The following 10 questions will guide your exploration of the circumstances of the infidelity and the meaning behind it. Discussing them will give you the raw material from which to co-construct your story.
1. What did you say to yourself that gave you permission to get involved?
There are all kinds of reasons for not stepping over the line that would normally stop you from entering a forbidden territory. Vulnerabilities and values will be revealed by the thoughts and actions that came up as you crossed thresholds into the extramarital relationship. Most likely, discussing these questions will uncover the magnetism of the relationship, the sense of curiosity, or the belief that nothing bad would come of it. One of the most revealing thoughts is whether the unfaithful partner considered the consequences of getting involved or only of getting caught.
It’s important to understand how a platonic friendship can shift into an affair. When people confide to opposite-sex friends about problems in their marriage, they are revealing a weak spot and signaling their availability at the same time. Although women share deep feelings with lots of people, particularly other women, men are usually most comfortable sharing their feelings in a love relationship. As a result, when a relationship becomes emotionally intimate, men tend to sexualize it.
2. After the first time you had sex, did you feel guilty?
Asking about guilt reveals the internalized values of the unfaithful partner. Some people never feel any guilt about getting involved. People who anticipate guilty feelings before they act are more inclined to avoid dangerous crossings. Others feel guilty after they act, although guilt after the transgression doesn’t necessarily keep them from repeating their “sin.”
Some people feel so disgusted with themselves after their first extramarital sex that they get together again with the affair partner as soon as possible. To get another dose of the aphrodisiac offers them a temporary escape from their self-loathing. Some get rid of their guilt and continue the affair by rationalizing that nobody is getting hurt because they are “not taking anything away” from their spouse or family. Others transform guilty feelings by taking responsibility and terminating their extramarital behaviors long before they are discovered.
Through discussions with his wife, Lisa, Les figured out how he let himself be drawn into an affair with Fiona, a new colleague at work. He recognized that it started off with his compassion for Fiona’s situation. He was moved by her tale of a distressed marriage, a disabled child, and a terminally ill father who lived with her.
Les admitted that he was flattered by Fiona’s idealizing him when she compared him to her insensitive husband. Sexual intimacy developed as Les became convinced that he was “in love” with Fiona, and he began to detach emotionally and sexually from the marriage. Because Les and Lisa talked about how he felt sorry for Fiona, it became clear to both of them that he was vulnerable to rescuing maidens in distress. He vowed that in the future, he would erect distinct boundaries with unhappy, attractive women who touched his kind heart. When involved partners share their feelings on this level, they are letting their betrayed spouse inside their mind and re-forging their bond. They not only are discussing what occurred, but together they are gaining insight into the underlying dynamics.
3. How could it go on so long if you knew it was wrong?
Affairs are both messy and glamorous. The forbidden, unstable nature of secret affairs keeps passion flowing years beyond what’s common in a stable relationship. Unfaithful spouses often appear to be addicted to their lovers. They fail in their efforts to end the affair time and time again, pulled back by a magnetic force they can’t seem to resist. Only with great determination are they able to break the spell.
Comprehending what started an affair is different from comprehending what kept it going. It may have started out of a shared interest or sexual attraction but continued because of a deepening emotional attachment. Or it may have started as an emotional affair and continued because the sex was so great. Or it may have started because the marriage was in a slump but continued because it assumed a life of its own long after the marriage improved.
It is as important to understand how the affair ended as it is to understand what sustained it. The ramifications of an affair that was ended by the unfaithful spouse before disclosure are very different from an affair that was ended either by the affair partner or by the ultimatums of the betrayed partner. If the affair ended abruptly, the attachment will be harder to break than if the affair died a natural death. It’s easier to put a relationship behind you if you’re the one who made the decision to leave.
4. Did you think about me at all?
If the unfaithful partner had been thinking about the betrayed partner, he or she wouldn’t have gotten so involved in the first place. The act of infidelity is not about the person who was betrayed–it is about the person who did the betraying. Betrayed spouses often see themselves as a central character in a spouse’s affair and believe that every step was taken with them in mind. “How could you do this to me?” they ask. The reality is that the involved spouse probably didn’t consider his or her partner much at all. Simply put, unfaithful partners seldom anticipate the tragic consequences or the pain they inflict.
It will probably be hurtful for betrayed partners to learn that although unfaithful spouses have difficulty suppressing thoughts of their lovers at home, they are unlikely to think about their spouses while they are in their love nests. Intrusive thoughts of lovers flow from necessity of maintaining secrets, but it takes little energy to suppress thoughts of socially sanctioned marriages.
5. What did you share about us?
This question addresses the issues of loyalty to the marriage and the nature of emotional intimacy in the affair. The betrayed partner has an understandable interest in knowing how much of a window the affair partner had into the marriage. The betrayed partner might also want to know how he or she and the marriage were portrayed.
Some unfaithful partners give positive accounts of their marriages and glowing descriptions of their spouses, to the bewilderment and chagrin of their affair partners. Others describe their spouses as cold or distant. It’s hard to know whether this is an attempt to deceive by making the marriage look bad or whether it is a misguided unburdening of real marital woes. In any case, if you are the unfaithful partner, it’s important for you to talk to your spouse about real problems in the marriage that you’ve discussed only with your affair partner. The next chapter will help you both review the story of your marriage and address these problems together.
