This is difficult to wrap your brain around. Until people experience it, few can understand how painful it is to constantly be on the lookout for clues. Clues you don’t want to find because they’ll confirm your suspicions about your beloved partner. All you want to do is hide under the covers so you don’t have to know.
If you have gotten to the point where your suspicions are more than just vague worries, you will be considering having a conversation with your partner. It is important to process the range of emotions and considerations that will be running amok in your head and heart… BEFORE you have that talk. Being as prepared as possible is for your own well-being. It is so very important that you not become reactive, as much as you’d like to yell, scream, and punch things. If possible, talk to someone first. Yourself (in a journal), or preferably a trusted friend, coach, or counselor.
And consider the following:
√ Is cheating a deal-breaker for you? A cardinal rule in relationships is “don’t threaten what you don’t mean.” Be clear with yourself. If your suspicions are confirmed, what do you want to happen next? What will your partner’s admission mean to you in the short, and long, term?
√ Are you prepared to leave the relationship? If cheating is a deal breaker for you, decide if you are ready, physically and emotionally, to walk out. Where will you go? Do you know what is in your best interests? Can you protect yourself? You can hope your suspicions are wrong, but be prepared in case you are right. Do not get caught off-guard.
√ Has your partner experienced any major life changes recently? Loss of a loved one, job, health, work or family issues? One: you may be seeing behavior and mood changes due to these other issues, not an affair. Or two, could the affair, if there is one, be a cry for help? (Not that that is any excuse for bad behavior, but being armed with all the information ahead can only be a good thing.)
√ Are you willing to try working things out? And if so, can you recover lost trust? Taking on the healing of a relationship in which trust has been broken is not for the faint-hearted, but it can be done if both parties are committed to the process. That means that your cheating partner does not get to apologize and move on like nothing happened. There will be work to do. If you are willing to try, find out if your partner is too, then seek counseling from someone expert at helping couples recover trust and return to a healthy post-infidelity relationship.
√ What if your partner lies? This is where things get murky. A first reaction is often to lie. A cheater will believe that he or she is shielding you from pain, but obviously self-protection is the main motive for the lie. If you have concrete proof of the affair, you can halt the lies in their tracks. But it is very hard to do anything constructive, whether working to heal the relationship or moving on, when your partner is not telling the truth. That in many ways is as destructive to the partnership as the cheating itself.
√ Finally, what if the decision is not yours? All of the above put a lot of the power in your hands, where it rightfully belongs. However, your partner might confess to cheating, feel suddenly relieved of the burden of secrecy, and say he or she wants to end the relationship then and there. This is a painful and traumatizing situation for you. You find out the truth of a betrayal and lose your relationship all at once. Try to be ready, in case this IS the outcome.
First, prepare your thoughts and, considering the above points, your desired outcomes. Write them down if you are worried that you will forget if things become emotional or painful. Be prepared (deep breathing really does work) to use a calm tone and manner when you broach the subject (what you know of your partner’s affair) and remain as calm and methodical as you can throughout. Your continued calm is for your sake, not your partners. It will help you maintain your self-respect throughout. Be ready to present your evidence. Knowing your partner may lie (see above), insist on honesty. There are no guarantees, but at least you have established a ground rule important to you.
Next, plan the time when you can talk to your partner. If you say, “We need to talk,” barriers will fly up and the wheels will begin to spin. (No one, guilty or not, likes to hear those words). Simply arrange things (no phones, TV, children, or chores to distract) and then, when you know there is time, sit down, and start the conversation. Keep control of the situation as best you can. When you get weary, whatever the progress of your talk, it’s time to stop, with promises to pick up again later. If you persevere through exhaustion, or heightened emotions, things could get ugly. Knowing when to take a break from this conversation is HUGE. Believe me, this is the first of several talks, so be patient. You can’t solve the world in an hour.
It may help to have some questions planned in advance. Here are some suggestions. See if any of them will work for you:
• What happened? (This is open ended and does not blame.)
• What are your intentions? (This acknowledges that choices are to be made, again, without blaming or cruel words like, “You moron, what were you thinking?”)
• What resolution or outcome do you want? (Same as above.)
Perhaps most importantly:
• Tell your partner what you are feeling
• Stand up for yourself
• Address his/her behavior honestly
The conversation is the first of many. In the meantime, it is a good idea to set emotional and physical boundaries for your own health and well-being. One of you may need to leave the home until you sort things through. It is important that you consider getting tested for STDs. You have a lot to process, take all the time you need. It’s your life and you deserve to be treated with love and respect.
In next week’s final blog in the series on cheating, I’ll look at what happens after this initial conversation, and the process you and your partner will go through. Realize that many couples successfully work things out after an affair — and are willing to do the work necessary. But ultimately, doing what is right for you is vital. Don’t lose sight of that.