If your affair has recently come to light, it can be tempting to avoid the situation, as if it is something that will merely blow over. But your honesty and next steps are crucial to rebuilding trust and comforting a hurt spouse.
- Fess up.
There are a million reasons to not tell the truth. They will leave you, they will get so angry, it will just make things worse, etc. If an affair has been exposed, you will be tempted to minimize it so that it will not make your spouse more upset. Be clear about this…any minimization or justification will make it way worse for your spouse. Get the truth out there. If it is piecemealed, (meaning they found out about bits and pieces over the course of time) trust building is way harder, if not impossible. They will have a ton of questions. Answer them the best you can. Steer away from graphic details, but generally, you will need to help them understand what it was that went on and to what extent. Trust is impossible without truth.
- Say what it was, not what it wasn’t.
It will likely infuriate your spouse even more to hear what the affair wasn’t. Here are some examples: “It was nothing.” “It meant nothing.” “It was just a friendship.” “It wasn’t like that.” “It was not what you think.” If you want to build trust, start with what it was. “It started as a friendship, but it turned flirtatious and then it became sexual.” “It was a lot of inappropriate texting and flirting.” “While I never told her I loved her, we said a lot of flirtatious things to each other.” “It happened on two occasions and I had to tell you many lies to cover up for those two situations.” “It was never physical…but it was emotional. I confided a lot of things to him, about me, our marriage, etc. Things I should have been confiding in you.”
- Talk about it.
You may desire to avoid or evade conversations about the affair. Of course…talking about it makes you feel terrible and makes your spouse even angrier it seems. It’s best to just move on and try to move forward, right? Be clear, if you betrayed your spouse, they are thinking about it all the time. If you don’t bring it up or aren’t willing to discuss it with them, they (and you) will suffer longer. Yes, it means hearing their pain, their anger. This is a time to listen and respond with eagerness. You may not know what to say. You may be terrified anything you say will make it worse. For a while, it’s letting your spouse react. Allow them to have strong reactions, for a long period of time. If you feel you are under attack or you are being emotionally or physically abused, you may wish to discuss an in-home or out-of-home separation to establish safety. Otherwise, hang in there with their pain. They need to express it. They need to be heard. And mostly, they need to be comforted (read my article about comfort if you need help with this).
- Understand the impact.
Oftentimes, a betrayed spouse, one who finds out about an affair, may feel traumatized. Truly, they often will experience the same types of symptoms as someone who was in a life-threatening situation–symptoms that are similar to PTSD. Symptoms like nightmares, flashbacks, anxiety, lack of safety and security, hopelessness, depression, sleeplessness, low self-esteem, preoccupation with thoughts, and difficulty concentrating are expected after a betrayal. If your spouse experienced a life-threatening situation, you would likely be showing up with unconditional comfort and support. They need nothing less than that for an affair. Overcome the urge to pull back and withdraw and lean in to their pain.
- Get support.
Affairs can create havoc in a relationship. The aftermath can feel overwhelming at times. Seeing the pain in your partner, hearing how angry they are, feeling shame, regret, guilt and even grief are part of this aftermath. Your partner needs a ton of support to get through the pain of an affair. And so do you. I recognize that good people have affairs all the time. I work with them. I hear their stories. I see their pain. Get support in working through your own feelings about the affair, what you feel it means about you. If you are supported well, you can support your spouse well. And believe me…they need it.