As tears of rage, shame and disbelieve gush out of your eyes, you feel as if your heart is being ripped out of your chest, while your stomach is heaving with waves of convulsive pain. You just read an email, you discovered a charge for a hotel room on your partner's credit card bill or you received a phone call from a friend telling you what they believe they just saw. You feel the distance between the two of you has grown so vast that you feel spacey, abandoned and lost.
You think your partner is having an affair.
What to do? Do you wake him/her up and throw your evidence in their face? Do you keep silent and set up some trap, so you'll know for sure? Do you tell your best friend? Do you call a psychic? Do you hire a private investigator?
It would be nice if there were some written rules on how to handle this type of crisis situation. Unfortunately, none exist. However, one thing's for sure, you want to know the answers to all of your questions. As painful as it might be, you want to know for sure, and you want the details. You don't want lies or half-truths. You want it all, and you want it now. What you'll do with all of the information, you don't know and you really don't care. Blind rage and intense focus on gathering information is all that matters right now.
As a marriage and family therapist, when I am presented with this situation, I am aware of all the emotions the person is going through. My first thought is: How can I help this person get grounded? They are in a state of shock. Their world has just been turned upside down and their sense of reality has been changed. In order to get back into reality, they need to express all the emotions that are flooding through them. I compassionately listen. Advice or direction at this point is inappropriate and useless. They just need to express what they are going through. When the flooding recedes, I suggest and explain a writing exercise for them to do at home. I know all the emotions will resurface again and again, so they need a way to process this crisis situation in a way where they don't hurt themselves or anyone else.
How To Express Your Feelings
I ask them to write everything they are thinking and feeling. I ask them to write as fast as possible, using a lot of four-letter words... scribbling and raging and crying and hating. I want them to get all these emotions and thoughts out. I ask them not to read what they are writing. I then direct them to tear or burn these pages. Knowing that no one will read what is being written allows them to release things they normally would hold onto, fearing others might judge them for being so vile. Then I ask them to hold onto their belly and say, out loud or silently about 25 times, "(Their name), I am loving you. I am loving you (their name)." This begins the process of self-nurturing.
Once their emotions have been expressed, I ask the question, "What do you want?" This is not an easy question to answer. Other questions pop up. "Do you want to stay and heal the relationship?" "Do you want to end the relationship?" If children are involved, do you tell them? How? When? How do you sort out the finances? Who moves? Confusion and overwhelm replaces rage and shock.
What Do You Want?
It's important to get clarity so you'll know what action to take. When this question is clear, how and when to approach your partner becomes easier. You might say, "I have to talk to him/her in order to get clarity. I don't know what I want." If this is the case, then what you want is to gather information so you can decide what you want to do.
The cleanest way to do this is to set up some time when you can sit and talk. You want a time when you are rested, you have your questions written out, your partner is willing to talk, all phones are off, the children are taken care of and you are in a safe place. It's important to set a beginning time and an ending time. I would suggest no more than two hours. People get weary, exhausted and hungry if you go too long and things can escalate and become extremely ugly. You will probably want to have several meetings. You probably won't come to a complete resolution in one setting. This is a big deal and you will be processing it for a while, so be gentle with your partner and yourself.
Questions to ask: What happened? How did this situation come into your relationship? How long has this been going on? What went wrong with us?
There are basically four situations why people have affairs. (1) A person has a sex addiction. Are they willing to go to a 12-step program to deal with their addiction? (2) A person gets caught in a slippery situation, is under the influence of drugs or alcohol and they do something they never thought they would do. They usually have great remorse for what happened and vow never to put themselves in that type of situation again. (3) A person seeks revenge or pay back because their partner had an affair. (4) A person is hungry for attention or nurturing, so they connect with someone outside the relationship to fulfill their needs.
