It seems presumptuous as well as pompous to suggest that I possess any great wisdom about healing a marriage after an affair. Yes, my husband had affairs. And yes, I’m still married. And yes, I would even consider myself and our marriage somewhat “healed” (if by “healed,” one means that I no longer cry in grocery stores or fantasize about smothering my husband in his sleep). But wisdom? Not so much wisdom as life experience…which I suppose amounts to the same thing.
And I certainly know that, back when I was struggling to get through each hour of the day and wondering if I/my marriage was going to survive, I desperately wanted to know how others got through.
So, herewith, my thoughts. (And they are MY thoughts. Take what you need, leave what doesn’t work.) And remember too, this advice is for those who want to save their marriage…or at least preserve it long enough to determine if you want to save it.
Step #1: You have to both commit to putting the relationship first. Before your needs, before his needs…you serve the needs of the relationship, almost as if it’s a child you’re both nurturing. Once that is in place, you’re far more free to hash stuff out without fear that one of you has one foot out the door.
This step is impossible with someone who’s still deep in the fog of an affair. It takes two to save a marriage. You can try valiantly…but as long as he’s refusing to take responsibility for the damage he’s done, forget it. It doesn’t mean it’s over…but it does mean it’s time for some tough love.
Step #2: You need to focus on healing yourself…Your main job in the early days following D-Day is to focus on taking care of yourself (and kids, if you have them). That means getting enough sleep, eating properly, avoiding excessive (or any!) alcohol, drugs, shopping, gambling. It means surrounding yourself with supportive people. Avoiding toxic people. Steering clear of drama. And staying away from the OW. It’s time to wrap yourself in a cocoon and nurture yourself back to a sense of safety.
Step #3: …and don’t manage his healing. As much as it will kill you to acknowledge, he’s hurting too. Yes, he detonated the bomb that caused the damage…but likely you both built the bomb together through years of slights, lack of appreciation, and misunderstandings. And as much as it will also kill you (and you don’t need to be privy to much), he’s possibly missing the OW and very likely missing the sense of excitement that the affair provided. You don’t need to (and should NOT) have to listen to his tales of woe and self-pity. He brought it on himself. But you would do yourself and him some good to allow him to heal on his own. You don’t get to dictate his feelings. You DO get to dictate the terms of what you need to give him another chance but (and here’s the catch), they must be terms that are focussed on your marriage healing, NOT on punishing him. (Sometimes it may seem to be both…but always check your motives.) For example, you get to insist that he cut off contact with the other woman as a condition of you staying. You do NOT get to insist that he doesn’t miss her. Get it? Stay focused on YOU; what you need and what you can reasonably control.
Step #4: Don’t take his affair personally. I know it sounds wacky. In the days and weeks following discovery of my husband’s affair, I went crazy trying to figure out what she had that I didn’t. And for a perfectionist like me, it was excruciating! I was fit…she wasn’t. I was smart…she wasn’t. I was an overachiever…she wasn’t. I raised money for orphans…she didn’t. You get the idea. My husband kept telling me it had nothing to do with me and I would scream at him “How could this NOT have something to do with me. You chose to spend time with HER not ME? How is this not personal?” He had no idea…he only knew that it wasn’t.
Finally, one day the light went on. I wish I could tell you what made me realize but I guess months of analysis along with my husband’s reassurance finally clicked and I realized that it truly, honestly had nothing to do with me. It wasn’t that there was something wrong with me, it was that there was something wrong with HIM. And he took that brokenness to someone else because it felt safer. Because if she rejected him, it wouldn’t hurt the way it would with me. Counterintuitive, yes. The thought process of a fairly screwed up psyche, yes. But also a thought process that so many of us have and simply don’t realize. We seek outside ourselves what is missing inside.
So…I’ll say it again. Don’t take his affairs personally. They’re about his brokenness, not yours.
Step #5: Don’t use his affair as an excuse for your own bad behavior. His cheating does not give you an excuse to cheat, lie, steal or be physically or emotionally abusive. I said some horrible things in the wake of finding out. I said he was a lying scumbag (which, at that point, was factually validated by his behavior). I said I hated him. I said he had “killed me inside.” I smashed a watch of his, broke a television. I was pretty wacked out. Discovering a spouse’s affair can make you crazy. Just keep crazy to a minimum as best you can. It doesn’t help you, definitely hurts your kids…and can hurt your marriage to unleash crazy. If necessary, schedule your breakdowns — rage and kick and scream in your bedroom when the kids are at school. Pound on your pillow, imagining it’s his face. But keep yourself inside the law…and the boundaries of decency. Which also means NO revenge affairs. That’s simply inviting another person into an already nutty situation. It’s tempting, I know, to seek solace in the arms of someone who reassures you that you’re still sexy and appealing. But you are. You never stopped being so (unless, of course, you did…in which case, get thee to a gym. Physical health can go a long way toward emotional health and self-confidence.)