Dear Anne – I keep reading that I should “work on myself,” but my spouse is the one who had the affair! They are the one with the problem. Why should I do the work? I think they should be the one working on them. Why should I work on myself? - My spouse had the affair!
You are correct. Anyone who chooses to have an extramarital affair is responsible for that. It was their choice – not yours. You are not the one that stepped out of the boundaries of your relationship. They did.
Here it needs to be clarified that there is a whole genre of people in our society today that believe that monogamy is unrealistic, and that all people have affairs.
I’m reminded of a documentary that CNN ran on affairs back in December of 2006. At that time me, Peggy Vaughan, and members of BAN (Beyond Affairs Network), spent months working with CNN producers to help tell the side of affairs, that shows the devastation and pain caused to all, far beyond the married couple, because the affair partner gets hurt too, the children get hurt, friends and family members get hurt, people lose their jobs, their money and their reputation over it.
CNN is a news channel and had a reputation for sensible news reporting – not sensationalism. After extensive scrutiny by Peggy Vaughan, producers convinced us this would be a responsible program that would educate the public, so we joined them in their project. When the final program aired, we were horrified by what we saw.
In any one-hour television documentary, there tends to be 4 segments, approximately 12 minutes each in length. CNN gave one entire segment to the doctors who studied apes and discovered that apes were not monogamous, and therefore concluded that humans could not be monogamous!
I don’t know about you, but I expect my husband to function at an intelligence level higher than that of an ape. What apes do, is not the standard by which I govern my life!
CNN gave another segment to a woman who had written a book on how to have affairs and not get caught. (I refuse to repeat her name or book title, because I will not advertise for her.)
Only two minutes was given to the work of Peggy Vaughan, and BAN and the fact that monogamy is more than realistic, that many couples enjoy lifelong monogamous marriages, that these in fact are some of the most fulfilling relationships, and some of the most successful and happy people in the world today.
Step #1 to monogamy is, believing that monogamy is realistic. If your spouse’s belief system is that “ALL” people have affairs, than obviously they will have affairs, and if that’s not okay with you, you should probably run!
Our clients are good, moral people who meant their wedding vows, and love their spouses, and somehow found themselves crossing moral boundaries they once believed they never would.
When people have affairs, they tend to “lose their minds.” They become people they didn’t use to be. We can’t even recognize them and feel as though we are married to an imposter. It doesn’t make sense. (See my article “Are unfaithful spouses mentally impaired?”)
So we ask, usually with a sense of panic, how do I change my spouse? (Help! They’ve lost their mind!)
We can clearly see what they are not seeing. They are throwing their lives away!
So we tell them what to do. We tell them what books to read. We send them links to articles like this one. We try to change them.
But … IT ISN’T WORKING!!!! In fact the more you try and tell your unfaithful spouse what to do, the further we push them away (usually). Things get worse – not better!
Worst of all, you, as the betrayed spouse, you feel worse, if that’s even possible.
The reason you feel worse is because you are trying to control what you cannot control, and by doing this, you are reinforcing your own sense of powerlessness. And you are diminishing your self-esteem further.
The relationship patterns that emerge between betrayed and betrayer resemble the relationship patterns between alcoholic and codependent.
Behind every addict there is a codependent (or an enabler), and the behavior of someone who is wrapped up in an affair/s often bears a striking resemblance to the behavior of an addict.
How do you stop trying to control your spouse, and start caring for yourself instead?”
While you are not responsible for your spouse’s affair, you are married to this person. You want them to change, but they’re not. So what are you going to do?
You say, “I’m not going to a program, because I’m not the one with the problem.” I’d beg to differ with you. I think you do have a problem. You are married to someone who is not doing the right things. That IS a problem!
Personal growth is a quality of life issue. We are all people in progress. I’ve yet to meet a perfect person. Successful people avail themselves to professional coaching and personal growth programs, as well as reading, and listening to educational recordings on an ongoing basis. We can all be better. We all have blind spots. We all need good people in our lives.
As human beings we are complex, and emotional. Relationship skills would be easy to practice, if it wasn’t for our emotions. By working on ourselves, we develop our emotional awareness, our emotional muscles, and our emotional vocabulary. As we do, we find ourselves taking steps up towards healthier more fulfilling relationships, and this includes with our spouse.
By working on ourselves, we will learn to recognize our own unhealthy patterns. We are all unique and different, so these unhealthy habits and ways of thinking can be different for everyone.
Some may be domineering, controlling, and intimidating and not even be aware of it. Others are too nice, and don’t have a voice in the relationship. Some are abusive, mean and out-of-control in their anger. Some spouses can take on roles in their relationship that resemble a scolding mother and a shamed schoolboy. Sometimes we can think we are cheering our spouse on, saying, “I believe in you. You can be better!” And not realize that WE are making them worse, because what they are hearing is, “You’re not good enough for me.”
Whatever the case, as long as we focus on the other person, we are focusing on what we cannot control. Every relationship has a dance. He does this, causing her to respond like that, causing him to respond like that etc. When you begin to work on yourself, you can begin to change the dance in your relationship, which will force the other person to change their steps too.
When you begin to change, don’t expect your spouse to be excited about it initially. You are upsetting the applecart! But the applecart needs upsetting, and your changes (assuming they are healthy ones) will have the highest chance of motivating positive changes in your spouse.
My initial reaction to my husband’s affair was typical. I tried to change him too. It took me months to finally accept that I couldn’t change him, that he might not change, and that we might end up divorced. It wasn’t all up to me. I did not have control. So I enrolled myself in university and started fulfilling my purpose instead. This became the turning point in our recovery.
Where all my other efforts to change (teach, tell, control) my husband failed, when I started focusing on making me better, he got scared. Why? Because he realized that I was growing, and if he didn’t grow too, he was going to lose me. It wasn’t until I began working on myself, and quit working on him, that he started working on himself.
By working on yourself, you maximize your chances that your marriage will be reconciled, and stronger and happier on the other side.
Not every relationship is going to play out exactly the same. Not every marriage is salvageable after an affair. Not every unfaithful spouse will choose to change, even if you do everything right. By working on yourself, you empower yourself, and care for yourself, and become more attractive, and strong, and minimize your own blind spots, and engage more intelligently. This creates an environment that is most conducive to your spouse choosing to change and become better too.
And if they don’t … if they don’t have it in them … your marriage may just end in an unwanted divorce. Sometimes our lives do take turns that are not the direction we hope for. But if you’ve focused on your personal growth, you’ll be ready to make wise decisions and cope well with whatever comes your way. When you focus on personal growth, with or without your spouse, you will not only get through this, you can have a fulfilling, happy, purposeful life on the other side!
PS - I care about your situation. Please feel free to write to us at firstname.lastname@example.org We want to help you!