When your spouse has an affair your marriage is over. The first marriage, the one that led to an affair, is done. Whether you have another marriage together or you move forward separately, your healing and growing will come from making sense of what's happened. How did you get here? How was this possible?
When clients first come into my office they're asking those questions, but rhetorically. They're in shock. One of my clients, Judy, was reeling from the traumatic discovery of her spouse's affair. After validating her and telling her this is normal, Judy and I began to explore her anger. It turned out that she had given so much in her marriage over the years. So much that she had let go of herself in the process. Resentment had taken the place of loving mutual caretaking. Both she and her husband were over-worked, over-tired, and had put the marriage on autopilot. Judy had thought this was normal. Isn't this just what it looks like 15 years in? But week after week she came to more realizations about the ways she'd been shut down, too. She admitted to herself that she'd earned her worth through the label of being married without truly nurturing the connection. She remembered bids for closeness her husband had made that she'd minimized or rejected. She reflected on interactions that were bitter and unloving. As Judy slowly started to find compassion for the self she was in her marriage, she found compassion for her husband's experience, too.
You may get here because the pain is too great and you're forced to heal. You may also get here because you're proactively ready to heal. Regardless, the healing will happen most powerfully when you become aware of the maladaptive ways you showed up in the marriage dynamic that existed between the two of you.
At first, anger, rage and blame will block you from this important work. You may not be able to access self-reflection for quite some time. This is understandable -- you're wildly self-protective in the face of a serious betrayal and violation. You can't look inward when you're so focused outwardly on what's happened. Once you can come out of the fight, flight, or freeze response, you may notice your brain acknowledging certain truths that you experienced as a participant in the marriage, too.
Part of healing includes gaining the self awareness of what you brought into the marriage. The person who stepped out of the marriage made that choice alone. But both of you together created a marriage that ended with your spouse stepping out. I am going to guess that you don't want to create that again. To learn and grow from what's happened, I encourage you to ask yourself these questions when you feel ready:
In what ways did I caretake or over-caretake to allow the affair to happen?
How did I show up or fail to show up within the marriage over the years?
Who was I with my spouse? What was my experience of myself inside of the relationship?
Did I people-please, adjust my standards or expectations, enable, or appease?
Did I use criticism, contempt, outbursts, sarcasm, or judgment to get messages across?
How did I register ad respond when my spouse had a complaint or request?
Where did I get my self-worth and self-esteem during my marriage?
Where did I turn away from, shut down, or reject my spouse?
Where did I feel turned away from, shut down, or rejected?
How were my needs expressed and met, or not, in the marriage?
What role or roles did I play and how did those roles contribute to the dynamic?
Who do I want to be versus who was I in my marriage relationship? How do I want to behave versus how I behaved in my marriage relationship?
All of this self-reflection paves the way to self healing. It may take you many months and years to connect the dots and realize many layers that become conscious over time. You may have great epiphanies, and you also may have slow glimmers of insight. All of it is right, all of it is helpful.
Remember, self-reflecting and taking ownership of the YOU you were in your marriage does not mean you're taking responsibility for the affair. It means you're taking responsibility for the self you were then; the one that was in a marriage that didn't work. And that awareness will allow you to grow, change, and open yourself up to being a higher and better version moving forward.
Whether that's with your spouse or with someone new in the future isn't the point. First you need to actualize and get honest enough with yourself in order to lose the baggage, constraints, and bad behaviors and replace them with new, healthier ones. From there everything else becomes possible.
And I believe what's possible is great love for you -- someone who is stronger, better, and wiser from all of this.
Lauren provides boots-on-the-ground lived experience combined with invaluable professional expertise working with infidelity. She is committed to helping individuals and couples deal with and heal from marital affairs in a highly effective, yet warm and judgment-free style.
Lauren's articles help share much-needed information, and reduce the stigma and shame around the common experience of infidelity. Contact Lauren at firstname.lastname@example.org to learn more about working together.