An extramarital affair does not have to end a marriage. There exist couples who have faced this crisis and clawed their way to forgiveness and reconciliation. They are born into a new identity. A new, healthier marriage.
In 30+ years of my career, I have personal knowledge of 14 such couples.
OK, the numbers aren’t great.
So, can we learn from these uncommon couples? Do they have things in common? Absolutely! Let’s start with the offending party, whom I shall call “The Wanderer.”
The Wanderer comes clean. A comprehensive confession, once, finally and for all. Success rates go way down when Wanderers confess in 8 percent to 12 percent increments over four to six months. When the only available path to truth is for the betrayed mate to play district prosecutor, when the offended party is obliged to play a never-ending game of “20 Questions” in hopes of acquiring a full deck of cards … well, this does not bode well for success.
The Wanderer provides a quiet, sober and humble audience for outrage. Maybe two to three audiences and one matinee in that first two weeks. I don’t mean the Wanderer allows violence or threats of violence. Nor does the Wanderer allow indiscriminate tirades of degradation. But, come on, your mate is gonna need a reasonable period of time to be royally and righteously angry.
The Wanderer is willing to behold the agony of the beloved. No dancing on this one. No making it about you. No bolting out of the house saying, “I just can’t take this.” No being pathetic. You stand there. You see and feel your mate’s pain. Your mate deserves this.
The Wanderer categorically severs all contact with the extramarital dalliance. Now. Immediately. By phone. None of this, “I’ve got to go over and tell him/her goodbye” nonsense. None of this, “But we work together … I’ll have to have contact.” You don’t stop the sex but then keep texting, e-mailing and phoning. Want your marriage? Sever all contact.
For a period lasting on average 3-12 months, the Wanderer agrees to regularly forfeit, without complaint or indignation, claims on trust and privacy. When the betrayed mate expresses fear, insecurity and suspicion, the Wanderer does not take umbrage and protest,
“You have to trust me or we can’t get past this!” The Wanderer does not get defensive and say, “I can’t apologize for this for the next 10 years!”
Who said anything about 10 years? I said, on average, 3-12 months.
If you want to save your marriage, then, for the next 3-12 months you’ll abandon the chip on your shoulder that wishes you could get out of this with three Hail Marys and a Caribbean cruise. The Wanderer adopts a posture of contrition, humility and empathy.
He/she is hungry to account, grateful to answer questions for the third, fourth or 11th time.
Not forever. Not for 10 years. But for a while. 3-12 months is reasonable. In some ways, a light sentence.
Absent the chip on your shoulder, the healing dialogue sounds like this:
Wanderee: “I could barely breathe when you were late from work. I was sick to my stomach. I kept imagining you with her/him.”
Wanderer: “I’m so sorry you have to be in this pain. Of course that’s what you imagined. I should have called. What do you need from me?”
Wanderee: “Are you still seeing her/him?”
Wanderer: “Thank you for asking, sweetie. No. I’m not seeing her/him. I’m yours. I’m committed to this marriage. I’ll never be that man/woman again.”
Wanderee: “I’m afraid to trust you.”
Wanderer: “Of course you are afraid to trust me. I haven’t been trustworthy. It’s going to take time for you to trust me again.”
And, lastly, the Wanderer maintains a commitment to self-respect. Of course you won’t spend the next 10 years begging for forgiveness. Of course you won’t tolerate unending mistrust, suspicion, derision and withholding of sexual courtship. If, after 12ish months of good-faith efforts, the betrayed spouse is still punishing and harping and snooping and anxious … well, then you’ll make your own claim:
“Forgive me, trust me, love me … or leave me. Because if you can’t forgive me, trust me and love me, I’m going to forgive myself, trust myself, love myself and go on.”
Next week, we’ll look at a game plan for the betrayed spouse, whom I call The Wanderee.
(Steven Kalas is a Nevada author, therapist and Episcopal priest. He writes a weekly column for the Sparks Tribune on the art of being human.)