Infidelity is an issue in many relationships, and the causes are many. What started out as an innocent friendship may have became something more. Perhaps you had no intention of falling for the other person, you weren’t actively looking, and you just started talking to a colleague, neighbor, person in your book club, or classmate with whom you reconnected online.
While there are a variety of ways in which affairs begin, this article will focus on how an unfaithful partner should behave once the affair is exposed. Here are four things you should or should not do in the aftermath of exposure if you want your relationship to survive.
1. Don’t Try to Hide Incriminating Evidence
Once an affair is discovered, your partner will start to second guess and question your past conversations, statements, trips, absences, late nights, strange explanations, etc. I understand that you may have gotten into the habit of lying, being illusive and noncommittal with your partner, but for your relationship to have a chance at recovering, the lying behavior must stop immediately.
All of us have a self-protective instinct that has evolved to keep us safe, and after the affair has come to light, this instinct may shift into overdrive. However, you should fight off the impulse to continue to be dishonest; after all, your partner is likely to be going over everything with a fine-toothed comb. I have seen many couples in the aftermath of an exposed affair experience the hurt partner asking questions about events that took place days, months, or even years before. If your partner’s instinct leads her or him to feel that your explanation of an event doesn’t make sense or is inconsistent, he or she may look further.
Part of what may be driving your partner’s decision to look deeper is the pent-up feeling that for many months something in your relationship felt “off.” Time and again, I have seen unfaithful partners try to cover up or lie after the affair is discovered, only for the truth to come out later (often due to the sleuthing of the partner). Once the truth comes out, whatever new trust may have been created is once again destroyed. The more frequently previously withheld information gets discovered by the hurt partner, the more difficult it will be to rebuild trust. Trust is much harder to rebuild after a relationship breach than it ever was to build initially. If and when your hurt partner asks questions and wants to know details of the affair, it is best if you tell the truth.
2. Take Full Responsibility
Another mistake that many people make when an affair becomes exposed is to blame their partner. In a desperate attempt to explain or project blame, a partner might declare that the reason for the infidelity is because the partner didn’t pay them enough attention, wasn’t interested in having sex, worked too much, was always angry, drank too much, or wasn’t meeting their needs. Any and all of these may be true, but it still doesn’t excuse infidelity.
An unfaithful partner should never take the approach of blaming the partner for their decision. Even in a very unhappy relationship, there are many options available to both partners to make things better. Cheating is never a good one. The only person responsible for the infidelity is the unfaithful partner. There were likely many factors that created an unhappy relationship, and both partners probably played a role. However, in the aftermath of the exposure of any affair, the only one who should take responsibility is the unfaithful partner.
I understand how one may be tempted to project blame onto the spouse—feelings of shame and guilt need an outlet. The unfaithful partner is attempting to explain the unexplainable, and it can feel emotionally overwhelming to admit to themselves and their partner the size of their error in judgment. I know it is difficult to accept, but the decision to cheat falls completely on the shoulders of the unfaithful partner, and admitting this can be a step toward gaining forgiveness.
3. Avoid Becoming Defensive or Angry
Another position that you should avoid when facing the aftermath of affair exposure is to become defensive and angry with your partner. When a partner learns of an infidelity, it can feel like the person they love and trust the most has, literally and figuratively, knocked the wind out of them. The hurt partner will be angry, scared, and sad. The anger you feel from them may come in waves; emotions can and do turn very quickly. Your partner’s life has been turned upside down.
This is not the time to defend your actions. There are no adequate words to justify what you did. Your partner is in pain, and unfortunately, you caused that pain. If you want to save your relationship, this means you need to clean up the mess. During the days, weeks, and months after the affair, the unfaithful partner should not become angry or exhibit frustration when the hurt partner asks questions about the affair partner or the affair. In order to stand a chance at rebuilding, you must be forthcoming, calm, and respectful of the pain you caused. The pain and memories from the affair will not dissipate quickly, so you should not hold that expectation.
4. Focus on Your Partner’s Feelings, Not Your Own
It is also ineffective and destructive in the long run for the unfaithful partner to inadvertently emotionally manipulate the hurt partner by exhibiting signs of self-pity and exaggerated remorse. You may be unsure if your partner will stay in the relationship, and are likely dealing with tremendous anxiety about the future of your relationship, but this is not the time draw attention to yourself and your feelings. This is time to focus on your partner, be truthful, take responsibility, be accountable for your actions, and begin the process of rebuilding trust.
© Copyright 2014 GoodTherapy.org. All rights reserved. Permission to publish granted by Anne Brennan Malec, PsyD, LMFT, therapist in Chicago, Illinois
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