Courtney tentatively sat down in my office on her first appointment. I asked “What brings you to see me today?” She looked terrified. In a timid voice, Courtney said, “I think my husband is having an affair and I don’t know what to do.” Her eyes welled up with tears. It was the first time she had spoken those words out loud. Admitting it to another person made it real.
It surely wasn’t the first time I’d heard these words. In our work with individuals and couples on relationships, we often see people who suspect their partner is cheating. They may overlook the signs at first or try to explain them away, but ultimately the clues can’t be denied. We hear things like:
“He lost 20 pounds and began taking more care of his appearance.”
“She started staying later and later at work.”
“He seemed less interested in having sex with me.”
“She was withdrawn. It felt like she wasn’t present.”
“He started hiding his phone and going outside to make calls.”
I asked Courtney what signs she had seen that led her to suspect an affair. She said, “He’s become distant and more absorbed in himself. Sometimes I feel he’s ignoring me. Other times he’s just angry and snaps at me over nothing. When I ask if something’s wrong, he just says, ‘no.'”
I asked what other changes she’d noticed. Courtney said, “He lost weight and bought new clothes which he hasn’t done in ages. He never paid much attention to his appearance. The only time he’d buy clothes was when I dragged him shopping.” She continued, “Then he started to keep his cell phone near him all the time. He was texting a lot.”
She added, “That’s when I checked the cell phone bill. I’d never done that before. I found hours of calls and hundreds of texts over the last month to the same phone number.” Courtney broke down and cried. “I don’t know what to do. Am I crazy?”
I validated that the signs Courtney had seen would make any reasonable person suspicious of an affair.
It’s very common for people in Courtney’s shoes to doubt their reality. In addition to not wanting to believe their partner is cheating, there is a sense of shock.
Discovering an affair when you have lived your relationship in a paradigm of trust and safety, feels like a tsunami approaching; the landscape of your life is about to be crushed and destroyed. It is quite frightening, especially in long-term relationships, and when people have kids.
Courtney asked, “What should I do?” We talked about the best way to confront her husband. I told her it would likely be the most gut-wrenching conversation she ever had, so it was vital that she think it through and create a plan.
Here are the steps we discussed:
1) Plan a time and place that is quiet and without interruptions.
2) Prepare yourself so you can manage your emotions and get through the conversation.
a. Write down what you will say and what evidence you will present – emails, text, credit card bills.
b. Practice the statement, since it will be emotional and hard to speak the words.
c. Be prepared to stop talking and allow the uncomfortable silence, so your partner has a chance to respond.
d. Rehearse all the possible ways your partner might react.
e. Think about what you will do after the conversation. Do you want to stay or leave the house? If so, where will you go? Do you want to ask your partner to leave the house or sleep on the couch? Do you want to tell anyone (friend, family member) or not?
3) Start the conversation.
a. Tell him there is a very serious matter you need to discuss and that you want to have a productive conversation.
b. Make your statement and present the evidence you have in as centered a manner as possible.
4) Wait for his response.
a. Your partner will likely feel “trapped or cornered” and be hijacked by his fight or flight response. He may either be defensive and deny the facts (I am not having an affair.), outraged (How dare you accuse me of cheating?) or stunned and silent.
b. Allow him to fill the uncomfortable silence. Remember, he will be in shock that he’s been “found out” and will be emotionally flooded with guilt and shame, among other strong emotions.
c. There is a chance he will confess and start to explain. “I didn’t want you to find out. I feel terrible. I’m so sorry. Our relationship has been distant for a long time.”
5) Prepare for the way you would handle any of these responses.
6) If the conversation escalates, call a time-out and say you will have to continue talking later. Remember, this will be the first of many discussions.
You may or may not get part or all of the truth in this first conversation. Typically, the person discovered tries to limit what they say. Or they may continue to lie.
Though we tell people who’ve had affairs it is important to “come clean” and answer all their partner’s questions honestly, information usually dribbles out.
Some partners rationalize, “I didn’t want to tell her things that would hurt her more than I already have.” We explain the hurt has already happened.
The breach of trust is the worst offense. Telling the truth now, even if it hurts their partner, paradoxically begins the process of building trust back.
The good news is that in many situations, marriages can and do survive affairs; and for some couples, barriers which kept them disconnected for years are resolved.
If you need assistance with emotional and/or sexual betrayal, contact us by phone (410-363-2825) or email. We would be glad to work with you and/or your partner.
Image Copyright Andriy Popov