Rick Reynolds, LCSW
by Rick Reynolds, LCSW
Founder & President, Affair Recovery

Why Couples Fail After an Affair: Part 3 - Hiding in Denial

Series: Why Couples Fail After an Affair

Part 1: Not Knowing What Happened
Part 2: Not Getting It
Part 3: Denying Your Reality
Part 4: Failure to Grieve

Have you ever talked till you’re blue in the face trying to get someone to see his or her reality, but to no avail? I did just tonight. Sandy is an attractive 32 year old mother of two. She and her husband recently reconciled after her husband discovered her involvement in three affairs over the past 3 years. She’s adamant that she’ll never cheat again, but refuses to give up her male friends and Facebook account where she made all of her connections. She’s also insistent that she be allowed to have her privacy. When her husband tells her those relationships concern him, given her past history, she says, “You’ve just got to trust me.” When I asked her why it was so difficult to give up Facebook and the passwords to her email account, she said, “I just want to be normal. I know it’s been a problem in the past, but if I have to give those things up, it proves there’s something wrong with me, and I know I won’t do it again.”

If you can’t accept where you’re at, you’ll never get where you’re going, particularly after an affair.  Nothing hinders our journey to wholeness more than denial. How can you safely go forward if you can’t first accept the problem and then take action?

On our wedding day, I said to Stephanie, “I promise to be faithful to you and to have faith in you, trusting your loyalty to me and proclaiming our love to the world.” If you had asked on that day if I’d ever cheat on Stephanie I’d have been insulted and told you I’d never do that. So why, after I cheated, would I believe my own propaganda when I’m swearing I’ll never do that….again?

Here is my reality. I’m a person who sincerely promised to be faithful till death do us part, and then managed to cheat on my wife. If I could do that once, what would keep me from doing it a second time? Good intentions? Will power? A new promise, even though you broke the first one already?  If I’m to accept my reality, I have to accept the fact that I’m the type of person who says he won’t, and then does. Thinking I can do better the second time after an affair because I’m going to just try harder may produce an illusion of security, but it does nothing effective or reliable to prevent the inevitable.

Albert Einstein said, “No problem can be solved by the same consciousness that created it.” Until I can change how I see the problem (and the problem is me, what I’ve done, and what I’m capable of) I will never be safe for my wife. Until I can accept the reality of my own defects of character I’ll never get where I’m going. If the right help is attained, we can find hope as well as a plan to find movement and clarity for both spouses.

Just in case you think I’m only talking to those of us who have been unfaithful, please think again. We're all capable of getting trapped by denial. My mate is never my problem; my mate just reveals the problem in me. Notice, I didn’t say my mate doesn’t have problems. I said my mate’s problems are the thing that will most likely reveal my problems. If you want to see your own defects of character, all you need to do is examine your reactions to your mate’s bad behavior. Hopefully, you’ll have the courage to accept your reality.

When couples fail after an affair, it’s typically about one or both parties failing to change how they see themselves, their spouse, and/or their situation.  It’s their inability to accept their personal reality, which, as Einstein would point out, leaves us with no viable options for a different outcome.

The one thing I know beyond a shadow of a doubt is that people affected by infidelity are closer to experiencing the extraordinary life they’ve always wanted than ever before, but the only currency they can use to get there is their illusions. You must exchange all illusions of having a different reality to obtain a better life. Denying your reality only leads to more of the same.

“Pretend Normal” is a term we use at Affair Recovery. It’s not as much about how we present ourselves to others as it is about our refusal to see ourselves and to admit the actual ramifications of what we’ve done. We don’t want to accept the realities of our limitations or our defects of character. We prefer to live in denial and pretend that we’re “normal” and we set out to prove that reality. I’d much rather prove I’m something than accept that I’m powerless and incapable. Who wants to be honest and admit what they’ve done or how they’ve acted? What would people think if they really knew? What would we think if we were really honest with ourselves about our actions or lack of character? It’s much more entertaining and comforting to focus on the actions and defects of others than it is to swim through our own inner cesspool.

W.H. Auden says, “We would rather be ruined than change. We would rather die than climb up on the cross of the moment and have our illusions die.” That certainly holds true for my life. The last thing I want to do is look past my denial and honestly face my reality.

If you’re serious about finding an extraordinary life after an affair, begin with finding a new lens though which to see yourself and others. Here are my suggestions on how to gain a new perspective:

1.) Get involved in a pathway to recovery that is both objective and experienced. Join a small group that deals specifically with this problem. This might sound frightening, but after over 30 years of treating infidelity I can tell you there’s absolutely no better way to gain new perspective. I was able to learn far more about Stephanie and myself by listening to other couples and individuals who were addressing the same issues. (For more information about groups read The Power of Small Groups.)

2.) Find a mentor or a sponsor. When I met my mentor, I was blind as a bat to my own reality. Healed individuals are vital guides in this process. They may not be perfect, but I’m pretty sure they’ve already made the majority of mistakes I’d like to miss. Learning from another’s mistakes after an affair might take a little humility, but it’s worth the effort. You can usually find a good supply of these people at most 12 Step meetings. Our mentors sometimes serve as group leaders in our Harboring Hope, Hope for Healing, and EMS Online courses and are willing to not only lead but share their experiences with the group.

