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

Denial and Recovery After an Affair

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Ever been afraid to look at something? For instance, when you rear-end someone's car and are afraid to get out and look at the damage? Why is it hard for us to look, to acknowledge what happened and assume responsibility for our part in it? As Tim Keller says, "Love without truth is sentimentality; it supports and affirms us but keeps us in denial about our flaws."

Why Owning What Happened Is So Hard

Years ago, I had the privilege of working with a program called "The Deniers' Project." A certain percentage of people convicted of crimes, who are guilty, never admit they did it. You can imagine how difficult it is to provide treatment for someone who never admits they have a problem, or who never admits that anything even happened. The goal of the program was to try to get these individuals to own what they had done. (They had already been convicted, so there was no danger of them getting into any more trouble.)

One particular exercise stuck with me. On week six, we'd have them watch footage from the British Broadcasting Company of the Allied Forces entering a Nazi death camp. By far, this is the most disturbing film I've ever seen. Just the sight of what these soldiers encountered made the men in the group physically ill. Then, at the end of the film, I'd give them their homework. They were to go home and write an essay explaining what they would do if they were forced to watch that video daily for eight hours.

Inevitably, the answers were surprisingly similar. They said they would begin to think of it as a horror film, something such as "Friday the 13th." When asked why, they would explain how it would be far too disturbing to live in that reality on a daily basis. When I'd point out how that was denial, they'd say maybe so but, regardless, the alternative was just too awful.

At that point, I'd explain how denial is one of God's greatest gifts. Without denial, it would be difficult indeed to maintain our sanity. Some realities of life are too horrible for us to handle. Denial temporarily provides protection from the realities we're not ready, or equipped, to face.

Why We Have to Face It All Eventually

As you're probably aware, denial isn't just a problem for convicted criminals; it's something that many of us experience on a daily basis. As the wayward spouse, if I were able to fully comprehend the devastation caused by my actions, it would be more than I could handle. If we had the ability to be totally honest with ourselves, who and what we are as well as what we have or haven't done, it would be a huge jolt to the system. Life graciously allows us to not experience the full weight of realities all at once. That being said, the only pathway to healing is one of honesty.

There was a reason why that program was established. We knew that if they were never able to face the reality of what they'd done and what they were capable of, then it was almost guaranteed that they would do it again. I'm sure none of them wanted to continue hurting people, but denial was also the mechanism that might allow them back into the pattern of destruction and offense.

Whether after an affair or another hurtful situation, if we're not willing to take the steps to explore who we are and accept what our actions have cost others, we won't be able to find the solution. Instead, we will remain stuck in denial, trying to prove that we're not what we actually are. When couples attend our EMS Weekend:

My first question is NOT, "Do you want to save your marriage?" What I want to know is, "Do you want a better, more extraordinary and meaningful life?" If so, we must summon all our strength to get honest with ourselves first, then with our spouse.

How to Break Free From 'Pretend Normal'

"Pretend Normal" is a term we use at Affair Recovery. It's less about how we present ourselves to others, and it's more about our refusal to see ourselves as we truly are and to admit what we've actually 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." We then set out to prove that reality, even to those we've betrayed and violated.

Pretend normal sounds like this:

  • 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 happened?
  • What would we think if we were really honest with ourselves about our actions, our selfishness or our lack of character?
  • How will I ever deal with my spouse's issues if I let on that what I've done trumps all their weaknesses and flaws?

After an affair, it's much more comforting to focus on the actions and defects of others than it is to face our own pain and trauma head-on. To move forward, however, you've got to accept your situation in order to get through it. Denial does not lead to healing.

What True Recovery Is All About

W.H. Auden says, "We would rather be ruined than changed. We would rather die in our dread than climb the cross of the moment and let 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. But if I truly want to heal and change, I must be willing to face the consequences of my choices. Recovery is possible but only by grace and a willingness to be honest.

Especially after an affair, recovery takes:

  • Accepting our weakness — not proving we're strong.
  • Being honest with self and others — not pretending we're normal.
  • Showing humility and brokenness — not pride or self-loathing.

Please note: When we self-loathe or remain under condemnation for our actions, we're still thinking about ourselves and making our own self, rather than those around us, the center of our universe. Not only that, but it's adopting a victim instead of a victor mentality, which just isn't conducive to true recovery after an affair.

