How to Survive an Affair
by Willard F. Harley, Jr.
A reprint of chapter 13 of His Needs, Her Needs (2011 Edition)
Alex sighed quietly as he reached over to turn out the light. Then he turned back to kiss Elaine's cheek. "Good night, honey," he whispered.
No answer. Elaine slept soundly on. That did not surprise him, and he knew how angry she'd be if he woke her just to make love. He lay down and pulled the covers over his shoulder. Long ago he had given up the loser's game of feeling sorry for himself. He just had to face it that Elaine no longer felt any interest in sex. She had once, he'd thought, in the early years of their marriage, before the children came along.
Next morning as Alex caught the 7:30 commuter train he greeted Harriet and Fred, who also worked for his firm. As Alex opened his morning paper he remembered his empty noon schedule.
"Hey, you two," he called out. "My lunch partner's out of town today. Either of you free?"
"Sorry," Fred told him. "I have to be across town."
Alex looked at Harriet, a tall, willowy woman, studious and plain. "I'd love to go to lunch with you," she answered brightly.
I haven't seen her in a while, Alex thought. Harriet had gone to his high school, and they'd lost track of each other for a few years, until they started working for the same company. Their friendship rekindled several months before, when they began working on the same team, installing a new computer system. Once they'd completed that, though, Alex's responsibilities took him to the fifth floor, while she stayed on the seventh.
"You know," Alex told her that day at lunch, "I'm kind of glad Charlie had to go out of town today."
"Me, too," she agreed, smiling. "I've missed you since you went downstairs. We should have done this sooner."
"Yeah. Working on that project was the most fun I've had in a long time."
"The system's really proving itself, too. Float time on orders has been reduced to almost nothing."
"That doesn't surprise me." Alex chuckled. "Why, with you and me on that job, it couldn't fail."
As they left Alex and Harriet made plans to meet again next week. Soon the midweek luncheon had become a regular part of their schedules. Once Harriet gave Alex a book on computer programming, and a few weeks later he responded with a modest but lovely bracelet. As he gave it to her at lunch her face lit up. Leaning over the table, she kissed him gently on the cheek.
"Harriet, I have to be honest," he told her awkwardly. "I'm getting awfully attached to you. It's . . . well, it's more than friendship."
"Alex," she responded, her voice low, "I feel that way, too."
"I've never told you how I feel about Elaine. . . ."
"And you never need to," she reassured him.
"But I want to. I've never been able to talk to anyone about it before. I'd like to now."
"Then go ahead. It's okay."
"When I married her, I didn't realize what I was letting myself in for. I thought we shared a lot of interests, would spend a lot of time together, but all that dried up within a year or so. Now she does her thing, and I do mine. She doesn't like me to talk to her about work, and she complains I don't earn enough money. Half the time, when I get home at night, its like walking into a madhouse. . . ."
Harriet listened in sympathetic silence; afterwards he stopped in at her place, "to talk."
The next morning, when Alex awakened in Harriet's bed, he thought how pretty she looked. He kissed her bare shoulder and smiled as she opened her eyes. "Hi, handsome," she whispered.
After that evening, Alex and Harriet seemed obsessed with each other. Never in his life had Alex experienced such enthusiastic and consistent lovemaking.
At first Elaine only experienced some vague doubts about Alex, but soon her doubts turned to suspicions as his absences increased. The occasional stay in town overnight extended to his leaving the house on weekend afternoons. Finally, one night she decided to test her suspicions and called Jake, with whom Alex said he planned to spend the night. Jake tried to say Alex hadn't arrived yet, but his performance left Elaine unconvinced. When she tried to call later, no one answered the phone.
Elaine remembered hearing Alex talk warmly about working with Harriet on a computer project. She also knew Harriet didn't live too far away and decided she might be a likely prospect. One Saturday afternoon when Alex had disappeared, Elaine hired a neighborhood teenager to watch the children and drove to Harriet's apartment. As soon as she turned onto her block, she spotted Alex's car, parked just around the corner.
Elaine parked, found Harriet's apartment, and took a deep breath as she rang the bell. Harriet answered the door, wearing a dressing gown. "Elaine!" she said just a bit too loudly. "Why, what a surprise!"
"I'm sorry, Harriet, if this seems rude, but I must come in to see something for myself." She brushed past the other woman and walked through the apartment, into the bedroom. There she found Alex, hurriedly pulling on his trousers. The rest of his clothes were still draped over a chair near the bed.
His wife spun around and walked out of the apartment wordlessly. She saw no signs of Harriet and didnt even bother to close the door on her way out. Once in her car, Elaine burst into tears. As she automatically drove home she attempted to force her numb mind to think. Divorce seemed her only option.