3.) Another way to gain perspective is to read the stories of others. If you can’t talk to them, at least you can find stories of others who are like you and the lessons they learned after an affair. When Stephanie and I began our journey, the first point of hope I found was in a book that shared the story of an individual who could have been my twin. I had always felt like a freak. I couldn’t imagine there was anyone like me. Until I read that story, shame prohibited me from even acknowledging my reality, much less accepting it. My only caution is to make sure the stories you read involve healthy individuals. Another resource for stories on the AR website is the Success Stories.

4.) EMS Weekend…..

If your best efforts got you here, what are you going to do next? If you find yourself at a place you never imagined and you weren’t trying to blow your life up, I’d invite you to consider that maybe there is more to your reality and the unfolding consequences around you than you may realize. I hope you’ll take the time to search for your own pathway to healing and recovery which will benefit not only your life, but the lives of all those affected by your choices. Every great book has a bad chapter, but it doesn’t have to define the entirety of your life and story.

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Comments

Hiding in Denial

Thank you for this article. It has truly opened my eyes to see some things more clearly. It has been three years and as many marriage counselors since I discovered my husbands affair. Not much has changed since that first day.

He believes telling me it will never happen again should make me trust him and heal my heart and when I explain why those words will never fix our problems,he becomes defensive and tells me I am living in the past. He has told me several times since I discovered his affair, that he has no life or friends because I refuse to let us move forward. How can we move at all when he lies about little things and only makes small changes for a week or two and then it is back to the same stuff?

More often than not, I am thinking about divorce because he is stuck in the whole I am doing better frame of mind because he lives in a constant state of denial. All of his misdeeds can all be summed up to these three things:

1. You are making to much of this.
2. I promise I will do better.
3. I lied because I knew how you would react and I didn't want to argue with you.

As far as I know, the affair ended the day I know told him I knew but still I feel all of the issues that led to the affair have not been addressed because he keeps saying it was once in a life time mistake. He is a good guy and husband and he will never have female friends again so it won't happen. Staying away women is not the answer and is unrealistic. When will he ever see that he is the problem?I am at the end of my rope .Can anyone help me?

Your denial piece - perfect timing

Thanks for driving home what my H and I have been trying to deny for the past 4 years - that he is still vulnerable. For 4 years, he has been faithful. Over the past weekend, in a very vulnerable situation where he was tempted, even though we had discussed the possibility of this situation and a "game plan" to avoid it, he slipped. All the promises of the past 4 years and my naive belief that his promises were valid, the "impulsivity" monster reared its ugly head again. I asked one of my counselors once "When will we be healed?" and she responded "Your marriage will always be in recovery." We both realize that now. I am empowering myself to leave the relationship if need be, and he has begged for more individual therapy, as well as learning more about himself. We will see. But I realize we both have to be ever vigilant, not unlike an alcoholic who can remain sober for years, but then relapses. He's a good man inside, but he does have a weakness if opportunities arise. I appreciate the reminder that we have to continue facing reality and never get lax about our relationship. I truly think there are many good people out there who desperately want to do the right thing, but don't have the emotional tools to do it. Thanks so much for your wisdom and suggestions.

Question

My spouse (the betrayer) and I have done all the above steps. He is still in denial -- 17 months after confrontation. I had hoped by going through counseling, EMS, Harboring Hope, group talks, and mentoring that we would be recovered or at least on the way to recovery by now. However, he is still hiding information and will not share it with me. I abhor dishonesty. I am a person that needs a complete timeline of who, when, where, and what was said. His refusal to give the needed information indicates to me that his committment to working on our marriage is not genuine. Until I get all the info I need, I remain in this limbo and cannot move on, forgive, and start rebuilding my life. He keeps the pain front and center for me. I fear becoming an embittered and resentful person, but I cannot let this go and keep my own self respect. I did that once already. And he had a second affair. This was the second time with the same woman! What do you suggest we do now.....after all this has already been done?

Karen 58

I too am in a similar situation - he wants to sweep everything under the rug and continues to deny what he has done. He is bound and determined to make me the reason he was inappropriate. I have had a cross to bear because his ap is present in his daily life and they have conversations nearly every day and I am sure I don't know half of the interaction.

Margie

I understand how you feel,Margie. My husband works with the AP also. He says he gave her up, but they can communicate on their company phones and company computers and see each other daily. I have no way of monitoring this or knowing for sure that he doesn't talk, text, or be around her every single day. Based on his behavior at confrontation and after, I feel that he deletes anything between them immediately and then dumps the trash, so nothing is on his phone for me to see. I wish I could believe him, but after 17 months and no desire to tell me the whole truth about their relationship, the only way I will begin to believe him and be able to move on now is if he takes a polygraph. He refuses to do that. So I know he is hiding something. I have begun to emotionally distance myself and prepare for a life on my own. I cannot live with a person who does not want to do whatever it takes to heal our marriage and continues to withhold information. It's gone on too long and I want my life back, with or without him. The three counselors we have seen only want to start from this point in time and move forward. I cannot do that and sweep what happened under the rug. I did it once, stuffed my feelings, and moved on --- and he proceeded to have another affair. I will not be able to do that again.

I could have written exactly

I could have written exactly this! My husband says these three things to me regularly!

What type of affair was it?

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