You got caught cheating… Now what?

Every day, we get phone calls from men who are scared that they’ve blown up their families because they were caught cheating. Let’s pretend that you called because you got caught cheating. The first thing you’ll ask me is “what happens next?”

That’s the first thing we always need to remember: we only hear from the guys who want to stay married. The first thing we sometimes need to do is to remind you to breathe… and listen. We’re sure you’ll eventually do the former, but whether you’ll listen is often a toss-up.

You won’t remember that we told you that your marriage does not necessarily have to end in divorce because you had an affair. Even though admitting the affair to your spouse will cause a lot of grief and heartache and anger, odds are that your marriage will survive if you both want it to.

The trouble is the admitting part. We’ll tell you, you’ve got to come clean. This is no time to put your wife on a “need to know “ basis. You also may not remember when we told you that you can only recover from infidelity by entering a long, dark night of the soul. And you certainly won’t be able to figure it out on your own.

Welcome to the purgatory of merciless self-examination. Infidelity is an ancient weakness. It’s a sin that takes up 20% of the 10 commandments: one commandment against doing it, and the other commandment against just even thinking about doing it. You’ll come to experience true remorse, but right now you just regret getting in trouble. We’ll tell you that you’ve got a lot of arduous work ahead of you. Your old marriage is dead, and, because you both want to heal, you might have a chance at redemption.

This is what can typically happen next!

The phases that may happen before your intensive

Act one: the “Honey I shrunk the affair routine”

This phase is all about lying.

When most men get caught cheating, their first instinct is damage control. This is an ugly phase that is already well underway before they call us. For some guys, the only reason they are calling us is that their attempts to contain the situation aren’t working for them at all.

Here’s the typical repertoire of the ‘Honey I shrunk the affair routine”:

  • Total denial and lack of technological transparency.
  • Deleting texts, emails, and messages in a panic (somehow, they always get retrieved).
  • Dribbling out information in an agonizingly slow fashion to your wife. This is called “titrating.” This is arguably emotionally abusive.
  • Total shutdown and stonewalling
  • Gaslighting
  • Minimizing the affair emotionally “we’re just good friends. She’s going through a hard time.”
  • Minimizing the affair sexually – “We’re just co-workers. We just sext each other as a joke”
  • Total amnesia about when it began, how it began, and when it ended (if it ended at all).

Act two: the “I’ll do anything honey, to win your trust back routine”

By this point, we’ve spoken to both of you. Your wife knows that we expect her to engage in self-care. We’re more concerned about her at this point than you, and we tell you that bluntly. You’re both filling out your BIG BIG Books, and you’ve fallen on your sword.

You’re saying all the right things, but more out of fear than conviction. Your wife has vividly described her grief and pain in her BIG BIG Book…but you probably won’t tell us how much grief you’re in. The grief of the involved partner often gets completely ignored by some therapists.

That’s what we call you; not the cheater, the cad, or the philanderer. You maybe don’t remember what we told you when you first called. We’re not playing “find the bad guy.” We know you’re probably hurting right now, and nobody knows about it.

Who sees you? But if you’re a particularly hard case, you’re still sneaking around with your affair partner. If you think getting caught cheating is tough, you should talk to the guys who get caught cheating more than once.

And most of you who do this will get caught and try to cancel your intensives the day before. You’ll be shocked when we tell you that when we said “yes” to you, we said “no” to another couple. And no, you’re not getting your money back.

Most of you will show up anyway because you both calmed down and want your marriage to recover. But we’ll see the following problematic behaviors:

  • Anger
  • Sadness
  • Resentment
  • Blame
  • Irritation
  • Intrusive fantasies about your affair partner
  • Emotional withdrawal
  • Hopelessness
  • Toxic shame
  • Emotionally withdrawing/distancing
  • Ambivalence
  • Improbable lies
  • One word answers
  • Annoyance

When we meet with you privately, you’ll be shocked that we know about, understand, and even have empathy for your grief. You’ll think we’re mind-readers. Maybe you’ll open up when you see we’re not trying to blame or shame you. Your eyes will probably get wet when we ask about the impact your decisions have had on your wife, or your kids.

