Coping with Infidelity: Part 2
How Should Affairs End?
Introduction: This is the second in a four part series of Q&A columns on
infidelity. Last week I explained how affairs usually begin (see Part 1)and this week I will explain
how they should end.
There are three parts to the way affairs should end. The first part is revealing the affair to
one's spouse, the second part is never seeing or communicating with the lover again, and
the third part is getting through symptoms of withdrawal after a permanent separation
Granted, that's not the way most affairs end. In most affairs after the passion peaks, the
spouse and lover simply drift apart, the victimized spouse usually never finds out about
it and the lover is often still in the picture, occasionally getting back together again with
the unfaithful spouse. Some affairs are discovered by the spouse, but even after discovery,
the affair often continues unabated until it dies a natural death. If that's the way your
affair ends, even if your marriage survives, it will probably not amount to much.
You may feel that after an affair a marriage doesn't amount to much anyway. But the way
I suggest ending an affair in this Q&A column will give your marriage the greatest
opportunity for a complete recovery.
I am posting two letters to illustrate this second phase of infidelity -- ending an affair. As
I did in last week's Q&A column, instead of posting my answers to them, I will
simply explain to you how affairs should be ended.
Dear Dr. Harley,
My wife and I have been married for 11 years and have two wonderful children. When
we were dating, she was very warm and affectionate toward me, but after our marriage,
she never seemed to have the time. I'd just try to hug her when I'd get home and she'd pull
her arms in or put her hands on my chest pushing me away. She didn't like to kiss much
or be close. Sex was much the same way. It bothered me and I told her on several
occasions that I needed her to show that she needed me and was interested in me
physically, that I was attractive to her. There was never much conversation about it. She
would respond with "I know," and things wouldn't change. We simply went on with our
I never felt divorce was an option, so I believed I had to find a way to be happy. I was able
to rely on my family, friends, my children, they all helped to fill in spaces that she left out.
But last year, my resentment started to build up in me. Work wasn't going so well, and
the people I relied on for emotional support no longer filled the void. I gave up. That was
my mistake, I gave up.
I turned to a woman that had previously worked in my office for help. We had been close
friends for a long time about 5 years. It was innocent at first, but didn't stay that way for
long. She had been one of those who had been meeting my unmet needs at work when
they had not been met at home. She had been a warm and caring friend. But now she
came to mean even more to me. One night the wheels came off and we gave in. It felt like
we had been in love forever.
I truly feel I've lost everything that I held dear, especially my values. Now I'm an
unfaithful husband and I always will be. I hate that. I blame myself for failing, but I also
blame my wife. If she would have only listened to me and given us the chance to work
our problems out together.
But I have tried to recover from my mistake. My wife discovered the affair very soon after
it began. I really didn't try very hard to conceal it. Deep down, I wanted her to know. As
soon as it was out of the bag, I agreed not to see the other woman again. It's been three
months now, and I have been true to my word.
My wife is a different person. Warm and caring. Perfect in every way. But now that she
is willing to meet my needs, I won't let her in. I don't trust her. I don't know if it's a matter
of me not being able to forgive her, myself, or just apathy. We've gone to counseling and
it has helped us understand what has happened and why. But I just feel used up. What
do I do next?
Dear Dr. Harley,
My husband and I moved from the east coast to the west coast this year. After we
arrived, I discovered that he had been having an affair. His addiction to this woman gave
him away. A phone bill showed him calling her every day and I don't know how many
letters he's sent. When I discovered it, I threatened to leave him with our two children if
he didn't stop trying to contact her. He agreed to stop calling and writing to her, but after
a month, I found a letter she had just written him saying that "she was thrilled to hear his
voice yesterday when he called." So I know he was carrying on the whole time. I decided
not to leave because our children are now in school.
I called his "girlfriend" and told her to stop talking to my husband, and she agreed with
me that the relationship was stupid, especially since we have moved so far away from her.
So their contacts with each other may have ended, at least for now.
