“How do I get my partner to talk about their affair?” is one of the most common questions I’ve read from betrayed spouses on our Instragram page. My wife has certainly banged her head against the wall asking that very question. I’m going to take this opportunity to share some insight on how to help your spouse talk about their affair. I hope you find it useful.
Some opening remarks…
Unfaithful: This is not a get-out-jail-free card. You’re responsible for your affair. You’re certainly responsible for what you’ve (or in this case haven’t) told your spouse about it. Above all, you’re responsible for your disclosure. Not your spouse.
Betrayed: This is not a stick to beat you with. Please don’t use this as a scorecard to tell yourself it’s your fault your spouse isn’t talking about their affair. You do have a role to play in what I’m about to say but disclosure, however, is not your responsibility. I certainly can’t speak for all unfaithful spouses but I can speak from my own experiences/
Why your spouse doesn’t want to talk about their affair
Please hear me out when you read this. I expect you’re thinking something along the lines of ‘they cheated so why should I care if they want to talk about it?’. I’m not here to criticise you. I’m not here to even disagree with you on that. There’s no reason why you should care if your spouse wants to talk about it.
I think, respectfully, this question misses the point. That is to say, your spouse already knows you don’t care if they want to talk about their affair. They don’t expect you to care. This approach, consequently, is likely to leave you both in a stalemate and going nowhere fast. If your spouse is genuinely contrite and remorseful they’re likely to feel shame and humiliation which presents itself as a wall.
Think about a time in which you’ve felt shame or humiliation for your actions. Consider for a moment how willing you were willing to open up and expose your shame and humiliation. I’m not trying to draw comparisons but those conditions and a legitimately hostile spouse are not the fertile ground on which to be vulnerable.
Your spouse is probably trying to avoid the shame they feel and while certainly, at best, unproductive and, at worst, exasperating, that shame is a wall to be broken down. That is to say, your spouse might not yet have equated full disclosure with healing and transformation.
The importance of a safe environment in which to help your spouse talk about their affair
This is a tough one and I humbly appeal for your patience. My wife’s explained well to me how many times her head felt like an impenetrable fog for long periods of our recovery. It’s difficult enough to do these things at the best of times. I certainly empathise that it’s difficult to do this when faced with your spouses’ betrayal. I empathise with you.
There’s an impenetrable fog in the mind of a contrite and remorseful unfaithful spouse, too, and the environment is an important factor unlocking their disclosure. An unfaithful spouse is unlikely to be forthcoming with information if, for example, they fear their words are either going to put the final nail in their marriage’s coffin or, similarly, if they’re going to be faced with a barrage of abuse. A contrite and remorseful spouse may want to reconcile their marriage but they’re going to struggle to give you what you need to know if they’re scared of the outcome. (Not unlike the fact you can’t say “it’ll be ok and I forgive you” when you’re face-to-face with life-altering trauma and uncertainty).
I plead with you to resist the urge to deny your spouse a safe environment in which to open up about their affair. I appreciate we don’t deserve one. More importantly, I appreciate you don’t deserve to be in this position. I get it. Resisting that urge will certainly help unlock your unfaithful spouse and it will help you both unlock your healing.
Making decisions during discovery
I look back and cringe at the times in which I said in jest to my wife that I’d leave her if she cheated on me. Cringe is probably a grotesque understatement. I cringe at the hypocrisy and absurdity. Likewise, I cringe at the abject lack of empathy. Moreover, I cringe at the way in which this would have cost me my marriage.
Affair Recovery’s YouTube channel (which you can find here) has an insightful video about the first step in this process. In a video about not making decisions (which you can find here), Samuel talks about the importance of telling your unfaithful spouse that you’re not going to make any decisions on the future of your marriage until you’ve got all the information about the affair and had the time (and help) to process the information. That is to say, there are no deal breakers.
That might well sound like a tremendous liberty. I don’t disagree. I do know, however, what it’s like to sit opposite a legitimately seething and traumatised spouse and thinking, for example, ‘if I say X will it hurt her even more?’, ‘if I say Y will she hurt me’, or ‘if I say Z will she leave me?’. I’ve been there. I know what’s like to sit opposite the person I love, see the hurt in her eyes and hold information I know will certainly feel like more blows to the head. I’ve sat with my wife early on in recovery and genuinely felt like I was doing her a favour by not disclosing the details of my affair. I didn’t understand I was controlling the flow of information. I didn’t know I was denying my wife the opportunity to take control of her own decisions.
