What to Do with an Unfaithful Wife

Letter #5

Dear Dr. Harley,

My marriage lasted eleven years. My wife and I were involved in so many different things, some together, many apart. We were restoring a house together and having children at the same time that I was working full time and finishing my education. She was also working full time. By the time the second child was born, we had both grown neglectful of the romantic aspect of our relationship.

It was like we had both fallen asleep -- but she woke up first. Eight years into the marriage, she had an affair with a man who worked with her. Instead of telling me that she was attracted to someone she knew, she kept it from me and got involved with him. She eventually told me about it, we went to a counselor, but for three years we struggled. The counselor suggested that, because he was important to her career, if I insisted on her not seeing him, I would risk losing her. I reluctantly complied, but he continued to pursue her and eventually she got reinvolved with him and the marriage was over.

I regret now having spent those three years struggling with an unfaithful wife who could never close the door on her infidelity. I feel demeaned by it, and I feel that I did myself harm by doing everything I could to put the genie back in the bottle when it was already too late.

Is there anything I could have done that would have saved my marriage? And now, how can I ever trust another woman? I have become deathly afraid that I will fail again, and that whoever I would marry will eventually tire of me, and that I will not be able to meet her needs. After three years of tilting at windmills with my wife, I almost EXPECT to be betrayed. What do I do? I cannot seem to help the way that I feel.


Dear B.R.,

Your fear comes from an incomplete understanding of why your wife had an affair and how you could have overcome it to restore your love for each other (and save your marriage). I'll give you a few basic concepts that will guard you against affairs in future relationships.

We marry because we are in love, and we fall in love with those who meet our most important emotional needs. When the one we marry stops meeting those needs, we become vulnerable to others who are willing and able to meet them. If we let someone else meet our needs, we fall in love with that person, and an affair is off and running. P To "affair-proof" a marriage (the goal of my book, His Needs, Her Needs: Building an Affair-proof Marriage), spouses must identify and meet each other's most important needs to prevent emotional attachments to others. They must also be honest with each other about needs they feel are not being met, and they must let each other know when they are attracted to someone else. If a spouse's needs are not met in marriage, and he or she is not honest about their feelings toward someone who meets those needs, an affair is likely to take place.

Once an affair begins, it is like an addiction. The same emotional attachment that drew you and your spouse into marriage is now directed to someone else. When your spouse is having an affair, she is as attached to her lover as she was when she first married to you. If she tries to leave her lover, she will experience many of the same withdrawal symptoms that people have when they try to stop using addicting drugs -- intense feelings of anxiety and depression.

Most people who have affairs are so depressed they feel like committing suicide. They cannot imagine leaving their lovers, nor can they imagine leaving their families. They see no hope. They know they are causing their spouse and children unbearable pain, yet they cannot stop the affair. They try to rationalize by thinking that their spouse and children will do just fine, but deep down they know that their pleasure is destroying the lives of the ones they love, so suicide is considered as a way out of the mess they're in.

The simplest and most direct solution to affairs is to force an end to all contact with the lover for life, and for the spouse to meet the emotional needs that the lover met. Some of my clients have done just that, and spared themselves untold agony. Many leave the state as the only sure way to avoid contact. That plan would also work for alcohol and drug addiction if there were drug and alcohol free states, but there are none. The availability of addicting substances is everywhere, which makes the temptation too great for most addicts to overcome.

But what do you do when your spouse won't leave her lover? What if she won't move to another state? I have recommended two approaches to this problem.

The first approach that I often recommend (plan A) is to compete with the lover. Even as she is seeing the man, try to meet her needs, financially and emotionally. That approach has the advantage of proving that you care more about your wife than her lover does. Since you have more to lose than the lover (your family unit and present way of life), you can usually outlast the lover. He eventually finds someone else with less baggage.

The problem with this approach is that it is emotionally draining. You are giving her all you can, and getting very little in return. Besides, most people are totally overwhelmed by the image of their spouses in bed with someone else, and feel more like killing their spouses than meeting their needs. Some can't follow this plan at all and most people can't do it indefinitely.

I usually recommend a time limit for this approach, usually three weeks for a woman and a much longer time for a man (six months to a year). The reason for the difference is that women tend to suffer long-term severe physical symptoms due to stress if they try to be the "perfect wife" much longer than that while their husband is cheating on them.

If no progress is seen during that period of time, switch to my second approach (plan B). This plan takes the position that marriage is a contract that assumes mutual need fulfillment. When one spouse has an affair, the contract is broken. I recommend that you not only stop meeting your unfaithful spouse's needs, but you should avoid contact with her entirely until she is willing to abandon her lover and join you in a plan for marital recovery. When that happens, you return to my first approach, to pull out all the stops and show her that you are willing and able to meet the needs met by her lover.

When you begin with the first approach to the problem, and then switch to the second, it has the advantage of your wife remembering you as a thoughtful, caring person right up to the day that you pulled the plug. It is very important for her to know that you really care about her, but you simply can't take the pain of knowing she's with another man.

When you first learned about your wife's affair, you were probably very uncaring and disrespectful. You may have criticized her, made disrespectful judgments, and lost your temper. If you leave her after those ugly scenes, all she will remember is what a jerk you are, and she won't be very tempted to come back to you. So you must leave her with proof that you care for her, and that you also respect her judgments and opinions, however painful they are to you at this time.

That's what the first approach to your wife's infidelity achieves for you. It gives her an opportunity to remember you as a kind and generous person right up to the day you leave. But from that day on, you meet only those needs that the law demands (financial), and you should have no contact with her until she ends her affair. When she returns to you it should be with the understanding that you may move as a family to avoid the temptation to return to her lover.

My second approach is risky, because leaving her can throw her into her lover's arms, but the alternative is for her to vacillate between the two of you for years to come.

The advice you were given, for her to continue to work with her lover, almost always leads to disaster. My experience with thousands of couples that have had affairs leads me to the conclusion that the lover should never be seen again. The temptation to return to the affair is simply too great for most people to resist.

What about future relationships? How can you ever trust anyone again? Before you marry anyone else, try to follow my Policy of Joint Agreement (never do anything without an enthusiastic agreement between you and your spouse), meet each other's most important emotional needs, and follow my Policy of Radical Honesty. If you and your future spouse are comfortable living together under those conditions, you have nothing to fear in marriage. You will also be convinced that your first marriage would have been affair-free if you had done the same in that marriage.

No one will marry you unless you meet at least some of her emotional needs. But after you marry, if you don't meet her needs, she or anyone else you would marry, will be vulnerable to an affair.

I will leave you with another important point. I've already expressed my conviction that after an affair is over, there should be no contact between a spouse and his or her lover. But there is a related issue that is often ignored. When you marry, neither you nor your spouse should have any contact with any of your previous lovers. Anyone that you've ever loved is a temptation for you, and has the potential of re-igniting your feelings of love.

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