Recently, a friend who had just learned of his wife's affair asked, "Now that I know, what should I do?" Many new clients walk in my door with this same question in mind. The implication is that learning about infidelity demands an immediate response or action. Certainly, the idea of doing something after learning such terrible news is appealing -- taking action seems better than just sitting there and doing something might be a welcome distraction from the uncomfortable feelings that may have descended upon you. Maybe you'd like to go sleep with someone or several people to get even? Or, perhaps you'd like to call your spouse's parents and share details of who your spouse really is. And let's not forget the appeal of calling your spouse's lover or your spouse's lover's spouse.... wouldn't that feel good?
In movies, magazines and novels, we see the betrayed spouse take actions such as these. We watch them throw their philandering partner's belongings out the window, we see the drunken bender, the car crash, or even worse. Sometimes, the opposite is depicted and we see the passive spouse who, feeling hopeless and trapped, merely "takes it" by robotically moving through their days while ignoring the knowledge of the betrayal. Looking to popular culture to find clues as to how to proceed after you've learned your spouse is cheating, may not be your best course of action. So, what is?
Take No Immediate Action!
News of an affair is traumatic. Even if you've had your suspicions all along, confirmation is still a shock to your system that can shake you to the core. This isn't the time to move to Alaska, quit your job, or tell off the in-laws. A better use of your energy is to slow down and go "back to the basics", i.e., sleeping enough, eating nutritiously, getting exercise, and connecting with (trusted) friends/family. Though you may prefer to pull the blanket over your head and stay in bed forever, taking care of yourself now is essential to allow yourself the opportunity to process what has happened, regain your balance, and get yourself in shape to make the big decisions that lie ahead.
Who to Talk to? What to Say?
Deciding who to tell and who not to can be tricky. On the one hand, to get your friends, family and loved ones in your corner, you may want to shout from the rooftops what a disloyal creep your partner is and share personal info about your marriage. These types of comments, "He never was good in bed", or "She was a joke!" just aren't constructive. Airing your "dirty laundry" publicly can feel good in the moment, but ultimately can make others feel awkward and uncomfortable around you. It can even have the opposite effect you are seeking and drive people away from you.
Giving thought to who you tell and what you say is also important should you ultimately decide to reconcile. Sharing the nitty-gritty of your marriage problems can interfere with your future social life, making it hard for friends to be in relationship with you both. So, think long and hard before you spill the beans and take time to consider which beans to spill. Remember less is more, say only what you must. You can always say more in the future, but once you put it out there, you can't take it back.
To talk about what has happened without social consequences, consider finding a psychotherapist. Once you have done some of the personal exploration necessary to feel more steady and begin healing you can strategize with your counselor about who should know, what to tell them, and when.
What About the Other Woman or Man?
Unless your spouse has decided to leave the marriage to pursue the relationship, consider keeping your questions about the 'other' person to a minimum. The "other" isn't really the problem as even the most enticing, seductive person on earth could not have forced your spouse to cheat. It was consensual (it always is). Knowing how many times "they" were together, when, and how it was will only distract from the underlying relationship issues in need of your attention. Learning of/confirming infidelity is painful enough, so why throw more fuel onto the fire by asking(or allowing your spouse to 'vent' or confess) the details?
Similarly, as the days go by try to stay in charge of your thinking and resist the urge to dwell on the details. It just won't help.
There are different schools of thought regarding infidelity and if a marriage can survive it. Some view affairs as a symptom of marital dysfunction. They don't see the infidelity itself as the problem, rather, it is viewed as a consequence/outcome of problems the couple has ignored or has not overcome. Viewing an affair as a symptom of marital breakdown promotes the possibility that a marriage can be repaired. Spouses may be able to work to identify and take responsibility for their individual contributions to the breakdown, and, hopefully, fix the marriage. Should you choose to do this repair work, a couples counselor can help you both on this journey.
If your thinking is more absolute, whereas an affair is unforgivable and represents an irretrievable breakdown, then there is no return from infidelity. In this case, fixing the marriage is not possible as vows have been broken and that is that. While this way of thinking doesn't allow for a happily married ending, it offers a clearer path to a solution and generally leads to divorce.
Learning about your spouse's affair is always painful and life altering. It takes time to process the news emotionally and to regain your footing. It takes even more time to decide who to tell and how to respond. Whether or not your marriage can survive infidelity will greatly depend on your views about infidelity and about what this means to you.