Beyond “Should I Stay Or Should I Go?”: Take Time To Pause After Your Partner’s Affair In Therapy
In my NYC therapy practice, I frequently see people who find out their partner had or is having an affair feel like they are in a tailspin. While you may (or may not) have suspected the affair, the shock is often overwhelming and painful. It leaves you with a whole lot of questions about how to move forward.
The first impulse is typically to draw conclusions that honestly can’t be drawn yet. “Should I stay or should I go?” is the question that immediately comes to mind. But, this isn’t an easy decision and requires more than a quick fix. After discovering your partner’s affair, it is important to pause and therapy can be a good place to do this, with a third party (i.e. the therapist) that can help guide you through this tough time. Like my previous post on questions for people who had (or are having) affairs, here are four questions I find help people survive their partner’s affair:
What Are You Feeling After Discovering Your Partner’s Affair?
While affairs may be talked about more than ever with articles, podcasts, TED talks and more devoted to the topic, the pain of finding out your partner had an affair is real. No matter how you found out, whether through their phone or email, a friend who saw them with their lover or your partner told you directly, it can be a painful shock. You’re usually trying to wrap your brain around both the fact of the affair and the corresponding pain. You might be seething, fearful, sad or enraged. A lot of people I see in my therapy practice struggle to just express how they feel, paralyzed that the affair happened in their relationship and scared about what might happen next.
Being cheated on can feel extremely isolating and you can’t go it alone. Dealing with the pain alone makes it more likely that you will make moves that are reactive rather than thoughtful. You may need to unpack what happened and how you feel with someone, like a therapist, a friend, a sibling or a confidant, before you react. Of course, it can feel vulnerable to lay out the situation and your feelings with others, but in my practice, I find sharing can cause relief.
When working with people whose partners had affairs, I do a lot of holding the pain, shock and bewilderment with them, as well as crisis planning to get them to a place where they feel safe to talk about what happened. For instance, say, you found out about your partner’s affair, but you’re still hiding this discovery from them. Together, we can help you put down the texts and emails and feel the pain first. After this, you can get ready to talk to your partner about it.
What Has Been Going On With You And Your Relationship?
Often in our culture at large, our natural impulse is to work toward a solution or end goal. But with affairs, sometimes it’s better to take a second option: Step back, give yourself and your partner some space and take time to look at your relationship with both your partner and yourself.
It should be said that this isn’t an easy type of healing. After discovering your partner’s affair, you’re in pain. But it is important to look at that pain rather than letting the pain lead. Pain sucks and it’s messy, but looking at yourself individually and within the relationship helps you see missteps and misses.
It can be helpful to reflect on your current relationship, as well as your past relationships with friends, family and exes. Often, in therapy, we discover patterns of behavior in these relationships, such as ways you may have been distancing yourself or not pushing hard enough for what you needed. Maybe neither you nor your partner were communicating your needs or taking time to work on the relationship. Or maybe you were angry and you’ve been angry with your partner and/or yourself for a long time. You stayed away from this anger because of a past trauma or a desire to make the relationship work at the expense of voicing your feelings, needs, or desires. By being curious about your relationship and yourself, you can better make the next move for both you and your relationship.
What Do You Need In Your Relationship And How Will You Get It?
After the crisis has settled and all the fires are out, I often ask, “Now what?” While there cannot be a totally clean slate in your relationship after an affair, it’s important that both partners look at where they want to move forward and how. Do you want to help each other? Build a life together? Expand your relationship beyond its original rules and capacity? Or say goodbye?
While it might be critical for you and your partner to live separately for a bit after an affair, meeting a couples therapist can provide an opportunity to talk these questions out with your partner. You can have space to say, “Hey–we suck at this or that” whether it is communicating your needs, wants or feelings, or asking more of your partner.
In couples therapy, you can tackle tough questions like: What did we learn? What do we need to move forward? What do we need help with? Perhaps you need more conditions in your relationship. Or maybe it’s important for you to abstain from sex until you feel safer and you talk about how to do that in a way that is not resentful but proactive/protective and thoughtful. Maybe you need help talking openly about the affair without demonizing your partner. Or maybe you and your partner discover you both find monogamy limiting and need to talk about exploring an open relationship together. Finding out about an affair can indicate that rethinking your relationship is something both you and your partner need. A good therapist can raise these questions in a way that is curious rather than solution-based.
What Do You, Individually, Want To Develop Out Of An Affair?
Your partner’s affair doesn’t just signify something for him or her, but it also means something isn’t working or is stuck for you. Beyond the decisions you need to make in your relationship, it’s important for you to take stock of everything post-affair to see what is and what isn’t working. Rather than merely existing or going back to the status quo, you can take time to think about what you want and the myriad of ways you can build it.
Whether you decide to stay and work things out with your partner or leave, it can be helpful to consider what you want to develop individually, whether making changes in the way life looks for you day to day, your career, your location, your relationships or your family. For instance, an affair often signifies we are not only stuck in our relationship, but in our location. New York, in particular, can be a tricky place to live in that we are constantly recreating our relationship with it. Do you need to move on and distance yourself from your partner and their affair? Do you want to invest yourself here in a new way? What does this mean for your family?
I also encourage people whose partners had affairs to look at who stood by, and helped them work through and manage the pain. Who do you want to build more with now that you’re not in crisis mode? It’s easy to get locked in relationships and become isolated from friends, relatives, your partner and yourself. This makes you miss opportunities for growth or change. Looking at who helped you get through your partner’s affair is really important so that next time you find you feel stuck, you know to who to call, such as your friend, sister, brother, aunt, sponsor, therapist, etc. This way, you can develop through the pain to build a support system that works much better.