But now there is another problem. Now he can't perform in bed any more. Before we
moved, and during our years of marriage he had always been a 4 plus a week person and
now it's like he just can't keep it up long, if at all. He struggles terribly with it and I know
it and so does he. He tries to make excuses for it but I know that it's his feelings for his
girlfriend that's doing it to him. How long does this go on and how do I handle it. It just
breaks my heart. I am a very upbeat happy person. I have been very forgiving in spite of
the terrible personal pain I've had. But I can't seen to handle my husband's loss of desire
Some affairs are "one night stands." They usually take place when a spouse is away on a
trip, or when one has gone out partying without the other spouse. These relatively
loveless affairs usually happen when people drink and lose impulse control. Alcoholics
are the ones most likely to have these flings.
Other affairs start as a caring friendship and develop over years to become a complete
relationship that solves most emotional and practical issues for the couple. These
relationships become so complete and persistent that spouses are eventually divorced, and
the lovers are united in marriage.
But most affairs are somewhere in between one night stands and relationships that lead
Affairs usually take place because they meet important emotional needs. But most affairs meet only some
emotional needs not met in marriage, leaving others that are being met by a spouse. That
fact usually rules out the possibility of divorce, at least for the spouse having the affair.
The wayward spouse knows that the lover, for some reason, is not able to meet some of the
needs met by his or her spouse. So most affairs are never intended to lead to divorce and
remarriage, but are "safety-valve" relationships that satisfy a need not met in marriage.
Affairs are intended to be kept secret
Having drawn the above conclusion about the nature of affairs, it should be obvious why
most wayward spouses would like their affairs to go undetected. Not only do they want
to avoid all the unhappiness that goes with discovery, but they also want to continue the
affair as long as it meets needs not met in marriage. In most cases, a lover only meets one
or two emotional needs, while the spouse meets
others. Unfaithful spouses usually don't want their marriages to end, and yet they want
emotional needs met that the spouse does not meet. Discovery of the affair, in most cases,
would ruin the "solution" to their problem.
But there comes a time in almost every affair that an unfaithful spouse realizes that it has
run it's course, or it wasn't a good idea to begin with. In some cases, it's the lover who
ends the relationship, finding that the spouse isn't living up to expectations. And in other
cases, it's the spouse that ends it when the disadvantages of the affair begin to outweigh
In most cases, affairs end peacefully and in secret. By their very nature, there is not much
of a commitment to hold them together, and a desire to do the "right thing" is usually the
excuse an unfaithful spouse uses to end it. But the real reason is usually that the affair has
become more trouble than it's worth.
Occasionally, a scorned lover will go berserk, call the spouse all hours of the day and
night, file lawsuits and create all kinds of trouble. But that's very rare. Affairs usually end
In the vast majority of cases, affairs are never revealed to spouses. They are usually kept so
secret that even when children are born of an affair, the victimized husband is usually not
told that the child he is raising is not really his. I know of over 20 instances where a father
was unknowingly raising another man's child.
What are the signs of an affair?
Almost everyone denies an affair at first, even when confronted with overpowering
evidence. When a woman I counseled broke in on her husband having sex with a
neighbor, he tried to convince her that she was having an hallucination.
While seeing your spouse in bed with a lover is sure-fire evidence of an affair, that kind
of evidence is usually close to impossible to find. But there are many other less intrusive
ways to detect ongoing affairs.
For an unfaithful spouse to engage in an affair without detection, two separate lives must
be created, one for the lover and one for the spouse. A certain amount of dishonesty is
required in both of them, but the major deception is with the spouse.
So one of the most common clues of an affair is an unwillingness to let a spouse investigate
all aspects of life. If two lives are necessary for an affair, and if a spouse is curious enough,
the secret second life is relatively easy to discover. Difficulty in getting a spouse to talk
about events of the day can be a sign of trying to hide the second life.
One of the most common smoke-screens used by unfaithful spouses is to express shock
that their spouse would be so distrusting as to ask questions about their secret second life.
They try to make it seem as if such questions are an affront to their dignity, and a sign of
incredible disrespect. They figure that the best defense is a good offense, and so they try
to make their spouses feel guilty about asking too many questions.
I am a firm believer in letting each spouse do as much snooping around as they want.
