Many people never suspect their spouse is seeing someone else. They’ve never imagined it. They’ve never thought about what happens when you discover your spouse is unfaithful.
Infidelity is often a factor in divorce. The Institute for Family Studies reports that among ever-married adults who have cheated on their spouses before, 40% are currently divorced or separated compared to 17% of adults who were faithful to their spouse.
That underscores the devastating impact that infidelity has on a relationship.
For the cheated on, it can mean grief, trauma, PTSD, depression, anxiety and fear. Any of these can make deciding what to do about your marriage challenging. If you do decide to divorce, that process is even harder because of these emotions.
So, what can you do in the moments after you discover your relationship now involves three people? What can you expect to feel? How do you take care of yourself?
Joining me for this Conversations About Divorce is Melissa Davis, founder of AfterTheAffair.co which offers support for people looking to heal from their partner’s unfaithfulness. Listen in below or keep reading.
I had a newborn baby and a three-year-old. My best friend’s husband actually called me and told me. Then, I found some text messages and stuff. I had just decided to be a stay-at-home mother. I was nursing my baby. I was very vulnerable and dependent on my partner. I had no idea at all that this was happening. When I found out, I packed up my kids and the dog and I drove six or seven hours away to stay with my grandmother for a week.
I do not remember that week. My grandmother kept my children alive. I just took showers. I scrubbed myself. I felt very dirty. My skin was raw. All of that shame and those poor choices just leeched onto me. I just sobbed and showered constantly for a week straight.
As time went on, I found out more and more that other people were involved in. A lot of them were people I knew. I felt very afraid even more so because I didn’t think I could trust my friends that I loved.
I thought that I just wasn’t enough. I was told this as well over the years. I wasn’t fun enough. My musical taste wasn’t cool enough. I wasn’t pretty enough or exciting enough. it was a very scary, in a very isolating time for me.
Being Blindsided Is Common
Davis estimates some 40% of subscribers to AfterTheAffair either had a gut feeling (call it feminine intuition) that something was amiss but couldn’t pinpoint what, or were completely blindsided.
“I knew something was wrong,” said Davis. “For years, I was desperately trying to fix it. Be the perfect wife. Do everything. I was going crazy. When I found out, I did have this moment when I was like, ‘oh, that’s what’s wrong.’”
Being blindsided makes you feel foolish, like how you not have known? How could you have been so trusting?
“I struggled with feeling like a fool for a long time, probably three years,” said Davis. “Finally, I landed at this place where I like that I trust. I like that I love fully. I got screwed here but I still choose to love and to trust because that’s who I want to be. That’s who I want to teach my children to be.”
Is There A Difference Between A Single Affair and Multiple Affairs?
The impact of multiple affairs versus a single affair is hard to compare. Davis thinks you go through the same pain regardless.
Part of that pain is questioning your perceived reality.
“No matter how many people are involved, you’re like, ‘When I was visiting my dad in the hospital and you said you had to work late, where were you?’” said Davis.
There’s a feeling of distrust and that gets amplified each time you uncover a new lie. Davis calls it the ‘waterfall effect.’
“I think it makes it hard to repair a relationship,” said Davis. “You’re in the depths of this trauma and the shock of finding out. Yet, they’re still choosing to lie about all the details.”
The hard truth is that cheaters lie. That’s how they’ve been able to be unfaithful. And they often keep lying after the affair has been uncovered. That may be in part to protect you from pain and hurt and may in part be damage control.
“A lot of people figure out that there’s a lot of manipulation and psychological abuse going on,” said Davis. “They couldn’t see it before. They realize their motives might be different from what they first perceived as maybe being a little protective. Instead it’s like manipulative and abusive.”
Is The Affair Over?
Whether the affair is over or on-going does make a difference. The difference Davis says is trust. To be able to conduct an affair for any length of time, the person must lie. When they say the affair is over, how do you know that to be true?
Davis says that even though you’re not a detective, everybody tries.
“We go crazy and stalk emails and social media profiles. Check stuff,” said Davis. “That just feeds into that fear and anxiety. That’s a really hard place to be.”
Give Me The Details
Not everyone wants to know what being unfaithful entailed. Davis needed those details because she chose to work on the marriage. She needed to know what she was forgiving.
The downside with knowing the details is that they can trigger you in the future.
