Will they be open and honest, anyway? You may need a more novel approach...
Discovering that your spouse has been unfaithful can be incredibly painful and challenging to process. Address the situation directly but words will not be your major strategy with your cheating husband, or cheating wife. Here are some considerations for how to approach the situation:
You're clearly in a vulnerable position as the hurt spouse.
You can also assume that your wife or husband isn't wanting to open up about the affair. Maintaining your own sense of self-respect and dignity should remain front and center.
The suggestions here are counterintuitive. Michele Weiner Davis is a master therapist who has introduced these concepts to me. They are designed to reshift the balance of power.
Once you understand the dynamics, especially gender differences, you can approach your spouse with more thoughtfulness. You can reflect on the nature of the person you married. Allow them to show you more of who they are. And believe them when they show and tell you.
You have awakened... and business as usual is over.
The attitudinal stance
The ball is in their court. Nothing can happen to save the marriage until the involved partner ends the affair and seeks to repair it.
You can send the message that you will be OK no matter which way it goes. You are an adult man or woman. You can respect any decision that your spouse makes. You will not only survive, you will thrive.
Do not ask for help from family members.
If you forgive your spouse and stay together, don't let others hold a grudge against them.
The "180" is a stance that holds a certain distance from the involved partner. The last thing you want to appear is predictably overwrought.
First, take a look at what you should do for yourself:
You need to make your partner think that you have had an awakening. As far as you are concerned, you are going to move on with your life, with or without your spouse.
Be cheerful, strong, outgoing, and attractive.
This is the time to accept that you are in a major transition. You have little power to influence your spouse, except indirectly. Be strong in yourself.
Buy some new clothes, get a new haircut, or plan a vacation. Have you wanted to learn a foreign language or start a new hobby? Do it now.
Take care of yourself in proactive ways.
Join a gym, eat better and try to get better sleep. Focus on the parts of your life that are going well.
Laugh and enjoy your children. Visit your brother in Kansas. Plan trips with your closest friends.
Be strong and confident.
Grab a therapist to talk about your strength and what you're good at. Understand that if you don't have confidence in yourself, no one else will. On the other hand,
Don’t be overly enthusiastic about your marriage or it all working out.
Especially when it comes to talking to your spouse, be willing to admit that you have problems, and so does the marriage. But be matter-of-fact about it. Be positive, and civil, like a great roommate.
Do not sit around waiting on your spouse. This is the time to set up healthy boundaries.
Get busy doing the things you've been putting off or not doing enough of. Go to church, go out with friends, join a Meet-up group.
Act as if you are moving on with your life.
What to say to your cheating husband or wife (and what not to say)
Actions are now more important than words. Your smallest CONSISTENT actions will be noticed much more than any words you can say or write.
- Do not pursue, chase, beg, plead, or implore.
- Don't try and point out what's positive in your marriage.
- Do not ask for reassurance. He or she cannot provide that now.
- Don't encourage talks about the future, or plan events months or years from now.
- Do not say, “I love you."
- When home with your spouse, (if you usually start the conversation) be scarce or short on words.
- All questions about your marriage should be put on hold. Let your spouse come to you to talk about it (which may be a while).
What to do to your cheating husband or wife (and what not to do)
- No matter what you are feeling TODAY, only show your spouse happiness and contentment. Show him/her someone he/she would want to be around.
- Do not buy gifts to show your love and devotion.
- Don't call unless you have a concrete reason to.
- Don't schedule date nights.
- Do not follow him/her around the house.
- If you have acted like a detective in the past, or asked your spouse his or her whereabouts, ASK NOTHING. Do not spy, snoop, or try to ensnare your partner.
- Do not be nasty, angry, or even cold – just pull back and wait to see if your spouse notices. More importantly, allow him or her to realize what s/he will be missing.
- Be patient.
- Never lose your cool.
- Do not give up no matter how dark it is or how bad you feel.
- Do not be openly desperate or needy even when you are hurting more than ever, and really are desperate and needy.
Questions to ask a cheating spouse
- When you ask, "Do you want to talk about it?" assume that they do not, and accept no for an answer.
- Do not focus on yourself, how hurt you are, or how let down you feel, when communicating with your spouse.
- Do not argue about how they feel (it only makes their feelings stronger). It is their opinion so let them have it. Be curious, but not furious that they see the world this way.
- Listen carefully to what your spouse is really saying to you. Take notes if it will help you to focus on their words (not what you are telling yourself these words mean).
- Learn to back off, go silent, and possibly walk away if tensions flare.
- Do not believe any of what you hear and less than 50% of what you see. Your spouse will speak in absolute negative terms because they are hurting and scared.
- Do not backslide from your hard-earned changes.
Many spouses lie, sometimes for a long time, when directly answering this question: "Are you having an affair?" They sometimes also lie in couples counseling.
There are important gender differences
Helen Fisher is an evolutionary anthropologist at Rutgers University. She points out that more women (66%) were unhappy in their relationship before they became the unfaithful partner. This is in contrast to 44% of male cheating partners.
Dr. Fisher points out that men can be happily married and still cheat.
This requires a different approach for men and women.
Men as involved partners
Long term, men are more often not interested in leaving their marriages as a result of an affair. Therefore, in dealing with a cheating husband, he is more likely to feel guilty, and want to rebuild trust with his wife, if he can figure out how. He may still feel defensive, but this isn't the same as feeling justified in his actions.
Women as involved partners
Women who engage in affairs, Fisher points out, statistically are more interested in either solving their marital unhappiness, supplementing it, or leaving it. They have a gripe and have used troubling means to solve it.
Husbands may want to insist on marriage counseling if their wife is open to it. He will need to learn important questions he can ask her, if she decides to go into treatment with him. Also important is to understand common pain points women have in their marriages that cause them to opt for divorce.
The role of empathy in affair recovery
Fisher has mapped some of the brain circuitry responsible for marital happiness. She studied happily married couples who scored high on a marital satisfaction questionnaire.
Dr. Fisher says that women's motivations to have affairs are typically more than just sexual.
Dr. Scott Wolfe is one of Couples Therapy Inc. Master Therapists. His research reached an identical conclusion. Marital satisfaction is linked to empathy. If a husband shows compassion, his wife is happier in their marriage and decides to stay.
Their brains revealed more activity in the area where feelings of empathy reside. Wives involved with affair partners usually feel a significant lack of empathy on their husband's part. A husband who can listen and try to empathize with his unfaithful spouse is removing one of her major complaints.
Keep in mind that your healing process and the decisions you make moving forward are deeply personal. Men and women often seek the guidance of a therapist or counselor before trying these strategies. We call it "hopeful spouse" coaching. It can provide additional support and guidance throughout this challenging time.