When a man’s infidelity is discovered by his spouse, she naturally and understandably feels betrayed, hurt, and angry. She might also feel some combination of embarrassed, ashamed, and confused. Unfortunately, in nearly all of the cases I’ve treated, the cheating man thinks that if he apologizes and promises to never do it again, his mate should immediately forgive him. However, apologies are just not enough to heal this type of deep relationship rupture.
Many times, while a betrayed spouse is trying to regain her emotional balance and sense of trust, the cheating man gets annoyed that it’s taking her so long to forgive him and move forward. He doesn’t understand (or doesn’t accept) that she needs time to heal, and that it might be a year or even longer before she stops feeling unsafe, insecure, and mistrustful.
The man’s desire to “put this whole thing behind us as quickly as possible” does not help. As a specialist in infidelity and relationships, I continually hear men say things like, “Its’ been two months. When are you going to give me a break?” and “Why are you so angry all the time? You’re making it really hard for us to move on.” Unhelpful statements like these tend to slow rather than facilitate the healing process. So the betrayed partner’s emotional turmoil continues, and the man wonders why – mostly because he doesn’t understand the source of her pain.
As discussed in my recently published book, Out of the Doghouse: A Step-by-Step Relationship Saving Guide for Men Caught Cheating, a spouse’s response to cheating typically stems from a combination of the following six factors:
- SECRETS AND LIES: In all likelihood, your betrayed partner will be less upset by the nature of the actual sex you had, and more upset by all of the lying, manipulating, and secret keeping you did to cover it up. For her, it’s not any specific sextracurricular act that hurts the most, it’s the betrayal of relationship trust and the emotional chasm that creates.
- HOW LONG IT WENT ON: Usually, a one-time lap dance in Vegas when you were there for a conference will not be as devastating, in the eyes of your mate, as serial cheating or a lengthy affair. This is because, from her perspective, longer-term infidelity undercuts everything that happened in your relationship for the entire time you cheated. But don’t think this means that learning about a one-time incident is not awful for your spouse, because it is.
- WHO YOU CHEATED WITH: Sex with a woman your significant other has never met and is unlikely to ever meet is usually less painful to her than an affair with her best friend, her sister, a trusted neighbor, or the nanny. If you’ve been sexual with someone she knows, that’s double the betrayal. If that person happens to be someone she liked and trusted, the betrayal is doubled yet again. Each layer of connection increases your spouse’s pain.
- LOVE VS. LUST: Generally speaking, women are wired in ways that prevent them from separating and compartmentalizing sex and romance the way most men can. Thus, your spouse will assume that you felt emotionally connected to the other woman/women, even if that was not your experience. And any evidence she finds to this effect will make things worse. If you’ve written emotionally charged letters, emails, or texts to your affair partner, learning about this might hurt your spouse more than the actual sex. And if you gave your affair partner thoughtful gifts or took her on some romantic weekend getaways… Ouch! Especially if your spouse would have liked those gifts or trips for herself.
- HOW SHE FOUND OUT: For your mate, there is a huge difference between learning about your cheating when you remorsefully and voluntarily confess versus the following:
- Walking in on you with your pants down, literally
- Getting an anonymous phone call (most likely from your affair partner, who is hoping to wreck your marriage)
- Hearing about it from a group of friends who assumed she already knew (because everyone else certainly did)
- Discovering your stash of porn, your history of sexting, and your use of hookup apps when she borrows your phone or your laptop
- Being called by the police because you’re in jail, snared in a prostitution sting
- Being told by her physician that she has a sexually transmitted disease (that she could only have gotten from you)
So yeah, there’s finding out about your cheating, and there’s finding out about your cheating. And regardless of how your significant other learns of your infidelity, discovery shock is an almost universal reaction. In part, this stems from the fact that while you’ve known about your cheating from the start (and may actually be feeling a sense of relief now that your behavior is out in the open), she is being blindsided by this information. She is not just learning about it, she’s getting emotionally body slammed by it. Even women who had a previous sense that something was amiss with the relationship will experience discovery shock when their worst fears are confirmed.
- HER RELATIONSHIP HISTORY: The degree and duration of your partner’s response to your cheating may be related as much to her life history as your betrayal. If she has been abused, neglected, or otherwise traumatized (by her family, old boyfriends, etc.), her sense of relationship safety has been compromised, and this may cause her to overreact (in your mind, and maybe even in her mind) to the present situation. As such, she may be responding to much more than your betrayal. She might also be reacting, in delayed fashion, to her father’s alcoholism, her mother’s affairs, a history of sexual abuse, the fact that her first boyfriend dumped her and started dating her rival, or a whole lot of other stuff that you may or may not know about. Basically, if your significant other has ever been deceived, abandoned, abused, neglected, or otherwise mistreated by a beloved and/or trusted person, she is likely to have some deep emotional wounds as a result—wounds that will never really go away—and your present-day betrayal has probably reopened those wounds.
So, are you still surprised that your betrayed partner has responded with fear, anger, rage, and a variety of other strong emotions after learning about your infidelity? Hopefully not. In fact, I hope that after reading this article you are beginning to see that in your partner’s eyes, your cheating has many layers, and those layers permeate every aspect of her existence. For her, it’s not just the sex, it’s everything.
For more about infidelity, including ways couples can undo the damage done, check out my recently published book, Out of the Doghouse: A Step-by-Step Relationship-Saving Guide for Men Caught Cheating. I promise it will help.
Robert Weiss LCSW, CSAT-S is a digital-age intimacy and relationships expert specializing in infidelity and addictions—in particular sex, porn, and love addiction. He is the author of several highly regarded books. Currently, he is Senior Vice President of National Clinical Development for Elements Behavioral Health, creating and overseeing addiction and mental health treatment programs for more than a dozen high-end treatment facilities. For more information please visit his website, robertweissmsw.com, or follow him on Twitter, @RobWeissMSW.