In the event that the marriage was shielded and the betrayed spouse was never discussed, why were these topics not discussed with the affair partner? Some unfaithful partners try to keep their double lives completely separate by compartmentalizing. They may delude themselves into thinking that they are honoring their marriage by shielding it from the scrutiny of the person they are cheating with.
6. Did you talk about love or about a future together?
Talking about love is likely to bring to the surface errors of assumed similarity. The betrayed partner might insist that love and marriage were part of the picture and won’t believe otherwise. If the involved partner does confess to being in love, this admission can make sense of events in a way that rote denials never could. It would explain why the affair went on so long and why it took so long to recover from the loss.
If you are the involved partner, however, you should not fabricate a story of unrequited love just to satisfy your partner’s misguided projections. Be honest about whatever romantic declarations or talk of the future did occur. Otherwise, your betrayed partner may fill in the blanks with scenarios that are far more painful than the actual truth. Admit it if you ever shared dreams of “riding off into the sunset” together or said “I love you” in the heat of passion. I have seen it backfire when betrayed partners found incriminating love letters or e-mails after involved partners denied exchanging words of love or dreams of the future.
If you are the betrayed partner, make a strong effort to hear the story without filtering it through your own subjective lens. Infidelity does occur without falling in love. You must be open to versions that vary from your belief system unless you have valid evidence that you are getting a watered-down rendition.
7. What did you see in the affair partner?
The betrayed partner will already have a portrait of the affair partner, but it is almost never the whole picture. Betrayed spouses are prone to place all the blame on the affair partner, preferring to believe that their gullible spouse was manipulated and seduced. They may not be willing to accept that the person to whom they’re married took an active role, and therefore displace a lot of the anger and rage onto the affair partner. Involved partners must recount the ways they encouraged the affair and invested energy to keep it going. It is less likely that an infidelity will happen again when the involved partner owns up to having been a full participant.
Betrayed partners vacillate between glorifying the lover as an incomparable rival and disparaging him or her as a despicable human being. Questions about physical appearance, personality, and intellect are attempts to see whether they measure up to their rival in sex appeal and achievement. These questions aren’t helpful, as they seldom reveal the lure of the affair partners looking rather ordinary. The appeal of the affair is frequently in the positive mirroring or the sounding board it provides, rather than in the lover’s charisma.
8. What did you like about yourself in the affair? How were you different?
Instead of focusing on what the affair partner was like, it is more productive to focus on what the unfaithful partner was like in the extramarital relationship. New relationships allow people to be different: more assertive, more frivolous, or more giving. A strong attraction of affairs is the opportunity to try on new roles: the insensitive, detached husband becomes energized by his own empathy and devotion; the sexually uninterested wife is exhilarated by new found passion and erotic fantasies. In long-term relationships, the potential to develop a different persona is constricted by familiarity. For example, a man who is a powerful CEO in a large corporation is regarded and teased in his family of origin as “the baby.”
A good question for the involved partner is: “What did you experience about yourself in the affair that you would like to experience in the marriage?” Perhaps the marriage can begin to foster these positive aspects of the self. In fact, the betrayed partner may find it hurtful that the involved partner enjoyed them first with somebody else.
9. Were there previous infidelities or opportunities and how was this time similar or different?
This is an opportunity to examine any patterns of infidelity or near misses that may be relevant to how this affair unfolded. Discuss how you or your partner handled previous temptations, even if no lines were crossed. Explore past experiences of slippery slopes and blurred boundaries. If this is not the first incident, ask how this infidelity is different from or the same as the others. Were there earlier experiences that were “only oral sex” or “sex without love” or “love without sex”?
Partners who were too accepting of an earlier infidelity can mislead their spouses into thinking it’s no big deal to be discovered. One unfaithful husband told me that his affair had been worth it. It had taken him only two weeks to pay for something that had felt good for six months.
Not every couple takes the time or has the guidance and support to work through betrayals that have occurred before. Although you might prefer to move ahead without dredging up all that old, miserable stuff, past affairs that are not dealt with will continue to contaminate your relationship.
10. Did you have unprotected sex?
Sad to say, this is one of those questions that you must ask. Ignoring the risk of disease or pregnancy is a thoughtless act. Some unfaithful partners give an adolescent rationale: “We were swept away by love and didn’t want it to look like it was pre-planned.” Although relying on birth control pills or diaphragms may protect from unwanted pregnancies, those methods still expose the participants to sexually transmitted diseases. Few people regard their affair partners as a possible source of infection, so they don’t take the necessary precautions to have safe sex.
Unprotected sex is a painful reminder of how inconsiderate and reckless the unfaithful partner may have been during the affair. Regardless of protestations, both spouses should be tested for AIDS and other sexually transmitted diseases. Willingness to submit to these humbling medical exams and tests is an act of consideration and accountability by the involved partner that will remove another obstacle to resuming safe marital sex.