After an affair, you might think the first big decision is “Do I stay or do I leave?” It’s not.
Of course, we don’t really need the Game of Thrones to teach us about marriage, passion, betrayal and rage. Then again, it’s fire-ravaging dragons and iced-over winterlands aptly playout what it’s like inside ourselves when an affair first gets discovered.
Metaphorically, we’re wearing threadbare robes deep into the dark woods. And, the HBO series’ telecast of midnight terror and daybreak decapitations make the most innocent of us utter a long drawn out “Oh, hell yes.”
When an affair is found out, not always but most likely, you are too traumatized, too ashamed, too guilty, too angry, too hurt, or too depleted to think clearly.
In these first several weeks, long-lasting decisions are ill-advised, even if grabbing a sword and mounting a horse is what you most want to do.
This is because, initially, when betrayal is discovered, the brain is firing from the amygdala, it’s primal game-of-thrones state of fight or flight. It requires time for such over-activation to calm itself so you can return to your executive thinking: a.k.a., the prefrontal cortex where problem solving, rationale, and creative solutions occur.
Therefore, your first big decision is not whether you want to stay or go, it’s whether you want to sort out what just happened so you can make clearer choices.
Deciding to sort out the marriage does not mean you are deciding to stay in the marriage.
HOWEVER, DO NOT WAIT TO DECIDE:
- Where will each of you sleep during this initial fallout?
- Who is it okay to tell about the state of the marriage and/or the affair itself?
- Who will do what for the children’s daily needs and routines?
- What daily routines together are acceptable or not: i.e., morning coffee, seeing the children to the bus together, dinnertime, etc
- What daily level of affection is permissible between you: Peck on cheeks? Texting each other? Sharing the bathspace? Sex?
- How will you handle contact from the affair-partner or their spouse—typically, this will occur so it’s helpful to be prepared.
TO SORT OUT THE MARRIAGE OR NOT
Whether you’re the betrayed partner or the involved partner, wanting answers and relief feels more intense than a stampede of dire wolves. Sorting out the marriage doesn’t feel like you’ll reach the heart of matters fast enough. One epic fight ought to do it, right?
Supposing not, couples who seek professionally trained guidance fare better with their final decision than those who go it on their own: in one study, 72% of those who thoughtfully sorted out an affair reported healthy resolve, compared to only 31% who hammered it out by themselves.
To help you along, here are a few questions (albeit very heavy-dose ones) to help you through whether or not you want to sort out the marriage, before deciding whether to stay or leave.
FOR THE INVOLVED PARTNER
- Is the affair deep lasting love or something else? This one is tricky to really know. The brain experiences taboo love differently than a marriage. MRI’s reveal that secret love lights up the brain in the same way as addiction does. Idealization occurs more with secret-lovers than everyday spouses. 20% of affair partners marry. Of those who marry, 25% remain married. Carefully sorting out your own unique experience will be meaningful.
- What did you see in the affair partner that you think might be currently missing between you and your spouse?
- What parts of yourself did you like/dislike in the affair? In your marriage?
- How far are you willing to go to re-establish that your spouse is your only partner? For instance, knowing your whereabouts, having no passcode on phones/emails, limitations on opposite-sex friendships, etc. This can feel like a loss of autonomy for you, but “knowing what is going on” is requisite to healing trauma and loss of trust. Is this something you want to adopt?
- Would you be staying in the marriage out of guilt? Pressure? Fear of being alone? Finances? Belief that the children need you married? Conversely, are you wanting to leave the marriage out of shame?
FOR THE BETRAYED PARTNER
- How understanding is your partner about your trauma and pain?
- How willing is your partner to own and allay the loss of trust with new behaviors and changes?
- How truthful or open have both of you been about other things?
- How likely will you be able to work through and, eventually over time, let go of the pain, resentment, and punishment?
- Would you be staying in the marriage because of pride? Pressure? Fear of being alone? Finances? Belief that the children need you married? Usefulness of your spouse? Conversely, are you wanting to leave because of hurt? Punishment?
FOR BOTH PARTNERS
- When else in your life have you had to rebuild a relationship or situation? What do you imagine it will be like working through this present challenge?
- Visualize your values and hopes. How on par has this marriage been to these? How confident are you that it can rise to these?
- To what extent is your partner your best friend?
- How does your partner like to receive love? This exercise might help.
- What do you appreciate about your partner? Be specific.
- What are you afraid of losing about your partner—not the children, not the lifestyle, but your partner?
- When was the last time you and your partner laughed together? Did you laugh when you dated? Did you enjoy the wedding? The honeymoon? Why do you suppose you stopped enjoying one another?
- When was the last time you and your partner talked about future dreams, those both sensible and fanciful? What were the dreams you talked about when you dated? What were the conversations on the honeymoon? What went unsaid? What got shot-down?
- Recall the past using photos to get a more accurate recollection. What do you suppose changed? When?
- Which of the following might you be willing to contemplate about yourself: differences in common interests, in sexuality, in drinking habits, in socializing, in career-drives, in a child-centered versus couple-centered marriage, in over-benefited versus under-benefited, in rigid versus flexible patterns, in compassion versus righteousness, in conflict-avoidant versus conflict-patient, in admiration versus distractedness. . .
HOW LONG WILL THIS TAKE?
Again, first give yourself some weeks to allow the eruption of emotions to calm. Focus on containing further destruction and damage.
Thereafter, when you and your partner are more calm and open, recovery and sound choices can take place. Typically, this takes anywhere from three months to three years. No, this doesn’t mean it’s dark this whole while, progression and many happy times usually occur. It’s more like there will be relapses. But with guidance, they’ll feel less and less toxic over time.
Relationships and people come with pre-existing factors that make affairs more likely or less likely to occur, as well as more or less likely to fully recover from. A trained couples-counselor can help you decipher these factors so you can make healthy choices going forward.
Equally important, post traumatic stress disorders (PTSD) are highly common in the wake of affairs. Severe grief occurs, whether a couple stays together or not. If you can, choose a professional counselor who is trained in the interplay of trauma and attachment theories (a.k.a., emotional bonding); they will be equipped with strategies to get you and your relationship through this new dynamic.
WORTH THE WORK
Without statistics, couples often thank the bad experience of the affair as the impetus to openly honest and vibrant lives, ones they never thought possible. But, again, be sure your therapist is skilled, unbiased and steeped in the contemporary facts (not opinions) of couples dynamics and affairs. They might know Game of Thrones, but do they know Esther Perel and Dr. Shirley Glass? Baucom?
If not, you could have the right relationship, but the wrong therapist. And, I’m guessing you’d rather reserve the dark ages and slayings for the G.O.T. film writers—so, you can find modern love and laughter again.