What Are Plan A and Plan B?
by Willard F. Harley, Jr., Ph.D.
Dear Dr. Harley,
My husband and I have separated and are trying to work our way back together again. We have found the information in your web site to be very helpful in reaching that goal. But some of the letters in your forum comment about "Plan A" and "Plan B" regarding marital separation. We have searched your site and don't find an explanation of what those plans are. Could you refer me to material that would give me that information?
I suggest plan A and plan B to couples who are struggling with infidelity. From your letter, it's not clear to me that infidelity is the issue that led to your separation, and so these two plans may not be relevant to your situation. But I will explain plan A and plan B to you anyway, and then also address the pros and cons of marital separation when infidelity is not the issue.
Infidelity is one of the most thoughtless, dishonest and cruel acts of self-indulgence imaginable. And yet, for over 30 years betrayed spouses have told me they are willing to reconcile if I can help them find a way to restore love to their marriage, help them overcome the resentment they feel, and provide assurance that it won't happen again. With these conditions in mind, I have created a strategy that has helped thousands of couples reconcile.
My overall plan for marital recovery after an affair has three basic stages. The first stage separates the unfaithful spouse and the lover; the second stage maintains that separation through the period of emotional withdrawal experienced by the unfaithful spouse who is addicted to the lover; and the third stage recovers love between spouses, eliminates resentment of the betrayed spouse, and protects the marriage against future affairs. The goals of the third stage are achieved by following Four Rules for a Successful Marriage: Care, Protection, Honesty and Time).
With this background, we're ready to talk about Plan A and plan B. These two plans are used in the first stage of marital recovery to separate the unfaithful spouse from the lover. They are alternative ways to deal with this objective and are both described in my book, "Surviving an Affair" (pages 75-83).
My experience helping couples recover from infidelity has taught me that any contact between the unfaithful spouse and the lover ruins reconciliation. Even casual contact prevents completion of withdrawal from the addiction of an affair. Since an affair is usually an addiction, the only way to fully recover is to permanently separate the unfaithful spouse (the addict) from the lover (the source of the addiction). But even in the very few cases when an affair is not an addiction, total separation of the spouse and lover is a necessary act of consideration for the feelings of the betrayed spouse. It's the very least a wayward spouse can do to compensate for the suffering caused by the affair. Continued contact with a lover simply perpetuates the suffering of the betrayed spouse indefinitely.
It's been my experience that without total separation, mutual love cannot be restored, resentment cannot be overcome and protection from the threat of another affair cannot be guaranteed. So when I counsel couples who want to reconcile after an affair, I insist on total separation of the unfaithful spouse and the lover with extraordinary precautions to guarantee that they never see or talk to each other again.
But what can a betrayed spouse do when the unfaithful spouse refuses to totally separate from the lover? That's where plan A and plan B come to the rescue.
Let me quote from "Surviving an Affair:"
You may think that after a spouse willfully chooses a lover (over the betrayed spouse), there would be no hope for marital reconciliation, but that's not true. While there is no hope for reconciliation when the affair is underway, as soon as the affair is ended, reconciliation is definitely possible. And almost all affairs end sooner than most people think they will.
But for the betrayed spouse, waiting for the affair to end seems like an eternity. The wayward spouse can't seem to make up his or her mind -- one moment committing to the marriage and the next moment committing to the lover. To help a betrayed spouse survive that painful period of vacillation -- the time it takes for an affair to die a natural death -- I recommend two plans. If the first plan (plan A) is unsuccessful in separating the wayward spouse from the lover, the second plan (plan B) is followed until the affair is ended. This sequence -- plan A followed by plan B -- represents the most sensible approach to handling a wayward spouse's inability to decide between the lover and the betrayed spouse.
So, then, what is plan A and plan B?
Plan A is for the betrayed spouse to negotiate with the wayward spouse to totally separate from the lover without angry outbursts, disrespectful judgments, and selfish demands. These three Love Busters not only ruin any effort to reach a negotiated settlement, but they also make the betrayed spouse much less attractive to the wayward spouse. Instead of encouraging total separation from the lover, the anger, disrespect and demands of the betrayed spouse make the lover appear to be the only one who truly cares about the wayward spouse. They literally throw the wayward spouse into the arms of the lover.
On the other hand, if the betrayed spouse approaches the wayward spouse with respect and thoughtfulness, the cruelty and self-indulgence of the affair is much easier for the wayward spouse to understand. And once the wayward spouse's mistake is acknowledged, it's much easier for him or her to take the first step toward recovery by agreeing to never see or talk to the lover again.
In these negotiations for total separation, the causes of the affair should be addressed. Since one of these causes is usually unfulfilled emotional needs, the betrayed spouse should express a willingness to meet those needs after the affair has ended. Another common cause is a wayward spouse's failure to take the betrayed spouse's feelings into account. The betrayed spouse's inconsiderate behavior sometimes leads the wayward spouse to believe that he or she has the right to return thoughtlessness with thoughtlessness by having an affair. Willingness of the betrayed spouse to follow the Policy of Joint Agreement (Never do anything without an enthusiastic agreement between you and your spouse) helps identify and prevent instances of thoughtlessness.
