Below is a snippet of a seminar follow-up conversation with some participants. Our Healing from Affairs seminar includes 6 follow-up sessions done over 12 weeks following the seminar. I thought this snippet would be really valuable for everyone healing from affairs. I hear the comments and questions posed here, often.
There are 3 stages of disclosure:
The first stage is an adversarial truth-seeking inquisition. There is usually a lot of animosity going on in this phase. This is the phase where the unfaithful spouse feels like they are on trial, and that they are being attacked. While it is a normal phase we go through, and of course, there ARE going to be heightened emotions when working through an affair, this adversarial, accusing phase is not beneficial for healing, beyond the fact that it allows the betrayed spouse an outlet for some of the anger, and there does need to be room for this release.
As betrayed spouses we are going to let out some emotion, and letting out some emotion is a good thing, but if we are stuck there, it is not good.
Neither do I condone any unhealthy, abusive or damaging expressions of anger.
The second stage is more of a neutral information seeking. In this phase we are able to take all the emotion out, and then we are able to really start getting the facts.
The third stage is being able to cooperate together in a healing exploration, characterized by an empathic search for deeper understanding. In other words, you want to be able to get to a place where you’ve taken the animosity and heightened emotions out of it, and you are now cooperating together, on a search together, healing exploration with empathy, and a search for deeper understanding, and that’s where your breakthrough lies. Real healing can only take place when you get to this third stage.
Nonetheless, every couple (who makes it) will go through all 3. Knowing that is helpful.
Carrie: I like what Anne shared, and I feel like I’m kind of at the point where I want to have some empathy, but I’m still also very angry. I assume those steps overlap, or you go back and forth, you take a step in, and then step back out?
Anne: Yes, they can overlap, and yes, you can step in, and then step out, depending on how things are going with your mood. There are all kinds of things that can influence your mood, and how you engage difficult conversations with your spouse. Even things like; how well you have or haven’t slept the night before, and if you’ve eaten properly or not. Don’t underestimate the power of how biophysical factors influence our behavior. Developing self-awareness helps, because sometimes we are not even conscious of the fact that we are hungry or tired. Other things you’ve had going on in your day can also be a factor. For example a mother with small children, if she has a good day with the children, or she gets a break, she will be better able to engage a productive healing conversation with her spouse. If it’s been a difficult day, the children had tantrums or something, then affair conversations will be much harder to engage productively (even though you might think you’re fine).
Carrie: One thing I’ve found helpful in my therapy is learning about the meanings I’ve been attaching to my husband’s affair, which is hard, because it does feel like I was unwanted, rejected, all this stuff, but it has been the “meaning” I’m attaching to it, which was getting in the way of me having empathy for my husband. Because of the meanings, I was attaching, I was feeling anger and hate.
Anne: That is a huge revelation for you, and I want every betrayed spouse to hear this, because this is something I am continually working with every betrayed spouse on. I am constantly coaching people with regards to THEIR meanings and interpretations of what happened, because those are often inaccurate. That’s your world as the betrayed spouse. But if you actually want to know what happened for your husband in your husband’s world, you’ll have to BE in your husband’s world (meaning you set aside your interpretations and meanings), and actually listen to what they are telling you about THEIR experience, and what it meant for THEM).
Along these lines, we as betrayed spouses often ask questions of our unfaithful spouse that are almost impossible for the unfaithful spouse to answer accurately, because the question itself implies something that isn’t true.
For example, a question might be, “Why did you dismiss me and have an affair?” That’s actually not usually what happens. The unfaithful spouse is not usually dismissing their spouse (in their heart) when they have an affair. Instead they are usually compartmentalizing, and they are not thinking about their spouse in that moment. Most of the people we deal with are very much in love with their spouse, even though they are engaging in an affair. That’s difficult for us, as the betrayed, to comprehend.
I could simplify this even further. A betrayed spouse might ask the question (to their unfaithful spouse), “Why didn’t you love me any more?” Well, how does a person answer that question if in fact they did love you the whole time? You see what I mean? We ask questions that imply something that isn’t even accurate.
I don’t know if a betrayed spouse will be able to avoid asking such leading questions, but if you become aware of it, you can choose to allow your spouse to really own their truth. That is important.
To every betrayed spouse, I want to encourage you. You are on a healing journey. It takes time. This is not about you forcing yourself into stage three, when you are not ready. But being aware of these stages can help you to move to stage three faster, because we can develop the ability to recognize when we are not being empathetic. “I feel crappy after that conversation we had last night. Hmm. Maybe I’m not engaging this like I should be.“ And that’s when you start to have your breakthroughs.