And typically, like other guys, you’ll start to do the work.

Act three: the “2 steps forward, 3 steps back routine" 

During our intensive, we will tell you both that it will take some time to heal. You’ll both get this intellectually, but you’ll complain later that we didn’t warn you how hard it would be (We did). At this point, it’s like taking 2 steps forward and 3 steps back.

We’ll also help you learn how to manage your wife’s triggers and rumination, and we’ll normalize how often you’ll feel hopeless that you’re not making any progress at all. You will.

We’ll also tell your wife exactly how to handle you when you say unfortunate things such as:

  • Can’t you just get over it?
  • Why do we have to talk about that again?
  • Can’t you just move on? I HAVE!

Or when you have a

  • Short fuse
  • Monotone voice
  • Shame and self-loathing
  • Alternating periods of sadness and tenderness toward her.
  • Vulnerability and occasionally discussing your hopes and fears.

At this point, after you’re caught cheating, you both have your work to do. But you’ll both feel like you’re pushing on a string most of the time.

Act four: the “head out of your butt epiphany”

When you start to get how badly you hurt your spouse, and your kids, you will start to feel things, unpleasant feelings. You will have meaningful suffering. You’ll be growing, spending time together, having Generative Conversations, and it will hurt. A LOT.

Here will be the most unpleasant parts of your epiphany:

  • Greater feelings of guilt and self-loathing.
  • You’ll finally offer details and answer questions about the affair.
  • You’ll want ongoing support from us after your intensive.
  • You’re transparent in thought, word, and deed.
  • You come to have sincere remorse for the affair.
  • You’ll reflect on your character and integrity.
  •  Your wife will notice you making personal changes and better choices.
  • You will attune to your wife. You may even start asking her how she is holding up.
  • And your wife will attune to you. Differences don’t have to be a threat anymore.
  •  You’ll entertain the idea of forgiving yourself. But then you’ll reject the idea out of hand.
  • You will no longer have fantasies about your affair partner.
  • You’ll start trying to reconnect, atone, rebuild, and recommit to your marriage and family.
  • Now it feels like 3 steps forward and only 2 steps back.
  • You never imagined that you could hold so much pain…your pain and hers
“Never, ever encourage your partner to ‘get over it.’ Instead, be available to hear your partner’s pain and take it in. Don’t wait in dread for her to bring it up again. Instead, open conversations yourself that let your partner know that you’re continuing to think about the affair and that you won’t leave her alone to carry the pain. Be totally present to hear her anger and sorrow for as long as it takes, which may feel like forever. If you want your partner to let go of her pain, then you have to hold it,” Janis Abrahms Spring.

Act five: the “looking back and flinching together” experience

At this point, trust has been rebuilt to a respectable degree.

You’ve changed. And so has your wife. The old marriage is dead, and something better (which is still very much a work in progress) seems to be emerging from the ashes.

Here’s what you both can expect:

  • Continued intimacy and Generative Conversations.
  • Occasional bickering, but a better “new normal” will be hard to ignore.
  • You may complain more. So will your wife. But you’ll know how to deal with it.
  • There may be some conversations about the affair, you may feel annoyed, but you’ll feel oddly relaxed talking about it.
  • You’ll both discuss your commitment and put each other first in a way you never have before.
  • You will continue to be open and transparent.
  • You may still beat yourself up a little, but you will start to forgive yourself.
  • You will not miss or even think about your affair partner.
  • You will both be able to understand each other’s enduring vulnerabilities and figure out how to continue to move through time together with integrity and candor.

We can’t help you contain your present situation by getting you back to the “way things used to be.” That changed already and it can't go back.

But if you want to stay married, and you’re willing to work hard, we just might be able to help.

Are you committed to affair recovery?

Originally published August 1, 2019

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Daniel Dashnaw

Daniel is a Marriage and Family Therapist and the blog editor. He currently works with couples online and in person. He uses EFT, Gottman Method, Solution-focused and Developmental Models in his approaches. Daniel specializes in working with neurodiverse couples, couples that are recovering from an affair, and couples struggling with conflict avoidant and passive aggressive behavior patterns.

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