Entries in affair (4)
Andy sits at one end of the counseling couch, downcast, head in his hands, elbows on his knees. His gaze finally lifts from the space between his feet to settle on his wife, Cara, curled up in a tight ball at the other end of the couch. "How am I suppose to believe you?" he asks.
She hesitates, obviously frustrated with her inability to convince her husband. "Whether you believe me or not, I'm telling you the truth."
"You told me that before and I found out you were still lying. This whole affair was about making me believe one thing while you were doing something else. So how do I know you're being honest now?"
Cara remains silent. Andy shakes his head, then turns to me as I sit in witness of their struggle. "Do you think I should trust her?" he asks, somehow hoping my counselor's insight will provide him with assurance once way or the other. He desperately wants to believe Cara. He wants to believe the affair is over, that she desires him and not the other man, that she is committed to truthfulness, that it is safe for him to risk trusting her again. But her betrayal makes it impossible for him to be convinced, and so he asks me to make a judgment.
I've watched hundreds of couples go through the steps of affair recovery and have listened to many affair confessions. Because of this experience, couples rely on me to guide them through the process of recovery. Like Andy, many betrayed spouses want me to tell them what they ought to believe or not believe. Honestly, I wish I could make it that easy for them, but I can still be fooled by lies, too.
The words of confession are necessary, but they cannot be the only measure of truthfulness since everyone (liars and truth-tellers alike) swears they are speaking honestly. The more accurate measure of sincerity is behavior, not words. When confessing an affair, I've found the following behaviors to be reliable signs of a spouse's honesty or dishonesty.
Signs of a True Confession
1. Selfless remorse. Your spouse shows genuine sorrow over hurting you, not just regret over getting caught. It is expressed in an attitude of humility rather than defensiveness.
2. Concern for your relief and comfort, not just their own. Your spouse listens to you and attempts to alleviate your pain. They are willing to reach out to you rather than being self-absorbed in their own pain (which is also very real and must be acknowledged).
3. Ongoing commitment to truthfulness. If no secrets remain, your spouse will no longer need to fear discovery. In fact, the relief they experience from finally coming clean will likely move them to ongoing transparency, wanting to assure you of their honesty. (But be aware of this: ongoing interrogations about shameful details of an affair will almost always cause a defensive reaction and will probably not be helpful to you in the long-run.)
4. Willingness to play a major role in the healing process; to fix what they broke. Not every marriage can be repaired, but a repentant spouse is almost always willing to do their part in trying. They accept responsibility for helping you feel safe again and regaining your trust.
Signs of a False Confession
1. Confessions are limited to what has been uncovered. One of my clients referred to this as "trickle truth" since it only came out a little at a time as she found new evidences of his lies. Spouses who grudingly confess to each new bit of discovered evidence are only admitting to what they have to admit. True confessions will almost always include more than what you already know.
2. Confusion, not clarity, tends to be the outcome of any discussion about "the truth." When it is hard to make sense of your spouse's story, then it is likely that they are being deceptive. Full honesty tends to make things very clear, even though it often reveals an ugly picture. But deception is full of awkward twists, and turns, and unexpected dead-ends. When you are listening to lies, you will likely leave the conversation being just as confused (or even more confused) than before.
3. Quick shifts to defensiveness and blaming when questions are asked about the affair. Once a person has decided to tell the truth, it is an easy thing to do. In fact, it's easier than managing the lies. But if your spouse is still lying, they will want to shift the focus away from themselves (since it is dangerous if too much attention is given to their story) by either becoming defensive (shutting down) or turning the tables by blaming you.
4. Expectation that you do the major work in recovery rather than accepting the responsibility themselves. If your spouse claims to have made a full confession and then leaves you to do the major work in fixing your marriage, something isn't right. Here are a couple examples: (1) Instead of taking the intiative to create a trustworthy environment, your spouse expects you to provide a checklist for change ("Just tell me what you expect me to do.") that is reluctantly followed. (2) Your spouse leaves it up to you to fight for the boundaries that help you feel safe rather than voluntarily establishing new rules for outside relationships. Genuine confession should be followed by genuine change.