Nothing should be kept secret in marriage, and no questions should be left unanswered.
If a spouse objects to such scrutiny, what might he or she be hiding?
Another type of clue is records of communication such as telephone records, letters and
e-mail. Most affairs depend on repeated contacts and evidence of those contacts can
usually be found. That's how M.S. discovered her husband's affair. When his lover was
living in the same city, he was able to hide his affair, but after he moved, it became almost
impossible for him to keep his communication a secret. He was addicted to daily contact,
and M.S. saw evidence of it almost immediately after the move. But how many people
move away from a lover? It's very rare, and if M.S.'s family had not moved, she may never
have discovered the affair because she trusted her husband.
When a couple spend their leisure-time away from each other, it is not only a breeding
ground for an affair, but it can also be another clue to an affair. That's especially true when
a spouse doesn't want the other to be present at their favorite activity. I counseled a man
who went fishing every summer for a week with his friends, wives not invited. But they
did invite a secretary from work who cooked their meals (and had sex with them all)
during the trip.
Anything that takes one spouse away from the other overnight is an invitation for an affair.
But when an opposite-sex co-worker tends to join a spouse on business trips, red flags
should be flying in all directions. Any evidence that this relationship is anything more
than pure business is, from my perspective, a gigantic clue that an affair might be in
progress. That's also the case if a spouse and opposite-sex co-worker spend a great deal
of time working together.
We are all wired to have an affair. We can all fall in love with someone of the opposite sex
if that person meets one of our emotional needs. If
you don't think it can happen to you because of your conviction or will-power, you are
particularly vulnerable to an affair. And if you think your spouse would never have an
affair, you are also vulnerable.
Look what happened to poor Kathy Lee Gifford. She stated publicly and wrote in one of
her books that she trusted her husband completely, that he would never cheat on her. But
she should not have trusted her husband. If she would have taken the steps she is now
taking to help him avoid another affair, the first would never have taken place, and she
would have avoided all its pain and embarrassment. I don't trust my wife completely
and she doesn't trust me, and that's why neither of us have ever had an affair. Lack of
trust does not make spouses paranoid and miserable, it makes their marriages safe.
Should an affair be revealed?
I have been letting you in on some clues to infidelity when a spouse is unwilling to be
truthful. But there are a few, of course, who are honest enough to tell their spouses about
an affair without being confronted. Guilt sometimes sets in right after the first sexual
encounter, and it continues to build as one lie is added to another. Depression follows
guilt and it's not unusual for a wayward spouse to even consider suicide as a way to
escape the nightmare he or she has created. As an act of desperation, honesty is sometimes
seized as a last resort, often in an effort to relieve the feelings of guilt.
From my perspective, honesty is part of the solution to infidelity, and so I'll take honesty
for whatever reason, even if it's to relieve a feeling of guilt and depression. The revelation
of an affair is very hard on an unsuspecting spouse, of course, but at the same time, it's the
first step toward marital reconciliation.
Most unfaithful spouses know that their affair is one of the most heartless acts they could
ever inflict on their spouse. So one of their reasons to be dishonest is to protect their spouse
from emotional pain. "Why add insult to injury," they reason. "What I did was wrong, but
why put my spouse through needless pain by revealing this thoughtless act?" As is the
case with bank robbers and murderers, unfaithful spouses don't think they will ever be
discovered, and so they don't expect their unfaithfulness to hurt their spouse.
But I am one of the very few that advocate the revelation of affairs at all costs, even when
the wayward spouse has no feelings of guilt or depression to overcome. I believe that
honesty is so essential to the success of marriage, that hiding past infidelity makes a
marriage dishonest, preventing emotional closeness and intimacy.
It isn't honesty that causes the pain, it's the affair. Honesty is simply revealing truth to the
victim. Those who advocate dishonesty regarding infidelity assume that the truth will
cause such irreparable harm, that it's in the best interest of a victimized spouse to go
through life with the illusion of fidelity.
It's patronizing to think that a spouse cannot bear to hear the truth. Anyone who assumes
that their spouse cannot handle truth is being incredibly disrespectful, manipulative and
in the final analysis, dangerous. How little you must think of your spouse when you try
to protect him or her from the truth.
