relationship than they ever would have had if the affair had not jolted them into constructive action. The affair provides the traumatic trigger that finally gets the couple to meet each other’s basic needs. Once they start meeting those basic needs, their marriage becomes what it was supposed to have been all along.
Granted, it’s certainly more difficult to learn to meet each other’s basic needs after an affair than it would have been before an affair. And it’s lot more painful. But with or without an affair, couples can create a very passionate and fulfilling marriage if they simply learn to meet each other’s basic needs.
People who have never been through recovery after an affair usually feel that they could never love or trust an unfaithful spouse again. But the thousands of couples who I’ve guided down this narrow path are living proof that this is not true.
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