Finding out that your spouse has been unfaithful can leave you feeling utterly powerless. “Is leaving the right decision?” you ask yourself. “Is it worth staying and working through our relationship problems?”
The most important thing to remember as you process the pain is that you don’t need to make any immediate decisions. As emotional as you may be now, knee-jerk reactions will likely only make the situation worse.
So what should you do instead? Below, experts on infidelity share their dos and don’ts for grappling with the discovery of an extramarital affair.
Give yourself permission to feel every emotion that comes your way: sadness, bitterness; hopelessness; total, utter rage -- all of it.
"It's completely normal to experience intense emotions after finding out; after all, infidelity threatens the very bedrock of marriage," said Michele Weiner-Davis, a marriage therapist and the author of Divorce Busting: A Step-by-Step Approach to Making Your Marriage Loving Again. "With help, these emotions can eventually pass. Processing the pain does not necessarily mean that you need to end your marriage."
Your spouse will likely go on the offensive and accuse you of betrayal for snooping through his or her phone or email. Don't let the accusations distract you from who the real rule breaker is, said psychiatrist Scott Haltzman.
"It's amazing how when people are caught cheating, the first thing they do is blame the other spouse," he said. "But think about it, who would you rather be married to? A person who occasionally reads your emails or a person who sleeps around on you?"
Regardless of whether you stay or go, you'll likely still want to understand why the betrayal happened in the first place. To get honest answers, keep your anger in check and be receptive to what your partner has to say, advised Haltzman.
"You've got every right to be pissed that your spouse has cheated on you but if you choose to jump in and object, you'll teach your spouse to clam up," he said. "The more you can listen, the more you can learn, which may give you and your partner an opportunity to get through this together."
As angry as you may be toward your spouse and his or her affair partner, choose to take the high road. (That means no angry emails to the other woman or man and definitely no lengthy Facebook rants.)
"Although you might be feeling like you want to strike out because you’ve been hurt, don’t do it," said Weiner-Davis, "Behave in accordance with your values in life. Make choices based on your morals, not on your first reaction."
After the initial shock has began to fade, give some consideration to what your relationship was like before you discovered the affair, advised Mark Banschick, a psychiatrist and the author of The Intelligent Divorce.
"Does this betrayal confirm your sense of his or her narcissism or does it come as no real surprise because you've both been distant? Each situation -- and response -- is different," he said. "The truth is, the relationship may be repairable if it has the right foundation or it may be ready to end because it was weak to begin with."
If cheating is a behavioral pattern for your partner, it's a mistake to believe your love and trust will change him or her. Ultimately, your S.O. needs to take personal ownership for what occurred, said Banschick.
"We love in order to be there for others, to help them in their growth, but never to fix them. It doesn't work," he said. "Stay if you believe that that this betrayal is an aberration. Leave if you know in your soul that it will happen again and it's just a matter of time."
If you can swing it, get help from a therapist who has experience with affair recovery, said Weiner-Davis.
"Healing from betrayal is a challenging endeavor but as any experienced therapist will tell you, it does not need to be a marital deal breaker," she explained.
At some point, you need to decide if you're going to stay or leave. If you're staying, eventually the cycle of accusations and blame will have to end, said Banschick.
"Torturing your partner for what happened may feel good but it often creates a merry-go-round dynamic that locks you into unhappiness," he said. "Decide if your partner deserves your loyalty. If you keep punishing him or her, you get your self-righteous indignation -- but your partner may eventually want to escape the relationship."
You may feel like a victim now but you remind yourself that you haven't been totally robbed of your agency. You still have a say in what happens next in your relationship.
"You will get a lot of advice. Relationships are complex and its easy for others to moralize or conjecture," said Banschick. "Find your voice -- and remind your partner that if he or she really wants forgiveness, it's not going to happen overnight.
Whether you stay or go, know that the feeling of brokenness you're experiencing now won't last forever, said Weiner-Davis.
"With time and effort, the intense feelings of betrayal can and do become manageable," she said. "If you decide to stay married, it's worth knowing that many couples who've worked through their problems often end up saying the affair was a blessing in disguise."
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