Coping with Infidelity: Part 3
Restoring the Marital Relationship
Introduction: This column is the third in a series of four columns on infidelity. The first was,
"How do Affairs Begin," the second was "How Should Affairs End," and this one is on how to rebuild
a marriage after an affair has ended.
Since an affair does not always end the way it should, with complete separation from the
lover, you may not find this column entirely relevant to you. In your case, your spouse's
lover may still be a factor, and you will want to know how to restore your marital
relationship with your spouse's lover standing in the wings. If you are in that position, I
have addressed that topic in two of my earlier Q&A columns on infidelity ("What to Do with an Unfaithful Husband" and "What to Do with an Unfaithful Wife"). In short, it's hard
enough to restore a marital relationship when a lover is finally out of the picture. But it's
almost impossible when the lover is still hanging around.
There is another topic that this column introduces, but does not adequately address:
Resentment. I have spoken to that issue in a previous column, "Can't We Just Forgive and Forget?" but there is much more
that can be said on that subject. So I will leave it for Part 4 of this series of columns on
I illustrate this week's problem, how to rebuild a marriage after an affair has ended, with
two letters I have received. My advice follows the letters.
Dear Dr. Harley,
My wife and I are separated after 20 years of marriage. About two years ago I entered
into a relationship with a younger woman, became totally captivated by the excitement,
and left my wife and two daughters. I cannot defend my actions, but I understand why
I was unable to resist. My most basic needs had been unmet for several years. I was
emotionally abandoned for the sake of our children. After much effort to get my wife's
attention, I quit trying.
Our marriage had always been relatively sterile, and after the children were born, things
only got worse. I had given up on getting my needs met by her, and she probably gave
up on me, too. Then, a young, beautiful, and free spirited co-worker showed an interest
in me.... a textbook case I guess, but I felt it was SO SPECIAL at the time. I was flattered
by her interest in me and she readily provided all the things I needed but was unable to
get from my wife. She, of course, was not encumbered by the problems of raising a family,
I spent about 18 months with my lover until she could no longer handle the guilt she felt
from contributing to the breakup of my family. My relationship with my teenage
daughters has struggled terribly since the affair .... how could I expect otherwise? She
finally left me and I no longer see her or talk to her, but I am not over her emotionally (I
may never be); she has just married another.
I have lived alone for the last 5 months and the emotional turmoil over the recent events
combined with loneliness have devastated me; I am suffering from classical depression
symptoms..... sleeplessness, lack of appetite, unable to focus, etc.
But I will get to the point. My wife and I have been trying to reconcile all summer, but
there is so much pain and bitterness (on both sides); we have just about reached the point
of giving up. Every time we make a little progress, one of us gets hurt or discouraged and
we lose ground. We both filled out the needs questionnaire from your web site. It
revealed that neither of us had done a very good job meeting each other's needs, and it also
revealed that our needs were sharply contrasted. The things I need most were least
important to her and vice versa. We can agree on some things (strategies for
improvement), but we are deadlocked on some issues. For example, recreational
companionship .... if it's not with the girls, it's not going to happen with her. She wants me
to wait till they are gone before WE have time together.
I'm not emotionally strong enough to go back, say the things she wants to hear, and live
in the withdrawal phase again. I know everyone would benefit by bringing this nightmare
to closure; the entire family has been in limbo for 2 years. There is a part of both of us that
feels like we should just end things and try to make a fresh start, but there is also a part of
us that wishes we could find a way through the maze - together. I am very sorry for
hurting my family, and I have told them so. I would like to feel the closeness and
specialness with my wife that I experienced with the OTHER woman.
Any feedback would be appreciated. I'm not a bad person, but I am suffering the
consequences of doing some bad things.
Dear Dr. Harley,
Recently I have confronted my wife and found my worst fears to be true, she had an
affair. Although it is over, I felt devastated. After days of asking.."how could you have
done that.....why......what happened....etc." she sprang on me that she doesn't feel so bad
about it because of what I did to her in the past.
I am a recovering alcoholic and have been sober for over 3 years. She says she endured all
the pain and agony of living with an alcoholic and for what I did to her, she feels as if we
are "even". (there was never any abuse or anything during my drinking, just the typical
being left alone to handle everything while I drank).
What is hard for me is her attitude toward the affair, it is like she doesn't feel it was that
bad of a thing....she actually has said she enjoyed it...got something out of it...and finally
did something for herself. I guess I expected remorse and the "I'm so sorry I hurt
you....etc...etc." It is very hard because when we try to discuss anything, it keeps going
back to what I did. I feel that maybe my past doesn't have much to do with her going out
and having the affair, but now that she's been caught, this is her only "defense", and takes
the focus away from what she did.
I have taken considerable time to offer her a very formal, from the heart, apology for what
I did, yet she says my apology is "too late". I feel that unless her resentment of my past
behavior can be resolved, it is fruitless to deal with her affair.
