Betrayed spouses have a lot to say. I know. I had a LOT to say!
But there are also many things you want and emotionally need to know from him or her. Even though it would feel so good to just open your mouth and let all your words and emotions rage on your spouse, and even though you believe to the depths of your soul that he or she needs to hear what you are burning to say, unleashing your fury is a self-defeating approach.
Yes, there was a lot I could have said, but I didn’t. When you’re talking you’re NOT learning.
Though your spouse has messed up big time and hurt you in the deepest way, he or she is still a person that you love dearly (though that’s hard to remember at the time) and have a commitment to. It’s worth your best effort to act and speak wisely right now.
Wisdom is considering how your approach will be received.
Your spouse is a human (just as you are) who makes bad decisions sometimes (just as you do).
Now that you know your spouse’s darkest secret, your spouse’s brain is flooded with all kinds of intense emotions. Any time someone is dealing with severe emotion, empathy is the best approach you can use with them.
Why empathy? Everyone has an innate need to connect with other people. Everyone needs to feel heard and understood. Consider your own emotions right now. You are experiencing grief, anger, disbelief, insecurity and a sense of loss. You want more than anything for your spouse to understand how you feel and realize that it’s his or her fault. You want your spouse to hear and understand you. You want your spouse to respond to your words in the way you want him or her to.
But your spouse has that innate need to connect. The need is there, but that doesn’t mean the knowledge for reaching out to you to establish the connection is there. He or she is plagued with his or her own set of negative emotions right now that make him or her feel disconnected from you. Your spouse is feeling things like guilt, shame, stupidity, loss and many other emotions. In a word, he or she is hurting too.
The last thing you probably want to realize right now is that your unfaithful spouse is hurting and that you can be his or her biggest source of comfort. YOU are the one who needs comfort! It’s their own fault they feel this way!
Yes, it is. Unfortunately, if you want to get to the bottom of this, that’s beside the point.
There are two hurting people here who both need empathy, support, touch, understanding, connection, etc. The list of needs here is huge! One of you has to act in the best interest of the marriage and since you’re the one reading this article, there’s a good chance you’re the one that’s strong enough to do it.
So let’s get back to being pragmatic.
Your spouse is going to respond to their emotions in the default way that you have always seen his or her response under tension and fault . He or she may clam up. He or she may withdraw from you. He or she may blow up in defensiveness.
Unless you can show empathy and reestablish at least a slight connection with your spouse, you won’t make progress in your attempts to communicate.
How can you have a conversation with someone who is avoiding you or screaming at you? How can you get answers to the burning questions in your brain? How can you find out what you need to know from your unfaithful spouse so you can breathe, and sleep and eat again?
You may not like my solution, but you have few other options right now.
You must reframe your approach if you wish to show empathy and reestablish connection with your spouse.
People are wired to like talking about themselves. They want to explain why they think like they think, do what they do, and so on. Your spouse is no different. If you enable your spouse to talk about himself or herself, you will be more likely to learn the information you need to move forward in the healing process.. If he or she has been resistant to talk to you about the affair, try a new set of questions.
Perhaps you have been asking questions like this:
(Be sure to read the following in a half-crazy yelling voice….)
How could you do this to me?
What were you thinking?
How could you break your wedding vows?
Don’t the children and I mean anything to you?
How could you put everything we have together at risk?
What will all of our friends say?
Or maybe you haven’t even been asking questions. Have your conversations so far sounded like this? (Continue with the yelling voice here….)
You’ve shamed our whole family!
We’ll probably have to move out of town because now we’re “that” family!
I always knew you had no self-control!
You’ve always been such a flirt–now you’ve crossed the line!
You’ve never really cared about me!
I always knew you would do something stupid like have an affair!
I can’t believe I wanted to share my life with a cheater like you!
This is the stupidest thing you’ve ever done!
Your spouse is going to feel threatened by these type of questions and accusations. (You would too if the tables were turned.) You are not going to connect and learn what you need to know with this approach. You will feel more exasperated, isolated, and hopeless than ever.
Consider how different the following questions sound and feel:
What needs do you feel like the other person met for you?
How did the other person make you feel?
What are some things about yourself you felt like you could tell the other person that you couldn’t tell me?
What was it about the other person that first caught your attention?
Can you hear how these questions seek to understand the emotional situation of your spouse?
If you can quietly and patiently listen to your husband or wife discuss his or her feelings surrounding the affair, you have a much better chance of learning the information you need to help yourself heal. You will learn a great deal about your unfaithful spouse’s needs and emotional state at the time of the affair, but you will also be creating a safe, non-threatening, non-accusatory atmosphere where the conversation can continue and go deeper over time.
Yes, your spouse definitely needs to listen to you too. He or she needs to understand how deeply his or her actions have hurt you. Ultimately, the unfaithful spouse will need to do even more empathic and restorative listening than you. Much more. But in the beginning, he or she may be so racked with guilt, confused and just generally overwhelmed, that the best thing you can do for both of you is to help your spouse feel heard.
I understand that this advice couldn’t be further from what you actually feel like doing. Patiently listening to how your unfaithful husband or wife feels is an act of bravery and strength on your part. You are in a situation that calls for boat loads of bravery and strength. This is definitely one of those “for better or worse” moments. If you just don’t think you have the emotional capacity to do it, it may be helpful to vent to an understanding friend before approaching your spouse so that your emotions can have an outlet.
Does it sound manipulative? Possibly. But taken in context, it is really more about smart self-coaching than manipulating your spouse. If there is no safe space to talk, your spouse won’t talk. If there is no communication between you, there is no healing nor steps towards progress.
Remember, you aren’t dealing with an ideal situation where everyone is thinking and acting rationally. Sometimes it gets harder before it gets easier. I’ve always heard that if something is worth having, it’s worth working for. In cases of infidelity, the work is so extremely hard! But if you talk with anyone who’s worked through it, you’ll know that it’s totally worth the effort.