Lisa: You say we shouldn’t ask, “how come you didn’t love me anymore?” because most likely they did love us. But Love is a choice, and when the unfaithful spouse chooses to go outside of the marriage, they are not choosing to love you anymore, and that’s really a hard thing to comprehend. Having an affair is not loving somebody.
Anne: Their behavior is not loving towards you.
Lisa: It’s a choice.
Anne: It depends on how we are using the word love. When it comes to the word love, the English language is inadequate, because there are so many different contexts where the word love is used.
When we ask, “Why didn’t you love me anymore?” We are implying that they didn’t have feelings of attachment to us anymore. That they didn’t want to be with us anymore.
Lisa: But love isn’t a feeling. Love is a choice. You choose to love or not love. It’s not how you feel.
Anne: Yes, that’s true. But this is what I’m saying: We use the word “love” in many different contexts. And you’re right, genuine love is a love that puts the other person before yourself. Genuine love is committed. Genuine love never fails.
At the same time, we also use the word love to describe feelings. When I say, “I love Brian,” I might be referring to sacrificial love. I might say it at a time, when I don’t feel “in love” because I’m hurt, and I’m choosing to do something kind for him, because I love him. However, most of the time, when I say, “I love Brian,” I’m using the word in the context of feelings.
There are many different contexts of the word love. We say: I love bacon. I love my grandkids. I love God. I love to go skydiving. All of those contexts have different meanings. What happens is we are so emotionally hijacked as betrayed spouses that we cross over the meanings, and add wrong interpretations. So all I’m saying is be careful of making a judgment about what was in your spouse’s heart.
Lisa: I guess I look at it as, if I did that, choose to go outside my marriage, than I must not love my husband.
Anne: That’s exactly right.
Lisa: I could not have an affair, and still say, “I love my husband.” So that’s the problem.
Anne: Yes, that’s the problem. Because you are interpreting your husbands behavior through your own filter.
Lisa: Well, hello, that’s love.
Anne: These are interpretations that we make. If you want to understand your husband, you have to go into his world. People do not think alike.
Brian and I now (from a good place) laugh with each other constantly because of how often one of us will say something, or experience something, and we have totally opposite interpretations.
When Brian and I go to training courses together we often take notes. If you hold my notes from the very same workshop where we sat side by side, next to Brian’s notes, you’d think we were in two different courses. I look at Brian’s notes, and find myself saying to him, “You are absolutely kidding me! That’s what you got out of this course?”
So if you want to understand your spouse, you really need to listen to what they are saying, leave your preconceived judgments aside, and ask probing questions instead.
Instead of asking, “Why didn’t you love me?” (A leading question) It is better to ask, “What were you feeling towards me, when you engaged in the affair?” (An open-ended, probing question, that allows your spouse to tell you what they really were experiencing – not your preconceived idea.)
When we say, “Why didn’t you love me?” we are making a judgment about our spouse’s inner world that we actually don’t know.
Lisa: But they have to let you into their world. If they don’t it’s a huge problem.
Anne: A husband (or wife) is better able to let you into their world, when you stop judging them. Asking, “why didn’t you love me?” is judging them that they didn’t love you.
Another example, where the same principle applies comes to mind:
Let’s say a mother loves her small toddlers with all her heart. (Most do). She would probably sacrifice her own life to save them (if a gun man showed up in her home). Yet on a particular day, for whatever the reasons, she “looses it” and screams irrationally at her children. Perhaps even hurtful words that can cause life-long damage to a child, such as, “you kids are ruining my life!” She may have even read in her latest parenting or psychology book, how damaging this is and she knows better. We could judge and ask, “Why doesn’t she love her children?”
But she does love her children! However her behavior and values are not in alignment. (And who knows what she is feeling or thinking in that moment). She is behaving without integrity. Has she stopped loving her children? Of course not! Is she behaving this way, because of something her children did. Her children’s behavior could be a trigger, or they could’ve been behaving nicely when this happens. Her reasons could have nothing to do with her kids at all. (She is over tired, hungry, sick, stressed about something else, just had a fight with her husband, is sub consciously treating her kids the way her mother always treated her, and isn’t even conscious of it now – just to name a few possibilities.)
This doesn’t excuse the mothers behavior. It was emotional abuse, and she was wrong for doing it. She could’ve found a better way to cope with “her” stuff. And she could even have found a better way to cope with bad behavior from her children, if it was a contributing factor.
So it is with your husband or wife who had an affair. Having an affair is NOT a loving action, but it doesn’t mean they stopped loving you. (They may not love you. They may not even know how to really love, because they weren’t given that gift growing up.) But most of the people we see who have had affairs, genuinely love their spouses, even though they acted so unlovingly.