Davis recounts a story of a subscriber to AfterTheAffair.co. She had seen a beautiful perfume box in her husband’s car and assumed it was her Christmas present. Christmas came and went, and she didn’t receive the perfume. When she found out about the affair a year later, she knew who the perfume had been for. Now, anytime she sees or smells the perfume, it brings back all the pain and hurt.
You might think that fewer details is better but that has its downsides. What tends to happen then is that we make up the details and create our own fantasies and explanations.
Davis recommends against playing detective with respect to the person with whom your spouse was unfaithful.
“Going on a mission to find out every detail and stalk the other person, know what they like, what’s interesting about them, that’s not helpful,” said Davis. “It also doesn’t matter about that other person. This is really about you and your heart.“
Was Your Marriage Real?
As you start to grapple with has been going on, it’s natural to question key events and occasions and wonder what they really meant.
“In the beginning when you find out, you become a little bit obsessed with the details and the realizations,” said Davis. “That’s because for you it’s new.”
Davis did question a family vacation. Now the pictures from it are too painful. But the pain from other memories has faded. For Davis, that means that the infidelity didn’t completely erase her marriage memories and she’s thankful for that.
Who Do You Trust Now?
When your spouse is unfaithful it shatters your trust in them. When they’ve been unfaithful with people you considered your friends, it causes you to doubt your trust in everyone.
That’s understandable but it can also be harmful.
“I remember even asking my very best soul sister friend, more than once if she were ever involved with my ex-husband,” said Davis. “She said no, and it took me a while to truly believe it. I lost her because of this lack of trust with people in general.”
Davis ended up isolating herself and with a new baby, postpartum, it was easy to justify.
“I dug a hole and I didn’t come out,” said Davis. “I just truly thought everyone was bad and everyone was lying to me.”
Now, Davis can say that isolating herself was a terrible idea. Instead, reach out for support because you’ll quickly discover you aren’t the only person experiencing this. Davis created her site, AfterTheAffair.co specifically to offer this support. There are also support groups on Facebook and Meetup.
Should You Keep The Affair Quiet?
Some people react to their spouse being unfaithful by wanting to keep it quiet and not tell a soul. Other people want to take out a billboard and make sure as many people as possible know.
Davis believes if you have children you need to assess how they will be impacted by your actions.
“I think it’s best to find a handful of people you know, love and trust,” said Davis. “They’re not going to spread the word. What you say matters especially if you have children.”
If you do decide to work on reconciliation, this can be an even harder decision. Do you tell family members what’s been going on and then expect them to forgive your spouse?
Understanding your motives for telling people will help guide your decision. If you’re looking for revenge, trying to get pity, the good feelings you get from telling the world might be short-lived. If you’re looking to tell people, because you need to talk, a support group is going to be a better choice.
Should You Consider Reconciliation?
Some affairs are exit affairs. These are probably the most cowardly. The unfaithful spouse wants out of the marriage and doesn’t have the courage to end the relationship themselves. They have an affair and make it look like it’s the cheated upon spouse’s decision. In these cases, the unfaithful spouse isn’t looking for reconciliation. It’s over.
Davis estimates that people do try to reconcile about 50% of the time. It’s a very individual decision and very dependent on the commitment from the unfaithful spouse that they are invested in the marital relationship.
For Davis, she did choose to work on her marriage. He as her college sweetheart. She thought they were best friends. They worked on it for about a year, but the cheating didn’t stop.
“Eventually I had to decide,” said Davis. “I can still love this person, but I can also know that this not healthy for me anymore. This is not what I want to teach my children.”
Davis doesn’t regret spending a year working on the marriage and not being able to save it. What that time gave her was the knowledge that she tried everything to make it work. She came to accept that she could only control herself.
Should You Tell If You Know Someone Is Cheating?
In Davis’s case, she first learned of her husband’s affair because her friend’s husband told her. This is a struggle for many people. They can see the pain and hurt coming. Should you say something or keep quiet?
“I would tell every time,” said Davis. “I had a gut feeling about one of my friends and I did decide to tell her. I think it hurt our relationship. She just distanced herself from me. About seven months later everything came out.”
Davis feels that the risk of STDs creates an obligation to warn someone so they can take the necessary steps to protect themselves.
My guest for this Conversations About Divorce is Melissa Davis, founder of AfterTheAffair.co which offers support for people looking to heal from their partner’s unfaithfulness.