Alex and Harriet stood by the front window and watched Elaine drive away. "What will you do?" Harriet asked.
"I've got to go after her and try to cool her down. Don't worry about it, love. It's going to work out."
When he got home, Alex saw Elaine's car, engine running and door ajar, standing in the driveway. He turned off the ignition, pocketed the key, and closed the door. As he walked through the front door he heard the children crying. The bewildered baby-sitter told him his wife had gone upstairs. He paid her and sent her home, then went to find Elaine. She had locked herself in the bedroom. After calling to her a few times, he realized he'd better take care of the kids first. They went out for some fast food, and he put them to bed. All that time the door to the bedroom remained tightly shut.
Again Alex knocked at the door. No answer. "Elaine, please," he begged softly.
The lock on the knob clicked, and he tried the door again. As it opened he saw Elaine sitting on the bed, eyes swollen and puffy with crying. He walked over to her, "I'm so ashamed, honey--"
"Don't you dare call me honey!" she hissed.
"But Elaine, I love you and the children. You mean the world to me. I don't understand how I could have done this to you." Again Elaine started sobbing, and instinctively Alex tried to comfort her.
"Don't touch me!" she gasped, struggling away from him to perch in the middle of the bed. "How could you do that? I hate the sight of you!"
"Elaine, please . . . It'll never happen again. I must have been crazy, please give me another chance." Tears welled up in his eyes.
"You liar! You lied to me about all those nights you had to spend at Jake's, didn't you!?"
"Elaine, please, no--"
"Don't lie. It only makes it worse!"
"You're right, and I won't lie anymore. You've got to believe me! I can only promise you it won't happen again. You and the kids mean too much to me. It's all over, Elaine, I mean it."
This sort of exchange continued until three o'clock in the morning--Alex begging Elaine for mercy and understanding, and Elaine ripping into him with rage and anguish. Finally, driven by exhaustion, she permitted a truce and allowed Alex to come to bed.
During the next few days Alex continued to show remorse and managed to quiet Elaine down somewhat. By the end of the week he had her convinced that temporary insanity caused his fling with Harriet, and it wouldn't happen again.
Alex did stop seeing Harriet for lunch, but he called her at the first opportunity. "I've got to see you, but I don't dare right now. I love you so much'I just don't know what to do. . . ."
"Alex, I love you, too. There'll never be any question of that. But I want you to hold your marriage together. I don't want to cause a divorce."
"Harriet, you're a jewel. Don't worry. I'll give it my best shot. If it ends in divorce, it won't be your fault."
Alex held out for two weeks and then rendezvoused with Harriet for lunch at an out-of-the-way spot. "I can't stop thinking about you and what we have together. I've never had anything like it in my life, and I know I won't ever have it again."
Harriet could only hold Alex's hand and weep. The next week they met at Jake's apartment and resumed the affair with renewed vigor. It seemed as if they had new energy, stored up over the past weeks of separation. After that they got together whenever possible for lunch. Staying in town overnight was out, because Elaine would suspect.
One Saturday afternoon, however, Alex couldn't stand it and quietly left for Harriet's apartment. He didn't realize that Elaine had seen him go and had followed. They repeated the whole sorry discovery scene, which left Elaine utterly inconsolable. She ordered Alex out of the house and filed for divorce.
Alex thought about moving in with Harriet but decided against it. Instead, he found a room at the YMCA and sat on his narrow cot, taking stock. He realized he not only missed Elaine and the children, but that he had many other things to think about -- being rejected by his family and friends and having to spend large sums of money on lawyers, alimony, and child support. He also thought about his company and their policy concerning affairs and keeping families together. He could lose his job -- or at least miss an upcoming promotion.
One evening, about a week after he had moved out, Alex phoned Elaine: "Please give me one more chance. I think our marriage was in trouble long before this thing happened. I know there were things I was trying to ignore and I was wrong to do that. I should have brought it all out in the open with you and a counselor. Elaine, I really want to save our marriage and our family. Will you go to see someone with me?"
At first Elaine didn't know how to reply. Was Alex right? Maybe she was partly to blame. And he did want to see a counselor.
"Okay," she finally responded. "I'll give it a try."
Before the week was out, Alex had moved out of the YMCA and back into the house. He managed one brief conversation with Harriet, telling her he still loved her but could not get a divorce -- not yet, anyway.
During counseling sessions, Alex tried to explain his feelings about why he felt the marriage had gone wrong -- and why he held resentment against Elaine.
