Michele Weiner-Davis is used to hearing people say, “It was just sex. It wasn’t about you. It meant nothing.”
The Boulder, Colorado-based therapist works primarily with couples on the precipice of divorce, and said unfaithful partners often think such statements can defuse a situation and help them save face.
But, she said, they can actually make the situation a lot worse.
“Saying an affair wasn’t about one’s partner is painful because it’s excruciating to think that you weren’t on your partner’s radar when he or she made that decision,” said Weiner-Davis, the author of Healing from Infidelity: The Divorce Busting Guide to Rebuilding Your Marriage After an Affair. “It makes a person feel unwanted, unloved, unimportant.”
Cheaters have their reasons for using such phrases.
“Unfaithful partners say things like that because it’s true,” Weiner-Davis said. “It may be hard to believe, but when most people cheat, they really aren’t thinking about their spouses or partners at the time. They’re thinking with their groins, their hormones, their emptiness or their insatiable sense of attraction.”
“Saying 'it meant nothing' comes across as, 'I destroyed your world for nothing.'”
Caroline Madden, a Southern California-based therapist who specializes in extramarital affairs, has an even more blunt analysis of the excuse.
“Saying ‘it meant nothing’ comes across as, ‘I destroyed your world for nothing,’” said Madden, the author of Blindsided By His Betrayal: Surviving the Shock of Your Husband’s Infidelity. “Usually, the cheating partner is trying to show that they never intended to leave their spouse and kids for their affair partner. But it’s a minimizing thing to say. It comes across as, ‘Hey, I cheated on you, but it could be worse.’”
The unfaithful partner has to try on the betrayed partner’s pain as if it were their own, said Janis Abrahms Spring, a therapist and author of After the Affair: Healing the Pain and Rebuilding Trust When a Partner Has Been Unfaithful.
“You need to demonstrate that you get whatever the hurt partner wants you to get,” she said. “This doesn’t mean you agree with that assessment; it only means you realize that nothing you say will lessen their pain and fury except for maybe making them feel heard.”
Once some of that pain has been absorbed, Madden tells unfaithful clients to lay all their cards on the table. The simple admission that you’re the sole architect of the pain you’re both feeling goes a long way in rebuilding trust, she explained.
“I know it seems counter-intuitive, but you have to admit that you understand that your selfish actions caused your spouse incredible pain,” she said. “By doing this, your partner won’t need to prove to you ― by being angry and yelling ― that they have the right to be upset.”
Be honest about why you pursued the affair, without diminishing statements, Madden said. If you wanted to feel alive again and the affair was a conduit to explore that, tell your partner. Your affair was a big deal; act like it was one.
“Once you’ve explained yourself, admit that it was a stupid, selfish choice,” Madden said. “If you can’t believe you could have destroyed everything you worked so hard to build because of lust and know this will be the greatest regret of your life, tell your spouse all of that.”