How could I have done something so stupid? What was I thinking? What kind of man would betray the one woman he committed himself to for the rest of his life? Why did I risk everything I valued for something so fleeting and meaningless as an affair? Why did I betray my morals and my beliefs? Why was I so callous and selfish? How could I be capable of such an evil act and of inflicting such a devastating wound on someone I love? What kind of a monster am I?
Why did he cheat on me? Was something missing in our marriage that I was unaware of? Is something wrong with me? What does she have that I don’t have? What did she do that I didn’t do? Did I not appreciate him enough? Show him enough attention? Am I not attractive enough?
The first question most people ask when an affair is exposed is why. “Why did this happen?” “Why did you do this?” “Why did I do this?” This is an appropriate question and we believe it not only deserves an answer, but it has to be answered if there is to be any hope of moving forward.
If you’re the betrayed spouse, it’s hard for you to understand right now how your spouse, the person whom you love and share your life with could betray you and hurt you so bad.
If you’re the unfaithful spouse, you’re shell-shocked as well, but in a different way. Now that your affair has been exposed (or now that you’ve admitted to your affair), you might feel like you’re waking up from a dream. It’s like the affair was a movie you saw last fall. You can’t believe that you were one of the main characters. You can hardly remember it!
That’s really what an affair is–a fantasy that is acted out in real time. But there always comes a moment when the fantasy meets reality. When those two worlds collide there is a sense of bewilderment and confusion. It doesn’t even seem real that you lived such a double life full of deceit, betrayal, and dishonesty.
You wonder, “Did that really happen? Did I do that?” Your spouse might confront you with old love letters or emails and you look them over and think, “Did I really write that?”
It was like you found yourself in some kind of a fairy tale that got out of hand and turned out to be a nightmare. However, if you have come clean, confessed, and repented, you are now wide awake. You realize that you’re smack dab in the middle of a painful reality that you created.
The main focus in the first few months after an affair’s exposure should be survival. We coach people on post-affair survival skills to help them navigate through this critical time. After you have survived the first few months, you are now ready to do some real work toward post-affair healing. You are now strong enough to work through this step by step. You are now ready to assess the damage, understand what went wrong, and begin building a better life, either as a single person, or with your partner.
We are all about leveraging your affair to build your best life possible. As devastating as your affair is, it would be even more devastating if you allowed it to defeat you, keep you down, and destroy all that you love and hold dear. If you will let it, and if you will do the work, your affair can be the catalyst for great change in yourself and in your marriage.
Through personal development and relationship enrichment, you can experience post-traumatic healing, growth, and enjoy higher levels of satisfaction with your life and with your partner than you ever dreamed possible. By the grace of God, we are a living testimony to that fact. Many relationships have ended up stronger after an affair because couples like you worked through the process. Please reach out to us at firstname.lastname@example.org to learn more about our weekend post-affair healing & growth intensives.
That process starts with understanding why the affair happened. You have to know why you or your partner cheated. You have to know what went wrong before you can ever hope to make things right.
That goes for both the unfaithful spouse and the betrayed spouse. You both need to realize why the affair happened. Oftentimes a betrayed spouse will say, “I can’t move on until I know why he cheated, but whenever I ask he just says that he doesn’t know.” That is not a “cop out” answer. He or she probably doesn’t know right now.
Crystal (not her real name) writes in an email: “An elder at our church is currently counseling my husband and me through my husband’s affair. I feel like we’re stuck because I demand that my husband tell me why he cheated, but he always says he doesn’t know why. He just says he did it and he’s sorry. He doesn’t want to talk about it anymore and says if we keep hashing it out it will do more harm than good.Our elder says I have to forgive and that we may never know the reason why my husband cheated. He says the reason is not what’s most important anyway. He says what’s important is that it happened and that my husband is sorry and that I need to forgive so that we can all move on. Knowing why it happened won’t change it.”
With all due respect, we completely disagree. We believe that it is absolutely crucial to understand and realize why the affair happened before you can experience true healing and growth. Here are seven reasons why you need to realize why.
Realizing why will help remove obsessive thoughts.
While both partners need to realize why the affair happened, the betrayed partner especially needs to know why so that he or she can stop obsessing about it. It’s not just about satisfying her curiosity. She really does need to put the pieces together in her brain so that it makes sense. Until then, her thoughts are going to keep obsessing about the details and looking for the missing clue that is going to make it all come together. If she doesn’t find out the truth, her brain will start supplying the missing information with fiction.
This is not dissimilar to what happens with survivors of other traumatic experiences as well. Judith Herman writes in The Trauma Response: Treatment for Emotional Injury, that in the second stage of recovery, the survivor needs to tell the story of the trauma and the events and circumstances leading up to it. This helps create the context and meaning of the trauma so that healing can finally begin and the survivor’s obsessive thoughts can be put to rest.
By the way, if you’re obsessing, you’re not going crazy! We talk about this in our “Survival Guide” coaching course. Obsessive thoughts are the brain’s normal and natural response to a deep emotional wound. It’s trying to heal itself and it will heal when you give it what it is looking for–meaning, truth, and understanding.