"Alex," said the counselor, "you need to spell out what you thought was wrong. Let's get specific."
Alex got specific and talked about Elaine's indifference to having sex, her lack of interest in his career, and her unwillingness to share in activities he enjoyed. Then he cited the incessant nagging about household problems, even though she had never had to go out and get a job.
As Elaine listened, she began to wonder if perhaps a lot of the problem wasn't really her fault after all.
Then the counselor zeroed in and asked Alex to be totally honest. Was he still in love with Harriet?
"Yes, I am," Alex said in a mixture of shame and defiance. Alex didn't bother to say that he and Harriet had resumed their affair and still spent lunch hours at Jake's apartment. The counselor did not ask.
In the following months Alex managed to remain in counseling and continue his affair with Harriet. He fooled both Elaine and the counselor into believing he was interested in being permanently faithful to his wife. He learned how to be more careful and less impulsive in his frequent meetings with Harriet.
Alex, Elaine, and Harriet seem caught in the eternal triangle, and it's not too hard to see how it happened. When Alex and Elaine married, the balances in their Love Bank accounts stood at the usual all-time highs. But as expectations weren't fulfilled and needs weren't met, Alex became vulnerable to someone else who met his important emotional needs. After that first lunch, Harriet's account in Alex's Love Bank mounted rapidly. The affair developed and Alex wound up in love with her. He found himself locked in a prison; he couldn't seem to do without either of them. Elaine was the mother of his children and he knew that they needed their mom and dad to stay together. He had also made a commitment to her: that they would be married for life. But he was in love with Harriet.
Steps to Surviving an Affair
I am often asked, "How do you help people like Alex and Elaine survive an affair? What do you tell a couple when this actually happens to them?"
Frankly, when I first started counseling couples caught in the snare of infidelity, I didn't think that their marriages could survive. At best, I thought they might stick it out for the sake of their children in a lifetime of resentment and regret. I had no idea that they could survive the ordeal to create a better marriage than they had ever experienced.
As it turns out, I've discovered that the only way to really survive an affair is for a couple to turn their marriage into a passionate and fulfilling experience. Without having a better marriage than ever before, spouses don't really survive.
My plan to achieve that remarkable result takes a couple down a very narrow path. There are plenty of rules to follow, and without the complete cooperation of both spouses it wont work. But when the plan is followed the results are outstanding, and there are thousands of happy couples who bear witness to its amazing rate of success.
Step 1: End the Affair
The first step on the path to surviving an affair is for it to end. An affair ends when the straying spouse ceases all contact with his or her lover and never sees or talks to that person again. Time and again I've watched what happens when a drastic and decisive break with a lover is not made. They try to remain "friends" and maintain casual social contact. But inevitably they find their way back to their lover's arms. It seems that when it comes to this one person, they exhibit incredibly flawed judgment and almost irresistible force draws them back.
But even if there were to be no risk of rekindling an affair, if any contact continues, the affair still remains alive in the mind of the betrayed spouse. Since an affair is the most hurtful and selfish act that one spouse can inflict on the other, any contact restores the memory and perpetuates the pain. Wives have told me that their husband's affair was worse than being raped. Men have said their wifes affair was worse than losing a child. It's the ultimate betrayal.
For some, the affair ends the right way. The unfaithful spouse sends a letter to the lover that communicates how much suffering the affair caused the betrayed spouse and how thoughtless it was, a desire to rebuild the marriage, and that all contact would be terminated forever. The betrayed spouse reads the letter and approves of it before it's sent. After the letter is sent, extraordinary precautions that I'll explain in the next step are taken to avoid future contact with the lover.
But most affairs end the wrong way -- they die a natural death. Instead of taking control of the situation, and making a decision to end it, most unfaithful spouses continue in the relationship as long as possible. Affairs, however, don't usually last very long. I estimate that 95% of them don't last two years. Those few who eventually marry are extremely fragile -- much more likely to divorce than the average couple. So if an affair doesn't end the right way, it will almost always end, even if it's the wrong way.
If your unfaithful spouse is unwilling to end an affair the right way, I know of a way to help speed up its demise: Expose it. Your own family should know: Your parents, your siblings, and even your children. The family of your spouses lover should also know, especially the lover's spouse. The pastor of your church should be informed as well. Exposure of an affair is like opening a moldy closet to the light of day. Affairs do well when they're conducted in secret, but when they're in full view for all to see, they appear as they are -- incredibly foolish and thoughtless.
