Talking about infidelity is difficult. The guilty partner often has a hard time telling the whole story for fear of ruining the marriage. He or she wants to get past what happened and spare their spouse any more pain. However, if their partner wants to salvage the relationship, it’s necessary to air out the dirty laundry.
Physical only, unfaithfulness, is easier to process and forgive; than when the affair involves an emotional connection. Both are painful and have the potential to destroy a marriage, but when it’s more than just sex, the hurt takes longer to heal. In these instances, the cheated-on partner is likely to insist on knowing everything.
Jim and Annette are working on rebuilding the fragile foundation of their marriage, shattered by Jim’s unfaithful behavior. Annette sensed something was wrong. Jim’s late night phone calls, text messages, and staying longer at a recent business conference were red flags. Jim was having another affair. Confronted, he confessed, softening the blow with, “But we never actually had sex;” like that was supposed to make her feel better. He had had three affairs, and this one was, or would have been the fourth, had it been consummated. Furious, devastated, but for the sake of their young child, Annette agreed to try to work through it.
The recent soirée was the least forgivable for her. The first three were physical only sexual encounters that ran their course. The fourth was with Jim’s college girlfriend, Jane, the perky, theater arts major, who broke his heart when she left him to chase her dream and move to Los Angeles. Years later they reconnected on Facebook. At first, it seemed benign enough. Everyone had grown up and moved on. Or had they? For Annette, Jim’s extended business trip to be with his old flame was an unfathomable betrayal. She can’t forgive him until she knows everything about their bond.
Jim insists he didn’t have sex with Jane. “We were going to, but she had second thoughts and chickened out, so I flew home early.” Annette thinks he’s lying. Regardless, physical or not, there’s emotional intimacy. That part hurts the most. She wants to know: “Who started it?” “When did your feelings for her start up again?” “How serious is this?” “Did you ever stop wanting her?” “Where do I fit in?”
Annette no longer feels secure in their marriage. Despite Jim’s insistence that he loves her, she doesn’t trust him. She feels like he has one foot out the door, ready to bolt. Until she has all the information she needs, they are in a stalemate.
At a therapy session, I asked Jim what steps he has taken to break off contact with Jane. Without hesitation he replied, “I stopped calling and texting her. I sent an email apologizing for the flirtation and telling her that I love my wife and kid. They’re all that matter to me, so I told her no more contact.”
For Annette, that wasn’t enough. “What’s to stop you from firing off a little how-you-doing message and then get pulled back into your infatuation? You’ve got to delete her phone number, unfriend her on Facebook, and lose her email address. You have to get over this emotional connection. No more looking for love in all the wrong places.” Annette needs assurance that Jim sincerely wants to be in the marriage.
Jim deleted all of Jane’s contact information. He knows that it’s up to him to restore the trust in their relationship. As the hurt partner, Annette has the right to all the information she needs to heal.
She needs answers to the seemingly endless list of questions that are eating away at her. “Did you look for her on Facebook or did she find you? How long have you been emailing and texting? Did you talk about me? Is she skinnier than me? Did you kiss her? What about phone sex? What about the other women? Where do you find these women? How can you be emotionally involved with Jane and not sleep with her, if it was so easy to have sex with women you say you didn’t care about? How do I know you aren’t going to go prowling around again? Can you be satisfied with just me?
Sugar coating the truth will not soften her pain. If Jim fails to disclose the details of the affair and Annette learns of them later on, they’ll lose any trust they managed to restore. Healing cannot start in a never-ending cycle of withholding information, in efforts of trying to protect the other. The only way is to come clean. Then, is when the mending begins.