A third possible cause of an affair is a lifestyle where spouses spend much of their leisure time apart from each other, and form leisure-time friendships with those of the opposite sex. A plan to avoid being away from each other overnight and making each other favorite leisure-time companions goes a long way toward creating a passionate marriage that is essentially affair-proof.
In general, a betrayed spouse's effort to encourage the wayward spouse to end the affair should address all the root causes of the affair, and offer a solid plan for marital recovery. It should not be one-sided, however. The plan should make the wayward spouse and the betrayed spouse equally responsible for following the overall plan.
I mentioned earlier that the betrayed spouse should avoid selfish demands, disrespectful judgments and angry outbursts during plan A. And I also suggested following the Policy of Joint Agreement. But when it comes to infidelity, I should clarify what I mean by selfish demands and describe a notable exception to the Policy of Joint Agreement.
How can a betrayed spouse insist that the wayward spouse end the affair unless a demand is made? The answer is found in the way I define a selfish demand.
Demands carry a threat of punishment -- an if-you-refuse-me-you'll- regret-it kind of thing. In other words, you may dislike what I want, but if you don't do it, I'll see it it that you suffer even greater pain.
To insist that the wayward spouse end the affair should not be made with the threat of punishment ("I'm make you suffer if you don't end it"), but rather with the simple fact that it's the most painful experience you've ever had in your life, and if the affair is not ended, your relationship must end with either a separation or divorce. To end the marital relationship is not punishment: It's to protect your own mental and physical health.
The most important exception to the Policy of Joint Agreement is that when your health and safety are at risk, the default condition (doing nothing until an enthusiastic agreement is reached) should not be followed.
As an obvious example of when the policy is inappropriate, if your spouse is threatening your life with physical abuse, you should not continue to subject yourself to that threat while trying to find a mutual enthusiastic agreement. You should leave your spouse immediately even though your departure would not be with your spouse's enthusiastic agreement.
The same type of problem exists when a betrayed spouse is subjected to the emotional suffering caused by infidelity. Plan A has emotional consequences that should not be ignored. If left in plan A too long, long-term mental and physical damage can occur.
Another exception to the Policy of Joint Agreement when confronting infidelity is what I've called, "exposure." I highly recommend that while in plan A you tell your friends, family, the lover's spouse, your pastor, and possibly your wayward spouse's employer that your spouse is having an affair. It's a very controversial recommendation, and a clear violation of the Policy of Joint Agreement. But I've found exposure to be one of the most effective ways to end an affair quickly while in plan A.
But your effort to end the affair with thoughtfulness and care, and even exposure, doesn't always work. In many cases a wayward spouse is so trapped by the addiction that he or she does not have the will-power to do the right thing. Once in a while the fog lifts and the cruelty and tragedy of the affair hits the wayward spouse right between the eyes. In a moment of grief and guilt, he or she promises to end it. But then the pain of withdrawal symptoms often brings back the fog with all its excuses and rationalization, and the affair is on again.
Sometimes a wayward spouse settles into a routine of having his or her cake and eating it too. In an effort to win the wayward spouse back, the betrayed spouse meets emotional needs that the lover cannot meet, while the lover meets emotional needs that the betrayed spouse has not learned to meet. While this competition is excruciatingly painful to the betrayed spouse, and the lover as well, the wayward spouse basks in the warmth of being loved and cared for by two people, with no real motivation to choose one over the other.
So, to avoid an indefinite period of suffering while a wayward spouse vacillates between spouse and lover, and to avoid rewarding the selfish behavior of having needs met by both spouse and lover, if plan A does not work within a reasonable period of time, I recommend plan B.
But what is a reasonable period of time to be in plan A? Based on my experience working with couples faced with this issue, I recommend three weeks of plan A for betrayed wives and and six months to a year for betrayed husbands. The reason for the difference is that the stress that a husband's affair creates in a wife in plan A generally has very serious short-term and long-term physical consequences that I don't see nearly as often in betrayed husbands in plan A. The symptoms reflect damage to the immune system due to prolonged stress which can lead to chronic fatigue, joint pain, and other autoimmune failures. These symptoms can take ten years or longer to completely overcome if a woman remains in plan A too long. While I've witnessed the same effect with betrayed husbands who remain in plan A for over a year until their marriage recovers, I've found it to be a much less likely occurrence.
So one of the most important reasons for a spouse, particularly a wife, to go from plan A to plan B is to protect herself from the physical effects of long-term and intense stress.
Plan B is to avoid all contact with the unfaithful spouse until the affair has completely ended and the wayward spouse has agreed to my plan for recovery. In many cases, once an affair has ended, a betrayed spouse makes the mistake of taking the wayward spouse back before an agreement is made regarding marital recovery. This leads to a return to all the conditions that made the affair possible -- love is not restored, resentment is not overcome, and there is a very great risk for another affair. Without agreement and subsequent implementation of a plan for recovery, the betrayed spouse is better off continuing with plan B.
