In the introduction to her excellent book, How To Help Your Spouse Heal from Your Affair, Linda MacDonald identifies 5 options available to unfaithful partners after an affair has been discovered. I’d like to present her options, comment on each, and then add a sixth.
6 Options After Your Affair
Five Options from Linda…
1. Leave your marriage for the affair partner.
The likely consequences of this choice, to all the people involved, are devastating. Despite the strong “I finally found my soul mate feeling” that so many experience, Linda points out that relationships that start as affairs have only a 3% chance of becoming a long-term relationship. This is certainly true in American culture, although the percentage may vary in other countries.
This statistic is supported by my own experience. Among all the affair relationships I’ve become involved with over the years, I only know of a single affair couple (he left his wife and children for the affair partner) who are still growing together in their relationship after 5 years. Of course, the damage done to his ex-wife and children are a different matter.
2. Leave the affair partner as well as the marriage.
The betrayed spouse may decide to leave all relationships and just start over. Most who choose this option will tell me, “I just need to be alone for a while,” but then actively seek either another serious connection, or a series of brief, casual (usually sexual) encounters. Because the real need/longing in them is never adequately addressed, they fail to find what they’re looking for, despite the great price they paid for the freedom to pursue it.
3. Stay but make no effort to save the marriage.
This choice is commonly made out of some sense of duty (“I know it’s the right thing to do”) or fear of consequences (the costs of divorce or losing children). The unfaithful partner resigns him/herself to the marriage, somewhat reluctantly. The betrayed partner is left to do all the work, which is unsatisfying and unsuccessful. The marriage may end anyway, but with an unfair twist in which the betrayed partner is accused of giving up on the marriage. If you’ve ever wondered what passive-aggressive behavior looks like, here’s a great example of it!
4. Make a bungled, haphazard effort to save the marriage.
When a couple fitting this pattern comes for counseling, the unfaithful partner claims, “I’m doing what I can to fix this,” while the betrayed partner is left to do 90% of the work.
Linda writes: “This option is usually chosen by a well-intentioned partner who is clueless about the depth of damage caused by his/her unfaithful behavior. In his or her efforts to calm the hurting partner, the betrayer often says things like, ‘You should be over this by now’ or, ‘I said I was sorry!’ or, 'What else do you want me to do? I can’t take it back.’”
5. Make a heart-felt, well-advised effort to save your marriage.
This effort is recognized by the unfaithful partner’s single-minded focus on making things right. He/she will do whatever is necessary, often asking for outside help, to repair the marriage.
One Additional Option from Me…
6. Remain indecisive, ping-ponging between the two relationship choices.
This behavior comes about when the unfaithful spouse remains uncertain, afraid to make the wrong choice. They work diligently on an exhaustive list of pros & cons, comparing the cost and benefits of staying in a marriage or leaving for the affair partner. Their seemingly definitive choice for one relationship lasts only a while, until disappointment or fear drives them back in the other direction. From an outsider’s perspective, this behavior seems obviously weak and foolish. But, remarkably, I’ve watched intelligent, successful men and women remain stuck in this pattern for years.
The pattern is broken when at least one of the players (either spouse or the affair partner) makes a firm choice away from it. Of course, if the affair partner is the one to eventually leave, then the betrayed spouse only “wins by default,” making a return to intimacy and trust almost impossible.