Even if exposure were to be ineffective in ending an affair, I'd recommend it anyway. The betrayed spouse needs as much support as possible, and exposure helps friends and relatives understand what's going on. Keeping an affair secret is no real help to anyone. But I've been amazed at how well it dismantles the illusion that affairs rest upon. Instead of assuming that the relationship is made in heaven, an unfaithful spouse quickly senses that it's a one-way ticket to hell on earth.
The first reaction of an unfaithful spouse to exposure is to try to turn the tables on the betrayed spouse. "I will never be able to forgive you for hurting me this way. Don't you ever think about how I'd be affected by this?" Of course, it's really the affair that hurts. The exposure simply identifies the source of the pain. The unfaithful spouse should be the one begging for forgiveness.
In spite of the suffering that an affair inflicts on a betrayed spouse, during this period of exposure he or she should try to make as many Love Bank deposits and as few withdrawals as possible. If you argue about the affair, you'll damage recovery. Insist on the unfaithful spouses complete separation from the lover (no contact for life), but don't fight about it. I call this strategy to end the affair Plan A.
If exposure itself doesn't end the affair immediately, my advice regarding what to do next is usually different for husbands and wives. I encourage husbands to try to stick to avoiding arguments and meeting their unfaithful wives' basic needs (Plan A) as long as possible (six months to a year). But I usually encourage wives to separate after about three weeks if their husband is still in contact with his lover. My experience has taught me that the health of most women deteriorates quickly and significantly while living with an unfaithful husband. Men, on the other hand, tend to be able to weather the storm longer with fewer emotional or physical effects. I call the strategy of complete separation Plan B.
In addition to avoiding health problems, a separation also helps a betrayed spouse hang on to what remains in their spouse's Love Bank account. Daily interaction with an unfaithful spouse causes such large withdrawals, that a separation with no contact between spouses can actually help the marriage by temporarily freezing the betrayed spouse's Love Bank. When the affair is over, the betrayed spouse is less likely to divorce when the unfaithful spouse wants to give the marriage a chance to recover.
Yet another advantage to separation is that some of the basic needs met by the betrayed spouse suddenly disappear. This is especially true when a couple has children. An unfaithful spouse often overlooks the betrayed spouse's contribution to the family. While the lover may meet two basic needs that were unmet by the betrayed spouse, the betrayed spouse may have been meeting the other three that cannot be easily met by the lover. During a separation, the unfaithful spouse can become acutely aware of what he or she is missing.
When a betrayed spouse decides that it's time to separate, I recommend complete separation with absolutely no direct contact (Plan B). The unfaithful spouse should be given the choice of having contact with the betrayed spouse or the lover, but not both. Someone should be appointed to go between spouses, delivering messages and children during visitation. But until the unfaithful spouse promises to completely end the affair, with absolutely no contact with the lover, the separation should continue. After the separation has lasted two years, with the unfaithful spouse's contact with the lover continuing, I generally recommend a divorce.
Step 2: Create Transparency
When a wayward spouse ends the affair, and agrees to rebuild the marriage, extraordinary precautions must be taken to guarantee that there will be no relapses. Affairs thrive on what I've called a secret second life. It's what you do under the radar. You know, or at least suspect, that your spouse wouldn't approve, so a part of your life is hidden from him or her. When a spouse is able to come and go without any accountability, men like Alex can have an affair with relative impunity. The temptation of an affair is great because there's little to stop them.
So I encourage couples to end their secret second lives by being transparent in the way they live their lives. It not only guards against affairs, but it also helps create intimacy and build compatibility. It's not a punishment for bad behavior -- it's an essential ingredient for a healthy marriage.
Transparency occurs when couples follow the Policy of Radical Honesty that I introduced to you in chapter 7. Reveal to your spouse as much information about yourself as you know -- your thoughts, feelings, habits, likes, dislikes, past history, daily activities, and future plans.
Nothing should be hidden. Passwords, email, text messages, telephone logs, computer histories, and all other forms of communication are made readily available to a spouse. It's the way my wife, Joyce, and I have lived during our 47 years of marriage. By revealing everything we know about ourselves, we have not only avoided an affair, but our transparency has helped our marriage in a host of other ways, too. It's not a lifetime prison sentence, where disclosure prevents us from having what we need most -- it's the formula for a very fulfilling life.
If I were to counsel Alex, I would encourage him to give Elaine a twenty-four-hour-a-day schedule of his whereabouts, and Elaine should do the same. Such a schedule is essential in a great marriage because spouses who are partners in life check with each other throughout the day to coordinate their decisions and activities. Elaine should call him several times a day, and he should call her as well just so they can check in with each other.