Realizing why will help restore emotional security.
Not only is the brain racing, obsessing, and looking for an answer, but the emotions are on high alert as well. The emotions believe very strongly in the adage of “Fool me once, shame on you, fool me twice, shame on me.” When we are hurt, our emotions will do everything within their power to protect us from being hurt again.
The reptilian part of our brain goes into fight or flight mode whenever we are feeling emotionally insecure. This is very effective in keeping us alive when a saber-tooth tiger is stalking us, but it is devastating for relationships and intimacy. Fear is powerful and fear is fueled by the unknown and the misunderstood. This is why the dark is so scary. When we can’t see what is hiding, our mind begins to imagine all kinds of monsters just waiting to gobble us up.
Realizing why will flip on the light switch. It will open the closet doors. It will look under the bed. It will expose the unseen things that we fear and it will help restore emotional security. When it comes to affair healing, what we don’t know can hurt us. Knowledge is power. It is power to change and it is power to heal. It is power to face uncertainty and restore emotional security.
Even though things will still be emotional, we can put our emotions to the beneficial use of healing and recovery and not waste so much emotional energy on waiting for some unknown secret to emerge and hurt us again. Realizing why helps us to let down our emotional guard and become our spouse’s ally in this quest for truth instead of his or her enemy.
Realizing why will help rebuild trust and intimacy.
Inevitably, as an affair progresses, walls are built between a husband and a wife. The unfaithful partner will often build walls to hide his or her secret behavior from his or spouse. He’s not honest with her about his schedule, his free time, his finances. Walls are built in all of those areas.
In my (Andy’s) case, my guilty conscience wouldn’t even let me look my wife in the eye, and so I put up walls in our relationship to protect me from feeling miserable all the time. As a result, during an affair, emotional, physical, spiritual, and relational barriers are going up. The longer the affair continues, the taller and thicker these walls will get as we’re basically shutting our spouses out of all of the areas where we’re supposed to be becoming one and experiencing trust and intimacy. Not all affairs develop as the result of a bad marriage, but all affairs will result in developing a bad marriage as these walls go up.
The betrayed spouse, even if she doesn’t yet suspect that an affair is going on, will have raised some walls of her own. I know that I (Becky) was not feeling the connection that we once had as a couple. I was feeling left out of important areas of my spouse’s life. Even though I was unaware that I was doing it at the time, I was building walls in my heart to protect me from disappointment, pain, and rejection.
The process of realizing why the affair happened is all about tearing down these walls and rebuilding trust and intimacy. It’s about building a new wall, not between the two of you, but around the two of you where you can be protected, feel safe, and fully understood.
Part of the false allurement of the affair was that the unfaithful spouse felt like he was “understood” by his affair partner. That is why it is so important that a new wall be built between him and his affair partner. No post-affair contact should be made between the two of them ever again. An impenetrable wall must be built between them, maintained, and protected.
As the old wall between the marriage partners is torn down between you, and as it is rebuilt around you, you will grow to understand each other. You both will feel understood and heard. “Intimacy” has been loosely defined as “in-to-me-see.” As you both get honest and transparent with one another about how and why this affair occurred, there will be plenty of opportunities to see and accept one another for who each of you are. A true intimacy and trust will be rebuilt.
Realizing why will help resist future affairs.
One of the questions that I (Becky) had bouncing around in my head after my husband’s affair was “How do I know that he won’t betray me again?” Actually, in the first few months after the affair there was a lot of vulnerability and risks for a setback and a relapse. We didn’t know how this could have happened to us, and so our marriage was still open to attack. Whatever way the enemy got in the first time would remain an open door until the breach was discovered, closed, locked, barred, and sealed.
Until you both understand how and why the affair began you will never feel secure that it won’t eventually happen again. You cannot move on. Neither of you can. You have to know why or you’ll never be able to prevent it from happening again. You need to know what led to the infidelity and what kept it going.
Realizing why will help resist future affairs. You’ll be able to recognize certain behaviors, ways of thinking, ways of feeling, and ways of dealing with certain negative emotions, and you’ll be able to stop them before they lead to acting out.
Realizing why will help recover from past wounds.
When Gary was temporarily assigned to new office in a neighboring city, he had a brief affair with his office manager, Kelly. When Rachelle, Gary’s wife, showed up at his office one day for a surprise lunch date, she walked in on them kissing in his office. Obviously, this devastated her and she had her own trauma to work through after that experience. But it was Gary who ended up being so distraught that he moved out, not because he didn’t want to be with Rachelle, but because he didn’t think he deserved Rachelle. He was too ashamed to face his family or himself after what he had done.
Gary was not the “type of guy” you’d think of as the “type” to have an affair. By the way, there is no “type of guy.” That kind of thinking is a myth and makes “non-affair types” extremely vulnerable to affairs. But Gary was not a player or a flirt. He kept to himself. He was quiet. He worked hard. He was devoted to his wife. His affair partner was not particularly attractive. Gary had a lot to lose and nothing to gain by this affair. When it was uncovered, he was in despair over his unexplainable behavior.