It's not only patronizing, but it's also false to assume that your spouse cannot bear to hear
the truth. Illusions do not make us happy, they cause us to wander through life, bumping
into barriers that are invisible to us because of the illusion that is created. Truth, on the
other hand, reveals those barriers, and sheds light on them so that we can see well enough
to overcome them. The unsuspecting spouse of an unfaithful husband or wife wonders
why their marriage is not more fulfilling and more intimate. Knowledge of an affair
would make it clear why all efforts have failed.
After revealing an affair, your spouse will no longer trust you. But lack of trust does not
ruin a marriage, it's the lack of care and protection that ruins marriages. Your spouse
should not trust you, and the sooner your spouse realizes it, the better.
The Policy of Radical Honesty (reveal to your spouse as much information about yourself as you know; your thoughts,
feelings, habits, likes, dislikes, personal history,
daily activities, and plans for the future) is one of two rules you must follow to
protect your spouse from your self-centered behavior, which includes affairs. The other
rule is the Policy of Joint Agreement (never do
anything without an enthusiastic agreement between you and your spouse). If you were
to be completely honest with you spouse, and you were to follow the Policy of Joint
Agreement, an affair would be impossible, unless for some reason your spouse wanted
you to have one.
If you knew that your affair would be discovered -- that right after having sex with your
co-worker, your spouse were to find out about it -- you would probably not go through
with it. And if you were honest enough with your spouse so that YOU would be the one
to tell him or her what you did, your honesty would be a huge reason to avoid any affair.
How the victimized spouse should respond to the revelation of an affair is a subject of a
later column. I do not have the space to treat it here. But a spouse is twice victimized
when he or she is lied to about an affair. Truth is far easier to handle than lies.
Some affairs, those like the husbands of R.J. and M.S., are discovered by their spouses. But
as R.J. and M.S. have seen, knowing about an affair is only the first step toward recovery.
Never see or communicate with a former lover
Once an affair is first revealed, whether it's discovered or admitted, the victimized spouse
is usually in a state of shock. The first reaction is usually panic, but it's quickly followed
by anger. Divorce and sometimes even murder are contemplated. But after some time
passes (usually about three weeks), most couples decide that they will try to pull together
and save their marriage.
The one having an affair is in no position to bargain, but he or she usually tries anyway.
The bargaining effort usually boils down to somehow keeping the lover in the loop. You'd
think that the unfaithful spouse would be so aware of his or her weaknesses, and so aware
of the pain inflicted, that every effort would be made to avoid further contact with the
lover as an act of thoughtfulness to the stunned spouse. But instead, the unfaithful spouse
argues that the relationship was "only sexual" or was "emotional but not sexual" or some
other peculiar description to prove that continued contact with the lover would be okay.
Most victimized spouses intuitively understand that all contact with a lover must end for
life. Permanent separation not only helps prevent a renewal of the affair, but it is also a
crucial gesture of consideration to someone who has been through hell. What victimized
spouse would ever want to know that his or her spouse is seeing or communicating with
a former lover at work or in some other activity?
In spite of career sacrifices, friendships, and issues relating to children's schooling, I am
adamant in recommending that there be no contact with a former lover for life. For many,
that means a move to another state. But to do otherwise fails to recognize the nature of
addiction and its cure.
Look at M.S.'s husband. Here he is, thousands of miles from his lover, and yet he still feels
compelled to call her. Can you imagine the trouble M.S. would have had separating them
if they had not moved? Their move was the best thing that could have happened to their
marriage because it not only revealed the affair, but it also set up the conditions that would
make ending it possible -- total separation.
We don't know if R.J. still sees his lover, but he says he has broken off all contact. In many
cases where a person is still in town, that's hard to prove. But one thing's for sure, if he
ever does see his lover, it will put him in a state of perpetual withdrawal from his
addiction, and make the resolution of his marriage essentially impossible. In fact, one of
the reasons he is not recovering after three months of separation may be that he is not
being truthful about the separation.
How should an unfaithful spouse tell his lover that their relationship is over? If left to
their own devices, many would take a Caribbean cruise to say their final good-byes.
