In this first in a series Dr. Wall explains a very important step that must take place for healing to occur after an affair.
Through love and faithfulness, sin is atoned for.
Normally one of the key aspects of therapy for a couple after an affair is the healing for the person whose spouse had the affair. But what about the person who had the affair? How does that person heal?*
For the purposes of simplicity, let’s say the person who had the affair is Spouse A and the Spouse who found out that Spouse A had an affair is Spouse B and let’s call A’s affairee C.
The hardest part for A is what is known in our field (mental health treatment) as relapse prevention. It is no use telling A to forgive himself if he goes back to his affairee! To quote what Jesus said to the woman caught in adultery: Go and sin no more. There you have it. This is the foundation of healing for A (and for B for that matter): Going forward and sinning no more. No more C. No emails, no texts, no cell phone calls, no Facebook or Twitter contacting, no clandestine meetings, no mementos (all gifts and letters and pictures, etc, are gone). If A still works with C, efforts are made on A’s part to distance A from the C. Sometimes this involves a request from A to management for A being removed from a particular project or moved to a different office. Sometimes this means only A being more conscientious about choices A makes throughout A’s day such as going to lunch at a different time or place than C.
A crucial part of healing for both A and B is A learning to be forthright about things going on in A’s life. Except in bizzaare cases, A cannot have an affair is A is NOT keeping a secret. If A had told B about the nature of A’s relationship with C all along, the affair more than likely wouldn’t have occurred. So, going forward, in order to heal, A has to learn to make better choices. This is one of the major benefits of marriage: Your spouse has your back, you have someone to bounce your ideas off of, you are not alone, and you have a beloved that will give you a reality check on choices that come your way. Your spouse can’t be of help to you unless your spouse knows what’s going on in your life.
Oftentimes one of the most powerful magnets that draws A to an affair in the first place is A talking to C about things that are none of C’s business, things that A should have been telling B all along. So, going forward, A should tell B these things and more. I call it OVERREPORTING. That’s probably not the best term, because I don’t want it to feel like tattling, but it’s the idea that A will tell B, going forward after an affair, more about A’s life than A ever has in the past: Where A went, what A did, who A saw and talked to, what A felt for good or ill, worries and fears. Of course B should be doing this to A as well. Every partner in a marriage should be doing this. Accountability in marriage is one of the major blessings of marriage and until a couple gets this, their marriage will NEVER reach it’s potential.
A cautionary note to B on this topic: It is not B’s responsibility to make sure that A is telling B what A is doing and thinking and feeling. That’s A’s responsibility. A offers this information to B freely without B asking A because A loves B and A wants to stop and never again have anything to do with C or any other future C’s and A needs some support and help and A will need to get that support from B. Of course A can also get support from A’s pastor or counselor (preferably both A and B’s counselor or pastor), but the real test of recovery for A is A’s willingness to be open with B about what’s what in A’s life.
Having said this, this does NOT mean that B can’t ask A about A’s day. This is fine, as long as it’s a normal conversation, like, “So anything new today?” kinds of conversations. Every marriage needs regular conversations about what each partner is going through and why. After and an affair, these conversations are the ointment to help the couple heal, both A and B.
I insist to my clients who come to see me after an affair, that A will agree to tell B whenever A sees or hears from or talks to C. A will voluntarily tell B if A runs into C at work or the grocery store or wherever or if C emails or texts or calls A for whatever reason. A will also make an attempt to minimize these contacts. This assignment I give A is not for B’s benefit! It is so that A will make the right choices going forward and so that A will learn to not have secrets from B. A side benefit is that B will learn, over time, to trust A, as A demonstrates to B that A is trustable (did you catch that?).
By the way, a wonderful result of A being open with B about A’s life is that B will learn, over time, to trust A again. More importantly, A will be KNOWN. As I’ve said before, BEING KNOWN IS THE SOIL IN WHICH MARITAL LOVE GROWS. Without that soil, you’ll have puny love. To the extent that you have secrets from your spouse about ANYTHING is the extent your relationship will feel distant and cold. This is a law of the universe and you can’t change it, just like you can’t change gravity. You can deny gravity’s existence, but if you defy it you will crash to the ground.
Just because Dr. Wall says A needs to be open to B about A’s life (and vice versa) doesn’t mean the couple will be able to do this. Many can and do discover this as a new found gold mine in their marriage they never knew existed. Other couples struggle with this. I know, as a marital therapist guy, that this is fundamental, so it’s a major emphasis in my work with post-affair couples. Don’t be discouraged if it’s a struggle at first. It HAS to happen. Sometimes it’s something simple, like making sure the couple takes the time! Kids or work or supper or TV or whatever, may be impinging on the couple’s habits and there may not BE enough face-to-face time for the couple to reacquaint at the end of the day. Making this a priority and reorienting their schedule, may be the secret to making sure this happens.
The other major obstacle to A opening up to B about A’s life is that B is emotionally hurt from A’s affair and it’s easy for B to get testy or mad or too inquisitive when A tells B about this or that, particularly when it’s about C. B is going to want to watch this and keep B’s anger and B’s interrogation of A at bay. If A had an affair, there’s a really good chance that A has had a difficult time opening up to B all along. Careful B. Let’s not use our talking about our day as a time to give advice or to freak out. Let’s just listen. Otherwise B will train A not to tell B anything.
There are certainly other steps to healing after an affair which we will discuss in future blogs, but this is one of the most important. Without this step, we’re just spinning our wheels.
*My thanks to a client who asked me specifically to write a blog on this subject.
For the second in this series on Healing From An Affair see:
In this second blog in a series on healing from an affair Dr. Wall suggests that loving feelings are too shallow to make a marriage work. Your love better have more fuel than feelings to keep it burning.
Dr. Wall continues his series (this is the third) on healing from an affair from the point of view of the person who had the affair. He looks at what true moral guilt is and what it is not.
Dr. Wall discusses the topic of accountability in marriage in a more generic fashion. He advises couples to let each other know what’s going on without having to be asked. The options aren’t recommended unless you are bound and determined to ruin your life and everyone in it.
Dr. Wall ponders how little lies ruin our lives. Let your words and actions match instead.
Dr. Wall gives advice to someone thinking of coming clean after an affair.
The first question that comes up after a trust violation in marriage is: Do both partners need to come to therapy or just the person who violated the trust? Dr. Wall clears the air on this issue and describes the therapeutic process around trust issues.
On a slightly different topic, Dr. Wall looks at the relationship between nagging and responsibility. Dr. Wall laments the dearth of real men and ponders what a real man might be today. He explores the theory that if men were men, women wouldn’t have to be nags. A win-win.