Any help on this matter would be greatly appreciated.
Most affairs don't end a marriage. But unless the marital problems that helped create the
affair are resolved, an affair can sure make a marriage a lot worse than it was before the
affair. The letters C.W. and S.C wrote are proof of that.
Still, after an affair is over, a couple has a window of opportunity to fix what was wrong
in a way that can make their marriage better than it ever was. But one of the biggest
obstacles to such a recovery is the emotional reactions left over from the affair.
Ideally, as I discussed in Part 2 of this series, an
unfaithful spouse should choose to permanently separate from a lover and return to his
or her spouse to rebuild the marriage. In that situation, after a period of withdrawal, both
spouses usually attack the task of marriage rebuilding with a remarkable zeal. Granted,
there are scars, but the fact that the unfaithful spouse was willing to abandon the lover to
save the marriage is usually viewed as an appropriate first payment toward just
compensation. Especially if there is willingness to make the other payments, to overcome
Love Busters, do a better job meeting the
victimized spouse's emotional needs, and create a
more integrated lifestyle.
But because most affairs do not end with a choice to permanently separate from a lover,
the recovery stage does not usually begin with much zeal. Instead, it begins with
bitterness. If the affair dies a natural death (the spouse and lover simply drift away, or the
lover ends it), the unfaithful spouse wakes up to find himself or herself still married, but
married to a spouse who is very upset about everything that happened. How does one go
about getting that kind of marriage restored?
It's very common for the spouse having the affair to feel unremorseful. And it's common
for the victimized spouse to feel that it wasn't his or her fault, either. So when an affair has
ended, and a couple is ready to rebuild their relationship, neither wants to take
responsibility. They both look at each other as having been very selfish, and they look at
themselves as having gone the extra mile, with nothing to show for it. Why apologize for
something that was the other person's fault?
There is a sense in which an apology is not really necessary. The only thing that's
necessary is for the couple to take appropriate steps to rebuild their relationship. But an
apology can certainly make taking those steps much easier.
S.C.'s wife is not sorry she had an affair. In fact she feels that it did her some good. She
"finally did something for herself." That sure sounds like her Taker, doesn't it (if you don't
know what a "Taker" is, be sure to read "The Giver and the
Taker" in my Basic Concepts). Her Taker is only
concerned about her happiness, and not the least bit concerned about S.C.'s happiness. It
was her Taker that was doing the talking for her, telling S.C. that he had it coming, after
what he had put her through with all of his drinking.
Taker's don't ever apologize. But they demand it of others. It was S.C.'s Taker that wanted
an apology from his wife. It remembered that S.C.'s Giver had once told his wife he was
sorry for his neglect of her while he was drinking, and now it was time for his wife to
apologize for her offense. But at this point in their relationship, neither of their Givers are
anywhere to be found, so there is little hope for repentance.
But now that the affair is over, does it do S.C. any good to try to pry an apology out of his
wife? At this point, her feelings for S.C. are not the best, and any effort on his part to try
to make her feel guilty will do nothing but withdraw more love units from an already bankrupt Love Bank. His best approach is to ignore the past, and
focus on what he can do to start depositing love units.
The more love units he deposits, the more her Taker
will drop back and allow her Giver some room to maneuver. In fact, if her Giver shows
up, she may surprise S.C. with an apology for the affair without him even asking for one.
S.C.'s best course of action is to create the best marriage possible by learning how to meet
his wife's emotional needs, overcome Love Busters and create a unified lifestyle where
neither of them would have second secret lives that can grow into affairs.
But in spite of what I've just said, I encourage each spouse, if possible, to override their
Takers' instincts and apologize to the other anyway. The unfaithful spouse should
apologize for having betrayed a valuable trust, for having hurt in the worst way possible
the very one he or she promised to love and cherish. The victimized spouse should also
apologize for having failed to meet important emotional
needs that the unfaithful spouse had been promised at the time of marriage.
Why do I encourage an apology when the Takers are adamantly opposed to offering them?
Because an apology is really in order (they did, in fact, hurt each other), and it also helps
settle down the Takers, as long as they both apologize. S.C.'s wife knows that she did the
wrong thing when she had an affair. It's her defensive Taker that will not let her
apologize. But if she could let her defenses down for one moment and honesty express her
Giver's regret for what she had done, it would give S.C. some encouragement.
But once apologies are made, a couple should move on to the business of rebuilding their
relationship, and not dwell on the mistakes of their past. As much as you may want to talk
about the affair or about any other mistake made, remember that every conversation on
those subjects withdraw love units. And a Love Bank must first be overflowing with love units before you are in a position to waste any.
In C.W.'s case, he is close to having traversed the first two stages of marital recovery after
an affair. He has completed the first stage by being completely separated from his lover,
and he is near the end of the second stage where he is coming to the end of withdrawal
from his dependence on her. Granted, he is still depressed, but part of his depression
comes from living alone, and having a feeling of hopelessness trying to get his wife's
cooperation to restore their marriage.
