Today guest expert Susan Heitler, PhD, from Power of Two Marriage and Therapy Help is back. She’s agreed to answer a question I get A LOT from reader, but that I do not feel qualified to answer myself.
So, my husband cheated. We’ve been married almost 3 years, and recently he confessed to me that after 5 months of being married to me, he had cheated. It was a one time, drunken mistake thing. Everything they did, they did orally. Though it happened long ago, it’s still new to me. The first few days after hearing the news were very unsettling, confusing, and upsetting. I don’t want to leave him. I just don’t know how to put this upset to rest. He was sincere and honest and remorseful when he told me about it. We both love each other very much, but I don’t how to get over this. Please. PLEASE advise me how to bring that life back to fully happy again!
Dr. Heitler’s response:
A crisis is an opportunity. So far you are doing a great job of handling this genuine marital crisis.
I will offer some advice, and I’m hoping many of this blog’s readers will have helpful suggestions as well.
I’d like to begin though by focusing on what you are doing so far that’s totally on the right path.
First, you are taking this incident seriously. A sexualized interaction with someone of the opposite sex does violate the marriage contract of monogamy and therefore merits very serious attention. The strong “unsettling, confusing, and upsetting” emotions are totally appropriate.
Second, this is not a time for silent suffering. You did a great job, it appears, of explaining to your husband your feelings (sad, horrified, injured, etc.) and discussing them quietly with him. That is, you said what you were feeling rather than acting your feelings out. You left the potential drama for the theater. Allowing yourself to explode in rage would have invited defensiveness, making it less likely that he would hear your feelings and concerns.
Third, it can be tempting after such a painful discovery, out of revenge or desperation, to want to spread the damage by telling others about your spouse’s misdeed. You refrained. Bravo again.
Fourth, kudos to your husband for his full confession. The fastest way to make a sexual indiscretion into a disaster is to lie about it. Cover-ups create a secondary problem of secrecy. Ultimately, it’s the secrecy that shatters trust, far more than the original incident of mistaken sexual actions.
Fifth, it’s very helpful that you are clear that you do not want to leave your husband. People make mistakes. Mistakes are for learning. They are not for leaving. Leaving him would be a gross over-reaction that, like secrecy, would convert your husband’s mistake into a super-disaster for every one.
Ok, now for the advice.
One, keep trusting your inner guidance system. So far it has scored 100%. The best predictor of future success is past success.
Two, as I said above, mistakes are for learning. Encourage your husband to look back to learn all he can from this episode.
The mistakes your husband is likely to find most valuable for learning purposes are the moments when he turned left when he needed to turn right. E.g., he was drinking and started talking to a woman instead of staying with the guys. He needed to go to his hotel room, and instead he went to hers.
Three, looking together at what your husband has learned can inoculate both of you against future outbreaks of inadvertent infidelity. What learning would he—and you—like to take with you into the future as guidelines for protecting your monogamous relationship?
Common lessons learned from inadvertent infidelity include:
1) No personal conversations with an individual of the opposite sex other than each other unless you are in professional situations such as doctor, lawyer, or therapist interactions.
2) No time alone in private places with someone of the opposite sex.
3) If you have to be alone with someone of the opposite sex, keep the door open.
4) Be especially self-protective, avoiding one-on-ones, if there has been drinking.
5) Exit risky situations early. Or earlier. Like headaches, sexual arousal is easier to stop the earlier you do something to end it.
6) Once sexual feelings have been aroused, thinking about consequences tends to evaporate. Prevention is therefore the better part of valor. Naiveté about prevention is the single strongest predictor of infidelities.
There is a saying that “If he can remember, she can forget.” That is, if the responsible party can learn from the accident and remembers always the lessons learned, then the partner can forget the painful incident, or at least can cease to be overwhelmed with upsetting thoughts.
In sum, learning leads to healing. Turn that lemon to lemonade!
Readers: Have you ever gotten past an affair? Have you overcome a similar crisis? Are you involved in something like this right now? Share your advice, concerns and struggles.
A professional journalist, Alisa Bowman is the author of Project: Happily Ever After, a memoir of how she saved her marriage, and coauthor of Pitch Perfect, a must-read if you've ever had a sense of dread tie up your insides before a speech, presentation, or conversation. If you enjoyed this post, you will no doubt love her updates on Facebook and Twitter.