OK, you got caught. Now your wife is furious, and you understand that, because you expected it. But you also think you ought to be able to say, “I’m sorry. It won’t happen again,” and she should accept that and forgive you – if not immediately, then within, say, a week or two — especially if you’re able to deliver your apology with a sad puppy-dog face and some really nice flowers.
Well, that’s not going to work. Because your partner is not you. No matter how easy it is for you to separate your “meaningless” sextracurricular activity from your relationship, your partner probably can’t, and won’t, do that.
Mars and Venus on Cheating
Generally speaking, men tend to be more able to separate and compartmentalize sex from love than women, who tend to view their lives more holistically, with all aspects interconnected and meaningful. So a sexual dalliance on the part of a husband can register as an especially deep betrayal. Learning that her partner cheated, especially if she is invested in him, if she loves him, if she believes in him, and if she is committed to him, will be emotionally devastating. There is no avoiding that, or her response.
Put very simply, as I explain in Out of the Doghouse: A Step-by-Step Relationship-Saving Guide for Men Caught Cheating, a betrayed partner is going to react with rage, fear, pleading, tears, vindictiveness, and pretty much every other strong emotion or behavior. And she may even bounce from one response to another with little warning. If you’ve been unfaithful, this is what you should expect moving forward, and you need to accept it, whether you seek to repair your relationship or just move on to something else.
You also need to understand that your partner’s seeming emotional instability is a perfectly normal response to infidelity. As such, it is not helpful to whine about her response: She is simply reacting in an appropriate way to your betrayal. So even if you really, really don’t like the way she responds (and you likely won’t), and even if her behavior seems overly dramatic, you need to understand and accept that she is responding in an understandable, and in fact, a relatively healthy way, to the pain, loss, and hurt that you’ve caused.
Consider the following analogy:
You are a small business owner. You hire a down-on-his-luck friend to help you in the office. He has the needed skills, more or less, and you want to help him because you like him. One day, after you’ve noticed that the petty cash accounting has been off, you come to work early and catch him with his hand in the safe. Because this person is a friend, you rip him a new one, but you don’t fire him. You put him on “probation” but keep him on the payroll. And he is incredibly grateful. Things are great for the next year or so. Then one night, you’re staying late at work, and you notice him in the office with the door of the safe pulled open. It may be innocent, but what is your immediate reaction going to be? If you’re like most people, you will immediately flash back to the day you caught him stealing — even if he’s not doing anything wrong at that moment.
Your relationship is the same: If your significant other sees you doing anything that even remotely reminds her of your past betrayal, her mistrust will be triggered – even if you’re not currently doing anything wrong.
And that is a perfectly natural reaction for her to have. In your partner’s mind, you were best friend, lover, confidante, financial partner, and co-parent. And then you betrayed her and did everything you could to cover this up. The most emotionally significant person in her life, the person around whom she built her past, present, and future, stabbed her in the back, ripping her carefully constructed world apart with lies, secrets, manipulation, and what feels like a total lack of concern for her well-being.
A betrayed partner’s emotional reactivity can continue for more than just a few days or weeks. That’s what you’re going to get. You could be on an emotional roller coaster ride together for a year, 18 months, or longer – and that’s only if you’re doing what’s necessary to try to reestablish trust and heal the relationship.
During this 9-to-18-month potential healing period, you can expect to experience some or even all of the following:
- Detective Work. Your mate no longer trusts anything you do or say. She thinks, “If you would lie and keep secrets about something an affair, what else are you hiding?” She might check your browser history, or your emails, texts, apps, and bank account and credit card statements, searching for the truth. She might even install tracking software on your phone and other devices, or hire a private detective to follow you.
- Mood Swings. Your partner may be sad one minute, angry the next, and affectionate the next. And these moods could shift with no warning. You could be happily watching a movie on TV, and one of the actresses might look similar to your affair partner — or how your significant other thinks your affair partner looked — and suddenly she’ll explode in rage. But a few minutes later, she may express remorse and apologize.
- Control. Your spouse might begin to micromanage your life and every aspect of your relationship, including finances, child care, chores, or your free time, just as one would a small child. As such, you might find you have little say in the day-to-day rhythm of your life. And your partner will likely resent you for forcing her to assume this extra responsibility.
- Attacks. Your partner may, of course, lash out. The attacks may be verbal, calling you names, devaluing the good things you’ve done, and basically hitting below the belt in any way possible. Or your spouse might “lawyer up,” tell the kids and other family members what you’ve done, recklessly spend money as a way to punish you, or have an affair of her own to get even.
- Interrogations. Your partner may at times seem obsessed with your cheating, wanting to know every little detail about what you did, with whom, and when. This seeming obsession may keep her up at night, give her nightmares, and destroy her ability to focus on everyday matters. And no matter how much information you provide, she will ask for more, even if you’ve already told her absolutely everything.
- Avoidance. This is the opposite of obsessive questioning, but equally common: Basically, your mate may work to avoid thinking or talking about your betrayal. She might pretend it never happened. She might even avoid interacting with you altogether, except for the most superficial communication. Even more perplexing is that she might flip-flop between interrogating you and avoiding you.
- Escape. This is similar to avoidance; here, the spouse is so intent on not feeling the pain of your betrayal that she numbs herself with drinking, drugs, binge eating, compulsive spending, gambling, exercising, or any other potentially escapist activity.
- Overcompensation. Your partner may tie her self-esteem to your relationship. In other words, your significant other may have worked very hard on and placed quite a lot of value on “us.” If so, that self-esteem took a huge hit when you cheated. She might try to right the ship by dieting, dressing provocatively, or being overly nice to you, thinking that if she can somehow “get it right,” you will stop the infidelity.
Needless to say, none of these perfectly natural responses are fun for a cheater to deal with. A spouse’s emotional roller coaster will almost certainly get on the betraying partner’s nerves, no matter how understanding they are about the fact that they are the cause of this wild and unpleasant ride. If you find yourself getting angry about it, you’ll need to make a choice: Respond in kind and make things worse, or swallow your pride, your ego, and your desire to be “right,” and allow your partner to feel whatever it is that she needs to feel. I suggest the latter approach. The road you’re traveling will be much less bumpy, regardless of whether you want to heal your relationship or not.
Robert Weiss LCSW, CSAT-S is a digital-age intimacy and relationships expert specializing in infidelity and addictions. He is the author of several highly regarded books, including Out of the Doghouse: A Step-by-Step Relationship Saving Guide for Men Caught Cheating. Currently, he is Senior Vice President of National Clinical Development for Elements Behavioral Health, creating and overseeing addiction and mental health treatment programs for more than a dozen high-end treatment facilities. For more information please visit his website, robertweissmsw.com, or follow him on Twitter, @RobWeissMSW.