Rebuilding Relationship After an Affair
QUESTION: After 11 years of marriage my husband had an affair. I saw the signs about a year ago and confronted him, but he denied it. He finally admitted to the affair after a friend told me. We had a few very bad months. We hit rock bottom but are slowly climbing our way back to the top. I can now see where things went wrong. We are communicating but he has started to refuse answering any more questions that I ask. He says that it will only make matters worse. My husband says that he still loves me and is full of regret and remorse for his actions. And I still love him but I feel in so much pain. I visualize the two of them together on a daily basis. I think I am going mad. How can I heal?
ANSWER: You are not going mad. You are grieving your husband's betrayal! The questions you need answered are not the details of the sexual affair, as much as the motivation for his behavior. Except for clarifying issues of safe sex, details often become overly focused upon and can lead to unhealthy obsessions with a life of their own. What would be more important to focus your energy on is what the emotional meaning of the affair was in context of your marriage together.
Your husband broke the rules of your monogamous agreement. He has broken your trust, and you have every reason to feel angry and sad. Accepting these feelings and working through them includes understanding what was truly going on for him when he chose to so jeopardize his marriage. Only through understanding the meaning of the affair will you be able to determine whether you may be able to regain trust in him for the future.
You believe that his motivation has to do with your preoccupation with mourning your father's death. Though his reasons by no means validates his destructive acting out in your relationship, it would be critical to explore this aspect in depth. In this way the two of you will be taking responsibility for the gap in your marriage that might allow other people between you. And should this kind of gap present pain in the future, communication in place of dangerous acting out behavior will be more likely to occur.
It is the responsibility of both of you to create the connection that is lacking in your relationship rather than ignore it. Perhaps you were too quick to accept that your husband cannot help you in your bereavement. Your self reliance, or in his perception, dependence on your parents, may have left him feeling like he was peripheral to you instead of your main support. The silver lining in your situation may be that the obvious symptom of infidelity is blatant enough that neither of you can ignore it. In some way it may present the opportunity for focusing on your couples' relationship and bringing you closer together. Clearly this has already occurred with your alliance against the other woman, and this is how it should be if the priorities for the marriage are basically sound.
The "other woman" in this case does not seem to represent any desirable replacement to you, in your husband's mind but may symbolize the predator of disconnection that you and your partner were falling prey to in your own intimate relationship. Without attention, this gap may have caused your marriage to atrophy and die a slow death over time. Your love for one another, your desire to remain as a family unit, his deep remorse and your belief in his genuine regret for hurting you are all reasons to consider remaining in the marriage.
Do not get seduced away from the problem by having an emotional obsession with the affair itself! Express your anger and hurt. You might want to create a ritual which includes making a fire and burning the pain, sharing it with the flames themselves. From the ashes may come the possibility for a renewed relationship with your husband. Expect a change from your husband in how he expresses his dissatisfaction in the marriage. Ask him for clarification regarding his acting out behavior. What would he have done differently, looking back on it? Instead of having an affair, what did he need to express to you about his own needs in the marriage? Is he talking to you and are you listening?
The overriding danger is that without a change in your ability to connect and communicate with one another, the two of you are vulnerable to using the affair as a continued object of distancing. Perhaps one that replaces the gap left by the separate grief you experienced with your father. The rift between your father and your husband may have left you with conflict about your closeness to your husband. The distance between you and your spouse may have set the conditions that are ripe for affairs. Your best insurance as a couple is to build a bridge to one another.
Increase your reliance on each other to meet your emotional needs. Perhaps a weekend away together when you are ready, could provide the opportunity for beginning a deepened discussion about the last 11 years of marriage. Trace your path together, see what might have been missing from your current retroperspective view of your marriage which includes acknowledgment of the gap that has existed between the two of you. Make this an opportunity for self reflection, too. Explore your own intimacy issues. And be sure to look deeply enough into yourself to honestly assess your own past availability to the marriage. Are you willing to depend on your husband for your emotional needs? Does anything keep you from making him a significant source of nourishment. He may need to feel that he is important to you and that you need him. Is he there for you when you do reach out? Determine together what kind of bond you would like to have with one another, and the steps needed to achieve that.
Make your relationship the main focus. Do not allow jealousy the power to ravage your life or to undermine your self worth! If your husband's behavior can be understood and does not represent a pattern of infidelity as a response to stress, it is unlikely to occur again. Contain the jealousy fire and like any fire deprived of its oxygen, it will eventually die out. Instead, direct the wind bellows towards the marriage relationship!
Gayle Peterson, MSSW, LCSW, PhD is a family therapist specializing in prenatal and family development. She trains professionals in her prenatal counseling model and is the author of An Easier Childbirth, Birthing Normally and her latest book, Making Healthy Families. Her articles on family relationships appear in professional journals and she is an oft-quoted expert in popular magazines such as Woman's Day, Mothering and Parenting. . She also serves on the advisory board for Fit Pregnancy Magazine.
Dr. Gayle Peterson has written family columns for ParentsPlace.com, igrandparents.com, the Bay Area's Parents Press newspaper and the Sierra Foothill's Family Post. She has also hosted a live radio show, "Ask Dr. Gayle" on www.ivillage.com, answering questions on family relationships and parenting. Dr. Peterson has appeared on numerous radio and television interviews including Canadian broadcast as a family and communications expert in the twelve part documentary "Baby's Best Chance". She is former clinical director of the Holistic Health Program at John F. Kennedy University in Northern California and adjunct faculty at the California Institute for Integral Studies in San Francisco. A national public speaker on women's issues and family development, Gayle Peterson practices psychotherapy in Oakland, California and Nevada City, California. She also offers an online certification training program in Prenatal Counseling and Birth Hypnosis. Gayle and is a wife, mother of two adult children and a proud grandmother of three lively boys and one sparkling granddaughter.
Copyright 1996-2003. Gayle Peterson All rights reserved.