You Are In Shock
No matter what the reason, pain and loss is the end result for everyone involved. Everyone is hurting, and everyone goes through the five stages of grief: denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance. We can't believe this is happening to us. We are angry at our partner, ourselves, the guy or woman in the car next to us and at life itself. We fantasize what we could have done differently, so this would not have happened. We drop into depression and we can't move. We just seem to stare into space. And, finally, we accept that this has happened to us and we move on. It would be nice if we only had to go through these five stages of grief just once. Unfortunately, it doesn't work that way. We get to go through these five stages over and over again, until at some point in time we feel complete. There is no timeline for this process. The grieving process can go on for years. The fastest way to go through grief is to give yourself permission to experience and to express whatever you're going through at the time. The writing exercise described above is extremely helpful during this time.
Acceptance Is A Process
No matter what resolution you decide, to repair the relationship or to end the relationship, at some point in time, the acceptance process comes into play. How can you accept that your life has been turned upside-down?
The process of moving you to acceptance is easy to describe and to understand. However, it can be a challenge to experience acceptance. In order to experience acceptance, we need to change our attitude. In order to change our attitude, we need to change our altitude.
Moving out of judgment to acceptance requires an attitude of gratitude. If you can be grateful that something has occurred, then it's easy to accept the event. If you have an attitude of resistance, judgment, or resentment, it can be very difficult to move to a position of acceptance. "That's great," you say. "But how do I move to an attitude of gratitude when I'm so angry and I don't like what's happening? I'm not grateful. I'm resentful. I'm angry at him/her for what happened. What happened is wrong. It hurt me. It's terrible. Be grateful? You've got to be kidding."
Changing our attitude requires us to change our altitude. We have to look at the event from a different perspective and a different point of view. This step is by far the most challenging step to take. It is the place where most of us get stuck. Hopefully, I can give you some keys on how to break free so you can change your attitude, and move from judgment to acceptance.
To help make my point, let me share a story. I'm walking on a trail up a mountain path. I'm having a wonderful time. The birds are singing, there is a breeze in the air, and I'm admiring the beautiful cloud formations. Ouch! I trip and fall and I sprain my ankle. What a curse! My day is ruined. I'm angry at myself for being so clumsy and twisting my ankle. So, how do I move to a position of acceptance? Step one: change my attitude to being grateful that I twisted my ankle, which is swelling up as we speak. Great! Have an attitude of gratitude? How the heck do I do that? Move to step two: change my altitude or my viewing point. How? OK, so here I am, looking at that mountain path from the point of view of an eagle flying overhead. As I'm sailing on the wind, I look down and see a huge rattlesnake just around the bend, right in the middle of the path. If I had continued at the same pace, I see that I would have walked right into the rattlesnake, and it would have bitten me and I could have died from its poisonous venom. Whew! I'm now so glad that I twisted my ankle. This was a gift from God. I'm now in a position of acceptance, and I can deal with my situation in a more effective and powerful manner. I am no longer judging myself. I feel grateful for twisting my ankle.
"But how do you know if that snake was really around the bend? Aren't you lying to yourself and pretending you know something that I don't?" Yes, possibly I am pretending to know something that I don't really know. I sense we all pretend we know a lot about things we really don't know. The difference here is you are making a very conscious effort to affect a change inside yourself, a change that will give you more freedom and inner peace -- qualities we experience when we are in acceptance.
A Life-Changing Event
You might say, "OK, I got it, but that's a simple story. What about the really hard things that happen to us in life; like my partner having an affair?"
Challenging things happen to all of us. It's nice to know that you are not alone. Some events are life-changing, and it is these life-changing events that require the most work. Life-changing events are just that... life-changing. Remember, it's not the issue that's the issue; its how we deal with the issue that's the issue. I am encouraging you to look at how to deal with this issue in an uplifting manner so that no matter what happens, you can be more accepting of the experience. We are all in the process of learning how to use everything for our upliftment, advancement and growth. I am not suggesting or saying this is an easy process. That would be a lie. It is a challenge. However, the two primary rewards for working through the process are freedom and joy.