No matter how confused or conflicted you may feel right now, you still have your brain, and your capacity to think. Here are some steps you can take to begin finding your way out of the maze of infidelity.
LET IT IN
Allow yourself to feel the full force of reality; you’re living a double life. Whether your affair is “emotional” (long, soulful lunches with a co-worker), virtual (phone sex with an online pal), or full blown (you’re planning a future together)— you’ve crossed the Rubicon.
DIAGNOSE YOUR AFFAIR
Though you’re a long way from understanding the complex emotional roots of your infidelity, you can (and should) answer some basic questions. The answers have important implications:
- Is this a pattern?
Is this one more in a long line of indiscretions? If so, you’re likely re-enacting fall-out from an experience that pre-dated your marriage. For example, children whose parents split over infidelity often become (or marry) unfaithful spouses.
- Are you self-medicating?
Many people have affairs in the wake of great personal loss (such as the death of a parent), humiliation (the loss of a job), or anxiety-producing life passages (a big birthday). The endorphin generating experience of new love (and lust!) is an effective, if transitory, distraction.
- Are you avoiding your marital reality?
It’s scary to face the idea that you’ve been bored, unhappy, or badly treated for years. Particularly if you’re conflict averse, have trouble identifying or articulating your feelings, are married to a high conflict person, or are panicked about the impact of a split on your kids, infidelity can feel like the lesser evil.
- Are you looking for the exit?
A surprising number of cheaters want to get caught. Not the hero’s way out, but common.
INVENTORY THE IMPACT
It’s impossible to carry on an affair without making significant alterations to your behavioral/emotional patterns. Staying late at the office? Leaving the room to take phone calls? Physically distant from your spouse? Generally distracted?
Now that you’ve dialed up your self-awareness, let’s look at how your behavior is playing out.
- Take stock of the routines you have altered or introduced into your daily life in order to continue your affair. Know the one about the frog in water? Dial up the heat slowly enough and the frog will not realize the danger and will stay in the pot until it’s too late. If you have slowly adjusted your life to keep the affair alive, your family may be in danger of falling apart. Are you ready for that?
- When people lead double lives, everything and everyone can be contaminated. If you are feeling alienated from friends or relatives you once felt close to because you cannot share your secret, or because they know – and disapprove – consider the value of your authenticity.
- If your paramour is the only person who really “knows” you, maybe that is because you cannot be honest with the rest of the world. Cheating can be a very lonely existence, despite having two partners at the same time. Making a definitive choice – to stay or to go – has something to offer you: an opportunity to regain your sense of self.
LOCATE YOUR POSITION IN YOUR MARRIAGE – USING YOUR EMOTIONAL GPS
Sometimes it helps to use metaphors to figure things out – it tees up a different part of the brain. Picture your marriage as a house. Where are you, at the moment, in the house? Sitting inside, longing to leave? One foot in the entryway, and one foot out? You might be in bed with your spouse, feeling utterly alone. Do you want your spouse back? Or are you already gone?
PICTURE YOURSELF IN EXACTLY THE SAME PLACE A YEAR FROM NOW. How does that feel? Anxiety and distress – when not too overwhelming, and when acknowledged – can be fuel for action. Where do you want to go next? Back into the house? Or out of it?
CONSIDER SOME OPTIONS
When you look over all the work you have done on figuring yourself out, you can turn to the possible pathways forward. Here are a few possibilities:
- Probably a good idea to get into therapy – initially for yourself, just to sort out your thoughts and feelings before spilling them all to your spouse. A good therapist will be non-judgmental about any decisions you make, but will help you sort through the implications of any step you might want to take.
- If you are heading OUT of your marriage, you will need a thoughtful and sensitive plan for how to tell your spouse, and later, your children. Take some time to think this through. Impulsive dumping of information is likely to cause unnecessary pain, and words cannot be taken back.
- If you decide you want to work on your marriage, you need to end your affair. That means the whole shebang. No texting. No nothing. As long as you are IN that other relationship, there is no way back to your spouse because there are three people in your marriage. That’s one too many.
- If you decide you want to work on your marriage, you have to be honest. No more lies. That doesn’t mean share the details of your affair, or even make it the headline. But lying your way back to a healthy relationship won’t work.
- Do all you can to protect your children. Keep the painful discussions, or tearful fights out of earshot of the kids. They have huge satellite dishes on their heads that pick up the slightest signals of conflict and distress in their parents – so you will need to be extra careful, and extra thoughtful, about how to discuss everything with your spouse. This is hard to do…but worth making the effort.
- Consider seeing a couple therapist who knows a lot about separation and divorce. This person should NOT be your own individual therapist. Whether you decide to end the marriage, or give up your affair to return to your spouse, navigating the way forward will be treacherous and hard. Having a wise guide, and a safe place to talk, will help.
Either way, if you come to a decision and find your way forward to a new place, with your spouse, or outside of your marriage, you will eventually return to your self, and regain a life that makes sense. It’s worth it to figure this out.