But Rachelle would not give up on Gary. They started a journey together toward realizing why the affair happened. Gary’s affair was an avoidance affair, that is, he was avoiding painful feelings and medicating his negative emotions via an affair.
Growing up, Gary never felt valued. He was never touched, and he was never told that he was loved. Even in adulthood he never felt like he was enough, that he mattered, or that he was even worthy of love and acceptance. That is, until he met Kelly, his office manager.
His affair had nothing to do with Rachelle or Kelly, but it had everything to do with Gary’s old wounds and negative emotions that found temporary relief in an affair. In his affair, he could momentarily assume another role, adopt another identity, and finally be enough. The affair made him feel worthy. Of course, it was a false identity and the fantasy didn’t last. In fact, his affair made him feel even less worthy of love and even more unacceptable.
But Gary was able to deal with those core root issues behind his affair and not only recover from his affair, but recover from those old past wounds as well. He was able to face insecurities and inadequacies that had been tripping him up for years and ultimately threatened to sabotage his life, his career, and his marriage. His affair was not his biggest problem. His affair was a symptom of far deeper problems. His affair was the fruit of a deeper root–a root that he was eventually able to deal with in a far more healthy way and in a far more appropriate way than having an affair.
In your own journey of recovery, as you peel back the layers of the onion of your life, you may see areas that you had no idea would eventually result in acting out through an affair. Realizing why you had an affair may help you identify, address, and recover from past wounds that have been tripping you up for years. You may finally get victory and be free of past shame, guilt, shackles, and chains.
I will warn you that this will not be pleasant. Part of the allure of an affair is that you can be “intimate” with someone that you really don’t have to be genuinely intimate with. You can fake connection with someone who really doesn’t know who you are. You can be appreciated and admired by someone who makes no demands upon your character.
But there is an even greater intimacy to be found in opening up and being honest with yourself and with your spouse. Love deepens when someone knows you and accepts you for who you are and you no longer have to hide yourself or your past from them.
This exploration will involve stirring things up in your life. You will have to tolerate more discomfort in the short run. There may be issues in your relationship or aspects of your personal character that it may be difficult to acknowledge and painful to discuss. But the result will be worth it.
Realizing why will help renew your mind.
This is related to the previous reason of recovering from old wounds. You can change the way you think. You can change your perspective of the past, your perspective of your affair, and your perspective of the future. Neuroscience research has made great gains in understanding the plasticity of the brain. You can rewire your brain and renew your mind so that negative thoughts and emotions do not hijack your feelings and destroy your happiness.
In the New Testament, St. Paul writes about “renewing your mind” which will result in a transformed life. In our coaching, we discuss how all behavior, inducing affairs, originate in the heart and in the mind. And so, if we’re going to have any hope of true lasting transformation in the unfaithful spouse, it needs to start by a renewing of the mind and in how he thinks about himself, his circumstances, his marriage, his affair, and how he thinks about affairs in general.
When Trisha’s husband cheated on her, she could not imagine ever experiencing a single day of happiness again. Whenever she was triggered by driving by a hotel or a restaurant where her husband used to stay or meet with his affair partner, she would be emotionally flooded and break down in tears. Eventually, she got to the point where she didn’t even want to leave the house anymore.
But realizing why the affair happened helped Trisha renew her mind and her perspective about the affair. Now she can think about the affair without breaking down because she sees it in its larger context. Because she thoroughly understands it, she gets it. She is no longer afraid of it. She can drive by those hotel chains and even eat at those restaurants. Her husband can do the same without being assaulted with flashbacks or feelings of regret or shame. Realizing why will help renew your mind.
Realizing why will help rewrite your story.
We walk with couples and help them understand and write their affair story. The cool thing is that you both get to write the sequel together. Your story is going to be co-authored by the both of you. It is going to include the context for the affair. It’s going to include the type of affair. You’re going to address why it happened, how it happened, and what you’re going to do to keep it from happening again. It’s going to include what you emotionally need from one another and how you plan to communicate love to one another moving forward. In short, the story that you’re going to write is going to be a love story of beauty from ashes and joy from weeping.
We each have story. The unfaithful partner has a story. The betrayed partner has a story. The third party has a story. And every story has a context. There is the context of the marriage, and the issues of life, and your stage of life, and all of those things that came together in a moment of time and an affair, tragically, was born.
But what it gave birth to does not need to result in death, divorce, bitterness, or relapse. This is where you get to take the pen away from the people, the circumstances, and the past that have been writing your story and you get to rewrite your story. This is is what post-affair healing and recovery is all about. No matter what has happened to you up unto this point, or no matter what you have done or didn’t do up unto this point, you get to write the end of the story.
Understanding what the affair means gives the betrayed spouse a sense of power. Up until this point, life has happened to you. Now you get to happen to life. In our courses and in our coaching, there are no victims. There are only victors. When we play the victim we give away all of our power.
We are all about empowering people to take control of their lives and their marriage and that begins by realizing why. It also gives the unfaithful party a sense of hope–hope that he or she can change and hope that they can remain true to their promises and commitments.