Obviously, that will not do. In fact, I recommend that the final good-bye be in the form
of a letter, and not in person or even by telephone.
My advice is to write a final letter in a way that the victimized spouse would agree to send
it. It should begin with a statement of how selfish it was to cause those they loved so much
pain, and while marital reconciliation cannot completely repay the offense, it's the right
thing to do. A statement should be made about how much the unfaithful spouse cares
about his spouse and family, and for their protection, has decided to completely end the
relationship with the lover. He or she has promised never to see or communicate with the
lover again in life, and asks the lover to respect that promise. Nothing should be said
about how much the lover will be missed. After the letter is written, the victimized spouse
should read and approve it before it is sent.
How to Get Through Withdrawal
In R.J.'s case, his feelings for his wife are as bad as they have ever been. In the case of
M.S.'s husband, he is suffering so much that he can no longer make love to his wife,
something that had always come very easily to him in the past. What is happening to
They are experiencing symptoms of withdrawal from the addiction they have to their
As soon as a victimized spouse decides to stay married and struggle through
reconciliation, he or she usually sets out to meet whatever needs the lover had been
meeting. If it was sex, the spouse offers more and better sex. If it was affection, it's more
affection. Both M.S. and R.J.'s wife were willing to do whatever it took to regain their
wayward spouses' love.
But it didn't work for either of them. That's because both of their husbands were in
withdrawal. They were both addicted to their lovers and separation from them caused
them to suffer from depression. That, in turn, made it almost impossible for their spouses
to meet their emotional needs. So all of that love and
care that was being extended to them was being wasted. Until they would recover from
withdrawal, the efforts of their wives to please them will be very disappointing.
Withdrawal is the emotional reaction to the loss of something that gives great pleasure.
It's similar to the feelings an alcoholic has when he makes a commitment never to drink
again. It's also similar to the grief that comes from the loss of a loved one.
A lover is like alcohol and like a loved one. Not only
do unfaithful spouses miss what it was their lovers did, meeting important emotional needs, but they also miss the person they
had come to love.
Our most common emotions are anger, anxiety and depression. Symptoms of withdrawal
usually include all of these in a very intense form. I usually suggest that anti-depressant
medication be used to help alleviate these symptoms. While the most intense symptoms
of withdrawal usually last only about three weeks, in some cases they can linger for six
months or longer before they start to fade.
It is extremely likely that a commitment to remain separated from a lover will be broken
unless extreme measures are taken to avoid it. That's because the emotional reaction of
withdrawal is so painful. Honesty is an extremely important element in reconciliation, and
it should be understood that if the unfaithful spouse ever sees or communicates with the
lover, he or she should immediately tell the spouse that it happened. They should then agree on
a plan that would prevent a recurrence of contact in the future. But as soon as any contact
is made, it throws the unfaithful spouse back to the beginning of withdrawal, and the time
it takes to overcome the feelings of grief begins all over again.
There's a sense in which M.S.'s husband was in withdrawal even before M.S. discovered the affair. As soon as the move was made, he became depressed, and what M.S. noticed
the most was his lack of interest in sex. Depression will do that to you (and so will anti-depressant medication -- one of it's only side effects is a loss of sex drive).
If M.S.'s husband were to avoid talking to his lover for three weeks, it's likely that his sex
drive would start to return, since the worst symptoms of withdrawal would probably have
ended. He has a long history of sexual interest in his wife, and I guarantee that he will
eventually do just fine in bed.
The problem that R.J. may soon face is that his wife's cheerful attitude will wear thin.
There's no telling how much longer she can try to please him without an approving
response from him. Sometimes I tell spouses to just avoid each other until the withdrawal
stage passes because all the effort to be kind and thoughtful is easily wasted until they start
It's the stage of recovery after withdrawal that gives spouses the best opportunity to learn to
meet each other's most important emotional needs
and overcome Love Busters. Spouses should save
their most tolerant mood for that stage, where they could both be receptive to each other's
care. And that will be the subject of next week's column: Learning to meet each other's
needs after an affair.
Restoring the Marital Relationship