How does this twenty-four-hour-a-day checking feel? Admittedly, there is one real drawback in arranging for this kind of checkup system for someone like Alex. While it will provide Elaine some reassurance, it is likely to be very annoying to Alex, at least at first. Being accustomed to an independent lifestyle, he must now account for his time and activities. He must consider Elaine's feelings whenever he does anything. That's what couples do in successful marriages, but Alex hasn't learned to be thoughtful when he makes decisions, and he would feel at first as if he's married to a parole officer.
Typically a straying spouse, confronted with the demands of transparency and having no contact with his former lover responds with total depression. He is trying to save his marriage, but he feels miserable. Now, cut off from Harriet -- somebody he loves very much and who met some of his most important emotional needs -- and with the checkup going, he finds himself feeling trapped.
Step 3: Meet Each Other's Basic Emotional Needs
When the decision is finally made to reconcile and to avoid all contact with the lover, it's usually with the hope that the spouse can learn to meet needs met by the lover much more easily than the lover can meet needs met by the spouse. This is certainly true when the couple has children. The lover will simply never be able to take the place of the spouse in the family, but the spouse can take the place of the lover.
My primary goal in helping couples recover after an affair is for them to establish a romantic relationship that's just as passionate as the affair. I don't want their choice to be between passion and reason -- the affair offering passion and the marriage offering reason. I want them to have passion and reason, something that can only be found in their marriage.
If all goes according to my plan, Elaine will make herself available to Alex sexually and start joining him in some of his favorite activities. An ideal scenario would find her reading a book about computers and programming to understand better what he does for a living, and to put icing on the cake, she could start giving him more support at home and stop criticizing him about how he doesn't earn enough money or do enough around the house.
All this could take many weeks and months. Probably Alex hadn't shown Elaine enough affection, and that's why she resisted him sexually. In addition Alex would need some coaching in having conversations with Elaine that would be enjoyable for her. Instead of simply judging Elaine for not being interested in his computer world, he would have to learn how to talk to her about her interests and feelings. Elaine needed very deeply the quality of conversation Alex had shared with Harriet.
Obviously Elaine's basic need for honesty and openness has fallen into serious disrepair. Alex will have to work hard and long to regain her trust, but he can do it if he learns how to become transparent to her.
If I counseled Alex and Elaine, I would make a special point to warn Elaine that she has started down a long and bumpy road. In fact at first, she might receive little positive return for her efforts. Elaine should not expect that as a result of all her changes in her behavior Alex would suddenly become more loving, caring, and faithful. In fact, as I mentioned, Alex will initially react with depression. If he honestly described his thoughts, he would tell Elaine he spends a great deal of time thinking about Harriet. Elaine could even expect some lying and deceit on Alex's part at first. Alex will feel tempted to try to sneak away to meet Harriet again.
Regardless of how well Elaine meets Alex's needs, he will remain in love with Harriet for some time to come. Even if they reignite the flames of their own love by meeting each other's five basic needs, all their efforts may not completely extinguish the flame of love ignited by Alex's affair with Harriet. It may burn low, but it might never go out completely. Just as an alcoholic remains addicted to alcohol the rest of his life and never dares to touch another drink, Alex will remain vulnerable to Harriet for life and should not ever see her again.
I've found that breaking a man away from his lover after he reconciles with his wife usually proves more difficult than breaking a woman away from her lover. I am not sure why this is so. Perhaps women feel more uncomfortable loving two men, while men adjust better to multiple relationships. Throughout history, in the common system of polygamy, men have supported many women, but most societies have not permitted women to do the same. Usually sociologists have assumed this discrimination had an economic base (men could support women, but women could not usually support men), but the reason may also turn out to be emotional -- men usually enjoy having several wives, while most women find having several husbands to be repulsive.
Your Marriage Will Become Stronger Than Ever
A person who discovers his or her spouse in an affair experiences one of the most severe blows anyone could possibly sustain. It also sends both partners on an emotional roller coaster. But when a couple follow my narrow path to recovery, they often tell me that they have built a better love relationship than they ever would have had if the affair had not jolted them into constructive action. The affair provides the traumatic trigger that finally gets the couple to meet each other's basic needs. Once they start meeting those basic needs, their marriage becomes what it was supposed to have been all along.
Granted, it's certainly more difficult to learn to meet each other's basic needs after an affair than it would have been before an affair. And it's lot more painful. But with or without an affair, couples can create a very passionate and fulfilling marriage if they simply learn to meet each other's basic needs.
People who have never been through recovery after an affair usually feel that they could never love or trust an unfaithful spouse again. But the thousands of couples who I've guided down this narrow path are living proof that this is not true.