Plan B is far less stressful than Plan A, but it doesn't completely eliminate stress and can lead to a state of depression. So I usually recommend that whether a spouse is in plan A or plan B, he or she ask a physician to prescribe anti-depressant medication to be taken throughout the crisis. This not only greatly reduces the suffering of the betrayed spouse, but it also helps keep a clear head at a time when patience and wise decisions are crucial. Anti-depressant medication does not numb the betrayed spouse to the crisis, it actually helps raise him or her above emotional reactions that would otherwise prevent clear-headed thinking. Why suffer and and make poor choices when anti-depressant medication can help ease your pain and improve your concentration in this time of unprecedented crisis?
While I have seen remarkable success by people using plan A and plan B, success is by no means guaranteed. The problem with Plan B is that the unfaithful spouse may not return, nor agree to the plan for recovery, even after the affair has ended. Separation in marriage is always risky because, "out of sight, out of mind." Unless plan A leaves the wayward s spouse with the impression that returning home is an attractive choice, separation can become permanent. So before implementing plan B, you want to be sure that the last thing your spouse remembers about you is the care and thoughtfulness you offered in plan A. That way, the separation can help create, "absence makes the heart grow fonder."
As it turns out, most affairs end within six months of their seeing the light of day (being revealed to their family and friends), and almost all affairs end without leading to marriage. Even those few that end in marriage have only a 25% rate of success. That's because affairs are based on dishonesty and thoughtlessness for the feelings of others. That same dishonesty and thoughtlessness eventually turns on the lovers themselves, and the affair is destroyed by those same flaws that made it possible in the first place. What drives affairs is passion, not commitment, and once the passion wanes, there is nothing to help the lovers restore their passion. Marriage, on the other hand, especially with children, has many factors that motivate couples to restore their passion for each other after passion has waned. So when passion is gone from an affair, a wayward spouse is usually motivated to return to the betrayed spouse by all of these other factors. For most, it's a logical choice.
But what about marital separation when an affair is not the issue. In your letter, you did not indicate why you had separated. It may have been for reasons other than infidelity.
In general, I recommend separation when at least one spouse cannot control destructive behavior. An ongoing affair, of course, is one of those situations. Hence, plan B. But other situations such as physical and verbal abuse, where one spouse's mental or physical safety is as risk, are also grounds for separation. As in the case of infidelity, if one spouse is abusive, I often recommend plan A first, where, through negotiation (without anger, disrespect or demands), an attempt is made to overcome the abuse without separating.
But in some cases, the safety risks are so great that plan B should be implemented immediately, with no time for plan A. In these cases, treatment for the abusive habit must take place during separation, and some evidence must exist that the risk has been greatly reduced, or completely eliminated, before the spouses should return to each other. Then, after being together again, the formerly abusive spouse should be held accountable by others for his or her behavior to assure the other spouse's safety.
In other cases, such as annoying behavior or failure to meet important emotional needs, where thoughtlessness does not reach the level of physical or mental abuse, plan A should be given quite a bit of time and effort before resorting to plan B. Remember, plan A is negotiating (without anger, disrespect or demands) to eliminate the annoying behavior or improve the meeting of emotional needs. A blanket agreement between spouses to follow the Policy of Joint Agreement goes a long way toward eliminating these thoughtless acts, and can also help couples learn to meet each other's needs with enthusiasm. But without that policy, couples often find that they cannot get anywhere with each other through negotiation, and sometimes separation can eventually lead to mutual recognition that they need the Policy of Joint Agreement to help them resolve conflicts.
But, as I mentioned earlier, the risks of separation are great. It should be used only as a last resort to help resolve a fatal flaw in marriage. Once separated, couples often never do reconcile, remaining separated for life, or they eventually divorce. A fact unknown to many is that fifteen to twenty percent of all married couples end their lives permanently separated. These, who are not included in divorce statistics, usually feel that they should not legally divorce for religious reasons. But for most practical purposes, they are as divorced as those legally divorced. Their separation did not create the opportunity for reconciliation, but rather, created an even higher barrier between spouses.
So whenever spouses separate, I usually encourage a plan that moves them toward eventual reconciliation. From your letter, it sounds as if you are moving in that direction, and you simply need to know when it would be the right time to move back together. And you may want to know more about full marital recovery after you have ended your separation.
The four rules to recovery that I recommend after an affair are marital rules that every couple should be following. So they should form the basis for any plan for recovery after a separation. Since the four rules cover every conceivable problem that married couples face, they would address the issue that led to your separation. If you were to follow these four rules as part of your plan for recovery, I guarantee you that you will not only eliminate the problems that led you to separate, but you will also resolve many other conflicts that have prevented you from having a successful marriage.
I encourage you and your husband to make a commitment to follow the Four Rules for a Successful Marriage: Care, Protection, Honesty and Time, and once the commitment is made, end your separation and begin a marriage that will last a lifetime.