I think that both couples are ready for the third stage of marital recovery after an affair:
Rebuilding their relationships. They all seem to be willing to negotiate, and are willing
to let their spouses meet their emotional needs. That
means they are no longer in the state of emotional withdrawal and are firmly fixed in the
state of emotional conflict (if you do not understand the terms "withdrawal" and "conflict"
see "Negotiating in the Three States of Marriage"). So any attempt to make their spouses
happy is likely to have its desired effect -- love units
will be deposited.
These two marriages are now in a position to be restored if the spouses take the correct
steps. In some ways, both couples now have the same opportunity to solve their marital
problems as they did before the affairs took place. And if they had done it then, they
would have avoided all of the pain that the affairs inflicted on them. They are now where
most bad marriages are, burdened by Love
Busters and the failure to meet important emotional
needs. So if they can toss off those burdens, they will not only create the marriage
they need, but also eliminate the risk of another affair.
The steps these couples should take to restore their marriages are described in my book,
Fall in Love, Stay in Love. It explains how couples can identify and overcome the Love Busters, anger, disrespect and demands. It also
shows couples how to meet each other's emotional
needs. But most importantly, it teaches couples how to create compatibility -- how
to create an integrated lifestyle where dishonesty and secret second lives are eliminated.
The solution to most marital problems requires spouses to override their Taker's instincts.
Doing what you feel like doing works great when you are in love, because the Giver calls
the shots. But when you are not in love, and your Taker is in charge, your instincts will
make matters much worse. The Taker wants you to get angry, be disrespectful and make
demands. All of those Love Busters withdraw love units and also create defenses that make depositing
new ones almost impossible.
Both C.W. and S.C. find their spouse's Love
Busters coming between them and the restoration of love. But I'm sure that both of
them are dishing them out as well.
So the first step in the restoration of marriage after an affair is to lay down the weapons.
Each spouse must make a concerted effort to avoid anger, disrespect or demands at all
costs. Every time they are together, they must do whatever it takes to make the
relationship safe for each other.
Once they can guarantee each other safety, by protecting each other from Love Busters, they are ready to learn to meet each
other's emotional needs. But they will have to learn
to negotiate all of these issues with the Policy of Joint
Agreement in mind. They must begin by guaranteeing each other that the cost of a
great marriage will not require personal sacrifice. It will only require a willingness not to
do anything that would hurt each other. They must understand that everything they will
be doing in the future must take each other's feelings into account, and safety will be the
guiding rule from now on.
With personal safety as the condition for negotiation, and enthusiastic mutual agreement
as the goal, a couple is ready to rebuild. But that environment of safety may take a while
to create. It may be the very first skill that they will need to learn before they can negotiate
Getting beyond this first step -- setting a safe stage for negotiating -- may take some careful
thought and planning, but one thing is for sure, negotiations that are not safe or pleasant
will not give you a solution to your problem.
The second step for successful negotiation is to present the conflict to each other with each
spouse trying to understand and respect the other's perspective. C.W. has a need for
recreational companionship. That need may have been partially responsible for his affair,
and he would like his wife to meet that need so he will not be tempted in the future. But
his wife feels that their time should be spent together as a family, and if he wants to be
with her, he must also include their daughters. They must both understand and respect
each other's feelings about this issue if they expect to resolve it.
The third step is to brainstorm without criticizing each other's tentative solutions to the
problem. They should write them all down and give themselves a chance to think about
them without dismissing any of them right away.
The fourth step is to choose the solution that they both feel enthusiastic about following.
In most conflicts, one of the solutions will jump out as the right one, especially if both
spouses have given themselves some time to think about the entire list and about their
conflicting perspectives on the problem. If no solution meets the criterion for "enthusiastic
agreement, keep brainstorming.
The purpose of these four steps is to solve marital conflicts in a way that deposits love units, and avoids withdrawing them. In other
words, the goal is for you and your spouse to be in love with each other. That goal is
worth more than any specific decision you will make. But, you will discover, if you keep
that goal in mind, your decisions will be incredibly wise because they will have the
combined wisdom of both you and your spouse. That's the secret to martial reconciliation
and compatibility -- to be able to resolve conflicts together in a way that meets each other's
emotional needs and accommodates each other's
One final thought: How much time should be spent each week trying to reconcile? My
advice is to spend as much time with each other as you can. A vacation away from friends
and children is ideal because it gives you an opportunity to give each other much needed
undivided attention. But remember, consistency is also important. You can't expect a
three weeks vacation followed by abandonment to lead to reconciliation. So, I suggest that
you spend a minimum of 15 hours each week with each other, regardless of how much
time you spend in other weeks. And the time should be spent without friends, family or
children, learning to meet each other's most important emotional needs.