When a couple is trying to navigate the fallout from infidelity, one of the main points of contention is usually what secrets the unfaithful spouse might still be hiding.
Following the discovery of infidelity, the betrayed spouse begins digging for truth, trying to piece together an understanding of what happened – looking to regain their ability to trust their own judgement because their world view has been turned upside down. They are seeking solid ground on which to stand after the rug has been pulled out from under them. Their efforts to ferret out information and truth can be frantic and obsessive at times. The betrayed spouse is checking for safety – searching for reassurance that they won’t be hurt further. They want real answers to painful questions.
Meanwhile, the unfaithful spouse is searching for their own solid ground. They feel shell-shocked and ashamed and wish their spouse could just move on and stop asking questions. They are afraid that the answers will hurt and anger their spouse further, that their spouse will leave the marriage if they find out the truth, or their spouse will seek revenge against their affair partner. Sometimes truth is parceled out over time, retraumatizing both partners with each new revelation and sending the healing process backward.
When I see couples in this crisis stage following the discovery of an affair, I sometimes suggest this exercise to help them steer through the treacherous waters of “getting it all on the table.” Think of this as a “contractual” way to allow the full truth to come out – which can facilitate a major step forward in the healing process:
The betrayed partner creates a list of questions that are on their mind. They then must carefully consider each question and decide if they truly NEED to know the answers. Consider this: What will the answers do for you? Will the truth be more harmful than helpful? Will you be more haunted by the answers to the questions – or by the questions that go unanswered? Do the answers matter if your spouse is here and committed to rebuilding your relationship?
A trained therapist can help and support the betrayed partner in deciding which questions stay on the list and which are better left unanswered.
This is the most difficult step for the betrayed spouse, because it requires this person to create a safe space in which the unfaithful partner is able to share truthful answers. If you really want your partner to tell you the truth about very painful things (which they are afraid will only make matters worse on so many levels), then you need to be prepared to listen calmly and hold these things without immediately reacting.
To get into this mindset, you will need to find compassion for your partner as a human being who has made terrible mistakes, but is trying to make things right by remaining engaged through this activity.
Be prepared to manage your emotional reactions and do your best to respond to your spouse with respect, not rage. Anger is a secondary emotion to the primary emotion of pain. Try connecting to the soft underbelly of your emotional reaction. This will help your partner respond to you with compassion and remorse instead of defensiveness.
Some answers may make you want to lash out and seek revenge.You may need to promise your spouse that you will not behave erratically or spread information to friends, family, or your spouse’s employer.You will need to refrain from calling the affair partner or their family.These reactions only cause more harm to the primary relationship and will drive your partner farther away.
Some answers might make you wonder how the damage can ever be fixed. How can you stay? Remember, your spouse has these same fears. My suggestion is to promise yourself and your partner that no matter how painful the potential new revelations might be, you will do your best to stay committed to the process of recovery and continue to work toward forgiveness. I’ve witnessed couples survive revelations they never believed they could overcome.
Schedule a time to come together where the betrayed partner can ask their carefully considered, “must-know” questions and the unfaithful spouse is prepared to offer really hard, honest answers.
In this session, the unfaithful partner should bring compassion and reassurance to their hurt spouse, reminding them that they are here and prepared to work toward rebuilding trust. The hurt spouse should be calm, cognizant of the anxiety and fear their partner is experiencing, and reassure their partner that their goal is to move past this and find forgiveness. Willingness to hold each other’s pain at this time may be the hardest thing you will ever do in your life, but it can also bring you closer as a couple and a team.
Sometimes a couple feels strong enough to do this on their own, but often a trained therapist can help them navigate this difficult process.
Why this exercise can be valuable to both partners in healing:
The betrayed spouse usually cannot move toward forgiveness until they know the extent of what needs to be forgiven. Sometimes the unfaithful partner doesn’t understand the hurt partner’s need to know. But consider this: The unfaithful partner has made some unilateral decisions about the relationship thus far, and continuing to withhold information unfairly robs the hurt spouse of the opportunity to self-determine their future based on facts.
The unfaithful spouse may not want to cause the betrayed spouse further pain, or witness their anguish or outrage. But know this about trauma and grief: There is no way around it, only through it. True healing can only occur when a person can experience all their emotions on a deep level. Thwarting that process prevents and prolongs the ability to move on.
The time bound nature of this exercise has benefits for both partners. The unfaithful spouse feels plagued by the continuous questions and suspicions from the betrayed – always unsure when another outburst will arise. The betrayed spouse is anxious and obsessed about secrets that have not yet come to the surface. And when new information is either indirectly discovered or meted out by the unfaithful spouse over time, both partners are continuously retraumatized and the path to healing feels never-ending. This exercise is a way to “rip off the band-aid.” It’s extremely painful for both partners during the time the question and answer period takes place, and will sting like hell for a certain amount of time after, but once completed, the healing can begin, based on a foundation of truth.
This exercise may sound like agony to both sides of the equation, but it can sometimes bring unexpected relief to both partners. I’ve seen betrayed partners feel relieved when they learn the truth, because the details they were making up in their imagination were much worse than the reality of the affair. I’ve also had unfaithful partners tell me they were relieved to be able to let go and lay down some of the secrets they had been carrying for so long.
Keep the goal in mind. The goal of this exercise is to get through a very painful process of uncovering the truth for the purpose of understanding what happened, to share and hold the truth together, and to move onto the next phase of healing.
It is not to gain information to hold over your partner’s head for eternity, or to seek revenge on the affair partner. It is not to hold onto the betrayal like a cross to bear, remaining a victim for the rest of your life. And it is also not for the unfaithful spouse to hurl accusations back at the betrayed spouse, to be purposefully cruel, or to push the hurt spouse farther away.
This is a team effort, where humility and compassion must be brought to the table, and where wounds can be undressed, given air, and prepared for healing.
-Valerie Allen, MEd, LPCC
If you need help navigating the fallout from infidelity, I can help facilitate the process.
Please contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org or 513-317-8113.