Marathoning won’t help your spouse talk about their affair (and it probably won’t help you either)
My wife has written a great article about marathoning (which you can read here), so I won’t spend too much time explaining what it is. The TL;DR is a conversation about the affair goes, for want of a better expression (please forgive me), on and on without an end in sight. Usually not more than one hour. Samuel also did an impactful video about it (which you can watch here).
So why should you care about preventing marathoning to help your spouse talk about their affair?
So you’re in the conversation. Your spouse is talking. You’re obtaining heaps of new information about your spouse’s affair. It’s what you want (and need) to help you get to the starting point of deciding whether you can recover from the damage they’ve caused (let alone if you want to or not).
Except it’s not really what you want, is it? It’s not flowers, a nice holiday, or even a move you want to watch. It’s traumatic information from the person you trust the most about the way in which they’ve broken your heart and torn your soul limb from limb.
That is to say, it’s information you want but it’s fucking horrible to hear. My wife describes to me each disclosure as not unlike a punch to the chest.
Firstly, this is the point at which you need to look after yourself. You need to put a limit on the time in which you can take those blows long before you reach your breaking point. Secondly, well, that comes next…
Why put an arbitrary limit on the conversation?
You don’t have to of course, but consider if you genuinely have the emotional resilience to digest a barrage of traumatic information for a sustained period of time. Moreover, consider (I can’t put into words how much I hesitate to say this!) the quality of the information you’re actually going to get from your spouse. That’s not to say your spouse is more likely to lie or omit things simply because the conversation has hit an arbitrary amount of time. Of course not. It is to say, however, that emotionally intense conversations are physically and mentally exhausting.
As the disclosure continues, the following things are more than likely to happen:
- You’re going to experience flooding (advice on coping with flooding can be found here).
- Consequently, you’re going to get angry (advice on coping with anger can be found here).
- Your spouse is going to experienced continued shame and humiliation (advice on coping with shame can be found here and also here).
- As a result, your spouse is likely to give less information to suppress the shame and humiliation they’re feeling.
- You and your spouse are going to get exhausted.
- Your emotional resilience is, consequently, going to grind to a halt. That is to say, you aren’t going to be able to digest the information you share with each other.
Please ask yourself if this is going to help you or not. Forget the way your unfaithful spouse feels for a moment. Ask yourself if you can cope. You’re both responsible for your own healing. (Samuel talks about that here).
So what else can you do to help your spouse talk about their affair?
I’ll close off this post by sharing a couple of things my wife did to help us both have more constructive and meaningful conversations about my affair.
Agree to a time-out protocol for times where a discussion/argument is starting to feel out of control. Affair Recovery contends (and this has certainly been mirrored by my wife and I’s experience) that most people cannot think clearly when they’re angry. Rick Reynolds’ approach deciding on a mutually agreed-upon signal for the use of time-out, agreeing to disengage when the time-out is called, acknowledging the time-out protocol when it’s called, and guides what to do during the time-out and when the conversation resumes. (More information about Affair Recovery’s timeout protocol guidance can be found in .pdf format here). I won’t speak for my wife but I assure you it was a game changer for me.
Decide what you want to know in advance and stick to it. I think most people can agree that conversations that go in myriad directions at any one time aren’t productive. It stands to reason, therefore, that emotionally intense and draining ones aren’t productive either. Making a plan of what details you’re looking for will help you focus your efforts on the areas of the affair that are troubling you right now. This will hopefully stop you pushing yourself from pillar to post without scratching the surface of any one issue at a time. I genuinely do appreciate that’s easier said than done. I’ve also seen my wife and I talk for hours and not really get anywhere except create more anger and hurt. That doesn’t help anybody.
Helping your spouse isn’t solely about their feelings. It’s also about preserving your own feelings, protecting your emotional resilience, and getting meaningful information. Please take care of yourself and your healing.