By Benjamin Deu, MA, LMHC, Seattle Christian Counseling
References “NOT ‘Just Friends’” by Shirley P. Glass, Ph.D with Jean Coppock Staeheli
How do you begin when asking your spouse about their affair? You are probably bursting with questions, but also with uncertainty about whether you really want to know the answers. You might doubt whether you can trust their answers after so many lies. Infidelity expert Dr. Shirley P. Glass prescribes 10 questions to help couples working through an affair organize their discussions. This article covers questions 1-5. The remaining questions will be in a forthcoming article.
This discussion gets at the motivation and the mentality behind the affair. What attracted you to your affair partner? How did you excuse your relationship with your affair partner? Were you more worried about the consequences of being unfaithful or getting caught? Talking through these questions helps identify why you were vulnerable to an affair, and how to prevent that in the future.
A common initiator of infidelity is developing an emotional relationship, particularly one that includes discussing marriage problems. This is a huge no-no. Confiding your marriage problems in an attractive member of the opposite sex exposes a chink in your marriage, and gives them the impression you’re not attached to your marriage. “Although women share deep feelings with lots of people, particularly other women, men are usually most comfortable sharing their feelings in a love relationship. As a result, when a relationship becomes emotionally intimate, men tend to sexualize it.” (209)
Another vulnerability to infidelity is pursuing qualities in your affair partner your spouse doesn’t possess. Women tend not to cheat unless they are in unhappy marriages. They often use the emotional relationship they develop with their affair partner to substitute what they do not have with their spouse. A man may bond with a woman who is not his wife over interests his wife does not share. Or he may bond with her because she allows him to play a role he cannot with his wife. Glass gave the example of a man who began an affair with a co-worker in an unhappy marriage who had grown up poor. Their relationship gave him an opportunity to act on his “white knight” inclinations– taking her for nice meals and supporting her in ways her husband would not.
Sometimes it is purely physical. That was what attracted King David to Bathsheba. I Samuel 11 does not offer much insight into his thought process between seeing Bathsheba and sending for her. But it does not appear there was an emotional connection between David and Bathsheba. He saw a woman he was attracted to, and used his political power to have sex with her.
Although hearing about why your spouse was attracted to someone else is painful, it will help the both of you understand what the involved partner’s vulnerabilities are, so they can avoid making the same mistake in the future. “When involved partners share their feelings on this level, they are letting their betrayed spouse inside their mind and reforging their bond.” (209)
2. “After the first time you had sex, did you feel guilty?”
Asking about any guilt your spouse felt when they strayed reveals their sense of integrity. Believe it or not, some people never feel guilty about cheating. Some immediately regret agreeing to extramarital sex. Others may feel guilty, but not enough to keep them away from the illicit relationship.
People act on their guilt about their first extramarital sexual encounter in a lot of different ways. Some feel so guilty they break it off immediately, others rationalize their actions by saying “they are not taking anything away from their spouse or family,” and some feel so guilty they immediately rush back to their affair partner for another sexual encounter to assuage their self-loathing. (210)
Because it feels so good. In a normal relationship, the initial euphoria fades well before the second year. Affairs stay thrilling for years because of the tension, adrenaline, and subterfuge that goes along with infidelity. “Unfaithful spouses often appear addicted to being addicted to their lovers. They fail in their efforts to end the affair time and time again, pulled back by a magnetic force they can’t seem to resist. Only with great determination are they able to break the spell.” (210)
People knowing something is wrong and doing it anyway is not exactly new. They evaluate the “wrong” versus the “but I want to” and decide which is worth more. Kind of like a 4-year-old touching their mother’s antique china. Or, as we saw with David and Bathsheba; David knew what he did was wrong. And he was so desperate to cover it up, he eventually had Bathsheba’s husband killed in battle so he would not find out David had impregnated his wife. But David was not thinking about all this when he saw Bathsheba. He thought only of how attractive she looked bathing on the roof, and how much he desired to have her.
Many affairs begin for one reason, but continue for another. For example, some begin as casual friendships, or are solely sexual, but eventually develop a powerful emotional bond. Others grow from an emotional connection, but are sustained by great sex. And sometimes they are caused by a spouse stepping out during a marital slump, but being unable to end it when their marriage improves because the affair has taken on a life of its own. (210)
You also need to get at the root of what ended the affair. It takes time for the involved spouse to get over their relationship with their affair partner. They mourn it as would anyone who has had to break up with someone they cared about. This process will differ depending on whether they ended it on their own, or when they got caught. “If the affair ended abruptly, the attachment will be harder to break than if the affair died a natural death. It’s easier to put a relationship behind you if you’re the one who made the decision to leave.” (210)
4. “Did you think about me at all?”
Glass cited a study that revealed, “87 percent of involved partners think of their lover while with their spouse, but only 47 percent ever think of their spouse while with their lover.” This flies in the face of the betrayed spouse’s conviction that what their spouse was doing to their marriage was in the forefront of their mind while they were being unfaithful. “If the unfaithful partner had been thinking about the betrayed partner, he or she wouldn’t have gotten so involved in the first place. The act of infidelity is not about the person who was betrayed–it is about the person who did the betraying.” (210-211)
5. “What did you share about us?”
Many affairs begin when an unhappy spouse finds a sympathetic ear for their marriage woes. Understandably, after the affair ends, the betrayed partner is desperate to know what their spouse shared with their affair partner. Talking about what was shared helps gauge the emotional intimacy of the affair and get at the heart of loyalty issues in the marriage,
While some unfaithful spouses are candid about the flaws they perceive in their mates and their relationship, some are not. Not all affairs initiate from unhappy marriages. These involved spouses may praise their spouse and marriage to their affair partner. On the other hand, some unfaithful spouses compartmentalize both relationships. They may refuse to talk about their marriage with their affair partner in an attempt to “honor” the relationship.
“In any case, if you are the unfaithful partner, it’s important for you to talk to your spouse about real problems in the marriage that you’ve discussed only with your affair partner.” (211)
Christian Counseling for Talking about an Affair to Recover
Talking about an affair is difficult, which is why so many couples avoid it and inevitably make more trouble for themselves. Refusing to discuss an affair is like keeping garbage in a box under your sink and never throwing it out. The box won’t be able to mask all of the smell, and eventually something is going to knock over the box and create a nasty mess in your kitchen. Glass’ questions provide a helpful jumping off point, but the best source of guidance is a professional Christian marriage counselor. They can personalize their approach to your marriage. A professional Christian counselor will help you understand what caused the affair, guide you through the repair process, and teach you how to prevent future infidelity.
Deal-with-an-affair Flickr user Ed Yourdon.jpg
Talk-about-adultery Flickr user Instant Vantage.jpg