Whether it's a love affair you're having that you know has to end, or an affair you've found out about, which you're finding hard to forgive, getting over an affair is never easy. But if you do it the right way, it doesn't have to leave permanent scars...
Nothing potentially causes more pain than when a spouse utters those words in a weekend Marital Retreat. Even as the person says them, they know the words are gasoline on a fire. But they are so true, it's hard to avoid being honest. Honesty is such an essential part of the healing process. How the spouse responses can be healing and bring both of you close, or alienating.
Winston missed his affair partner.
When Winston said those words, his wife's face flashed anger. Then hurt. I ask her if she would be willing to calm herself down, and try to learn something valuable from her husband about how to make his own relationship to her better. Carla agreed.
"The first thing you'll need to understand," I told her, "is that Winston misses a particular feeling, or interaction. The better you are able to figure out what that's all about, Carla, the easier it will be to dislodge it from that particular person."
I realize I'm talking Chinese to Carla, who, at first, has no idea what I'm talking about. But her willingness to be curious is going to make the difference between this couple healing and this couple divorcing, so the stakes are high.
Carla had be willing to hear painful words from her husband.
I gave her a biofeedback tool and showed her how to use it to keep calm as she listened to the conversation.
"Can I ask you a few pointed questions, Winston?" He agreed.
"Let's pretend this woman cast a magic spell over you. Let's pretend that each and everything she did was designed to make her indispensable to you. Captivating to you. Let's dissect what she might have done, even if unintentionally, and learn what made it so intoxicating..."
I'm not assuming here that Carla has done anything "wrong." But at least some part of Winston's personality is being played out with his affair partner, Ginny. This part of him may have been kept from his wife. I want to know what that part is.
The very first thing Winston told me was that his affair partner, Ginny, seemed so "fragile" in contrast to his "independent Carla." I could see Carla about to explode, so I jumped in.
"You said she seemed so, in contrast to your wife. But since the affair was revealed, Carla hasn't looked very strong, has she?" He agreed she doesn't. He had hurt her powerfully.
"So tell me how Ginny actually acted that seemed fragile to you..." I continued. I knew that "fragility" or "neediness" was a common aphrodisiac to men when they have an affair. Like a fairy tale, they felt called upon to protect and shield their affair partner from harm, or offer help and assistance. This tapped into their sense of masculinity and power.
"First off, she had a lot of financial troubles. This was through no fault of her own. Bad things had happened to her, and compared to us, she had it rough..."
Winston felt empathetic toward his affair partner, Ginny. He clearly saw a way to assist her financially, in a way that would not cost him very much (financially anyway) .
"So she had a need you knew you could easily meet. That was like a spell. Like a drug...."
This often enraged and confused wives. While wives felt they could clearly see the manipulation of the affair partner, their husbands appeared to be unable to. And the more the wife tried to convince their husband that this woman was "using them" the more they were told: "No, you don't know her. You're just being cruel."
What else?" I asked.
"Ginny always sounded so happy to hear from me. I would call her and her voice would brighten. I felt like I made her day, just by calling..." he went on.
"So you knew you were powerful in cheering her up, just by reaching out to her..."
"What else?" I continued to probe.
"Our time was always limited, so we had to make the most out of it. We would plan to spend it in an interesting way, not just sitting around..."
Here, I knew that this was a complaint he had against Carla who he had previously referred to in an earlier argument as: "A stick in the mud...You never want to go anywhere or do anything..."
"So you said several things that all seem to be related," I told him. "She needed you, at least that's what you believed. She valued her time with you, and wanted to spend it in interesting ways. And she seemed genuinely delighted to hear from you. You brightened her day when you called."
"Exactly." he said.
"And you are leaving that relationship to return to a woman who is hurt, upset, and angry with you. The time you two spend together is painful now. What a contrast. And I would imagine, because Carla has threatened divorce, you might not even believe she wants to be with you at all, never mind "needs you."
As obvious as this might be to someone who works a lot with couples dealing with a recently disclosed affair, it is not obvious at all to the man in this situation. Like Winston, he doesn't see it as a logical consequence of a painful disclosure. He sees his wife's actions as: "Part of who she is." A personality trait, frozen in time.
He also couldn't see that while Ginny was in "dating mode," all adoring and ignoring Winston's personality weaknesses, all of these weaknesses were blindingly obvious to his wife now. And she was not only hurt by them, she was also disgusted by his obliviousness to both what he was doing, and the impact it was having on her. She was "outraged," not "adoring."
All of this is happening, of course, while the "deep brain" of both are flooding them with neurotransmitters that intensify their sense of threat.
Getting over an affair requires help. Professional help. These topics need to be explored, but in depth and with sensitivity to each person's feelings and perspective.
If you're getting over an affair, consider spending a weekend in an intensive marriage retreat. We have the time to help both of you to deal with the painful issues, and come out the other side...to forgiveness and reconnection. Give us a call if you think we can help.
Dr. K is the President and CEO of Couples Therapy Inc. She maintains her Intensive Couples Therapy practice on the edge of the Berkshires in Western Massachusetts.