Having an affair is so common that the vocabulary of most languages has a name for it. Even so, it usually induces rage or despondency when the other spouse learns of it, except in those rare consensually open or polyamorous marriages.
But what do you do when that rage or despondency is yours?
First, acknowledge this as a severe breach of trust and of your marriage vows or at least the default expectation for marriage. You didn’t breach that trust, and you did not cause your spouse to breach it, even if you’ve done things that contributed to their feelings about your marriage.
If you know you can never again trust your spouse, even if someone else could get past this, divorce may be in your future. But unless you’re in imminent danger of harm, move slowly. Consult a lawyer before you move out or lock your spouse out. If you’re religious, consult a minister, a rabbi, a priest, or an imam, too. Talk to your therapist if you have one. Consider finding one to talk to if children are involved, so you can protect their mental health as you recover your own.
If you want to try to get past it, Assume Love. Ask yourself this: “If I knew for certain that my spouse still loves me and wants our marriage to continue, how might I explain this awful behavior?” Emphasis on the “if” here. This is a thought experiment, not a belief. You’re doing it because your brain is now experiencing survival mode tunnel vision, and you need access to memories outside that tunnel.
Remember, this is a common failing, even if it’s a huge one. You did not cause it. You did not deserve it. But you know enough about your mate to get inside his or her thoughts. If you can explain it, you can find your path to moving forward or make a reasoned choice to leave.
Once you have an explanation or two, you can ask your spouse the sort of questions that don’t trigger the defensive dissembling or accusing you’ll get with a simple, “Why?”
Some areas to investigate, looking for corroborating evidence:
- Privilege: a change in status or accomplishment that led your spouse to believe, from observing others in this position, that an affair is an earned privilege.
- Personality disorder: an inability to predict the effect on you and the relationship due to a lack of empathy
- Emotional immaturity: an inability to control strong emotions or urges due to the brain’s youth or the person’s lack of role models or training
- Seduction while under the influence of alcohol, drugs, or sleep deprivation: an induced inability to control the response to sexual or romantic overtures
- Compensation for a drop in self-worth: an attempt to overcome a feeling of loss of value or attractiveness
- Revenge: an attempt to balance the fairness scale in your marriage after perceiving that you tipped it in your favor
- Substitution: an attempt to temporarily get the sex or attention currently missing in your marriage due to your illness, injury, pregnancy, distance, or important and distracting goal
- Dead relationship: a lack of all concern for your feelings or safety on the part of the person who once claimed to love you
Did you notice how few of these have anything to do with you? Unless your intentional behavior resulted in your spouse’s drop in self-worth or sense of unfairness, there is nothing you could have done any differently to affect his or her very bad decision.
Even so, there are things you can do going forward to support your husband or wife in making better choices, if you’re willing to try to rebuild your trust. For example, you can ask your spouse to get professional help with alcohol or drug use or a sleeping issue, a personality disorder, or emotional immaturity. You can ask for lots more check-ins with you to interrupt any seduction by others.
You can reassure your mate of their attractiveness and value. You can explore fairness in your marriage with a marriage therapist or take a marriage course to learn better ways to handle this at home.
You can get more help with whatever is keeping you at too great a distance from your spouse or even just talk honestly about your spouse’s emotions and yours as you face a temporary challenge, so it’s less tempting to look outside for help dealing with them.
Or, if you determine that there is no evidence for the other explanations and all concern for you is gone from the marriage, you can let go of this relationship and get help with moving on with your life. Even if your religious beliefs prohibit divorce, you have options to protect yourself from a life of abuse.
But don’t start with this explanation. Explore the others first. Lots of married people make the mistake of an affair. The ones who still love you and feel any guilt at all can indeed change and even become better partners for the experience.