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
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
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
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
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
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.
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.