As you assess your spouse's sincerity, be aware that your hurt may cloud your judgement. Your fear of being betrayed again will cause you to be hyper-sensitive to any inconsistency in your spouse's words or behavior. Although you certainly need the assurance of your spouse's consitent commitment to truthfulness, do not expect perfection. Be willing to give some grace and rely on the input of good friends and counselors in helping you assess the trustworthiness of your spouse's confession.
I seem to be seeing more-than-the-usual number of articles or books promoting the idea that an affair might be an effective cure for a disappointing marriage. These writers suggest it might be just the spark needed to reignite romantic or sexual passions you've been missing. Is there any validity to this claim?
Let me be clear about two things that are absolutely true: (1) affairs do produce heightened emotional and sexual experiences and (2) many marriages do become stronger on the other side of an affair. But that's not the whole truth. Any counselor who specializes in affair recovery will also tell you that (1) the heightened affair experiences pull a person away from their spouse rather than toward them and (2) affairs tend to damage marriages rather than save them.
Yes, it's possible for a couple to find their way back to even greater trust and intimacy in their relationship, but the path is hard and full of pain.
Much of my work is with couples trying to recover in the aftermath of an affair. Many of them would tell you honestly that their marriage is better now that it ever has been, but none of them would call the affair a "good thing." (You can read some of their stories at AffairHealing.com.)
Affairs lead to better marriages like heart attacks lead to healthier lifestyles. They can be great motivators for change, if you survive the damage. But they are best avoided, since neither survival or positive change are guaranteed outcomes.
John is stuck between his loyalty to his wife and his love for another woman. For the past few weeks, he's been vacillating between them, hoping for a clear indication of which one will bring him maximum happiness or minimum regret.
He spends a lot of time focusing on these two women in his attempt to discover a measure of certainty, but fears the risk of choosing one over the other. If John doesn't change his focus, he will likely remain trapped in his confusion until his circumstances degenerate to a point where one or both of his options remove themselves. If this happens, if his choice becomes a choice by default, he will not find much lasting contentment in it.
John is making a critical error. He has failed to understand that unless his decision is based on a firm conviction of who he is and who he is becoming, he is like a rudderless boat caught in a storm, waiting to see which way the wind will blow him. He needs a rudder. He needs a firm conviction about the direction of his life. The clearer that vision becomes to him, the easier this choice will be.
Honestly, once a man is caught up in the emotional turmoil of an affair, it is very difficult for him to pull himself out long enough to give careful consideration to his direction. The passion of his heart is so strong that, once it is set in motion, he feels it must take its course. I have been witness to the numerous shipwrecks at the end of these journeys. But it doesn't have to be this way.
If you are caught in the kind of crisis I've described here, get some help. Talk to a counselor, or a pastor, or a healthy friend. Find your rudder and then move with purpose. But if you are not in this place, all the better. Do the work of rudder-building now while the waters are relatively calm. You'll be better prepared for whatever waves are ahead.
Note: This is part of a longer article titled Stuck Between Wife and Lover posted on AffairHealing.com.
I find that people are often confused about the difference between forgiveness and trust. They are not the same. Forgiveness says, "I choose to let go of this offense and release you from its debt." Trust says, "I choose to act according to the belief that you will not let me down." There are circumstances in which I may genuinely forgive someone, but never trust them again. For example, I can forgive a business partner for stealing money out of the account, but decide to not risk working with him any longer. I can forgive a babysitter who hurts my child, but never ask them to provide childcare again.
Much of my counseling work focuses on helping couples navigate the rough waters of affair recovery. One of the waves they have to avoid is the belief that once forgiveness takes place (1) the offending spouse will experience a return to "life as normal," including no more questions about the past or expectation of accountability in the future, and (2) the offended spouse will need to choke down concerns or questions about their partners's current and future behavior since real forgiveness means forgetting. These are lies.
Forgiveness is a gift; trust should be earned. In an affair, forgiveness opens the door to trust, but the couple has to travel that path together before they reach the destination. The trip may take more time than they planned.
The person who had an affair and wants to rebuild their marriage must be willing to go to extraordinary measures to earn a spouse's trust again. I find that the willingness to do this is a good indicator of whether or not a person has really ended an affair and is willing to invest in their marriage.
The person who has been betrayed should understand that forgiveness is an important step toward their own healing and recovery, but is separate from the choice of trusting a spouse again. But the good news is that genuine trust can be restored over time.
To read more about the steps involved in affair recovery: www.affairhealing.com/recovery