Again, don't be afraid to be honest. Whether you're the wayward spouse or the betrayed spouse, you'll find it's better to be truthful than to hold on to false illusions about who you are or what your relationship is like. Honesty creates opportunities to get healthy, first for yourself and then for your family or spouse. Once you stop living in denial, you can begin to build the life you've always wanted.

If you're ready to start the process of diffusing denial and initiating an infidelity-specific protocol for your recovery, I'd like to invite you to start our Free 7-Day Bootcamp Program. Let today be the beginning of a new, hopeful chapter after an affair.

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Our Emergency Marital Seminar Online, better known as EMSO, isn't a one-size-fits-all program for couples. Over decades of experience exclusively in the field of infidelity, our methodology has been honed to better serve couples as they address the betrayal, reconnect as partners and restore their lives.

"I just finished EMS Online a few days ago and those 13 weeks ran so fast. It would have been impossible for me to move forward if it weren't for Affair Recovery's help. Your course should be mandatory for couples before they get married, and it is a blessing for those, like myself, who were in desperate need of help. Thank you, God, for putting Affair Recovery on my path."
— EMS Online participant | June 2021.

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Comments

My husband and mother both

My husband and mother both committed adultery many years ago (not together) and neither have ever come to grips with the pain they have caused me. The only way to get along with either of them is to play normal". They become very angry/stubborn if I do anything else but that.

11 months plus and no honesty

My husband is still in denial though I have tons of proof. Two of our 3 daughters will not speak with him and he still holds on to his pride. He says he wants no divorce, loves me, and wants to grow old with me yet nothing resolved--he wants to brush it under the rug. He prefers to stay in the basement rather than being honest and putting our family back together. My mother-in-law says I need to forgive and move on because she did. He has a passive aggressive personality I have discovered. This is a nightmare. Holding on to the promises of God is the only way I can live from day to day. I have ask him to move out so we both can get a break. So far nothing. The only emotion he shows is anger and he still just wants to hurt me for not taking him back as is. Thank you for the article. Any tips would be appreciated. How long does it take for these stubborn and prideful people to recognize the need to take responsibility and accountability for what they have done. I am sure you have had experience with these characters. Help Help

Denial

As the guilty party in the affair, I am finding it difficult to live with what I've done. Not a one time thing, but a lifetime of brokenness resulting in deceit, poor choices and resulting addiction. By God's grace, I'm walking out of this with my wife along side me, but not before I've wounded her more deeply than I imagined possible. I've told her that it is hard to live with myself, but I'm stuck with me. I likely haven't faced all of my sin and brokenness, but as the article says, by facing what I know, it's allowing me (and her) to heal. Thanks for the encouraging words, Rick.

I have to say that your doing

I have to say that your doing the right thing. It's so important for your wife to heal and also you too. Everyone gets hurt by affairs there are no winners.
Doing the right thing and owning what you did is the beginning. Many unfaithful partners will never admit. You have to get evidence which is soul destroying to do. You build a trust in a marriage and I didn't like having to go around spying.
One day I remember I broke down on my knees and said your not been fair to me or our son. If you love her just go please, I know your having affair. I can't take the games any longer. He held me and looked straight into my eyes and said " if I could be with a beautiful 26 year old right now don't you think I would be rather then coming home to you" you see this woman was flirting with my husband at work she only had to click her fingers he would go running. She was using him and he thought there was more too it. How I found out about their affair she rang him at home while we were all playing games with our children. I saw the panic in his face when his phone rang. He ran out of the room, so I followed. He was like a squirming cat. When he finished on phoned I asked who it was? He told me it was a nutty woman from work. He started been so sweet and charming and bought me flowers. I knew these were guilt presents.
I had access to his phone,computers and everything. It didn't take long to find proof.
The lies hurt more then anything.
You doing right by your wife is so important but don't ever be tempted again. Otherwise she may not forgive you.

Thank you, Rick!

Thank you, Rick! In my humble opinion, denial is not applicable only to the unfaithful, but also to those of us who remained faithful to our spouses. For me denial has been buried deep within my sole for far too long in the form of childhood trauma. While the indiscretions of my spouse are not excused by my denial of facts, I do accept full responsibility for my own “denial.” I FINALLY have the courage to speak of these atrocious acts inflicted upon my inner child without fear and with the hope of healing. If it had not been for an affair and subsequently a trip to Affair Recovery, I would still be imprisoned by this secretly submerged inner pain of childhood suffering. I still remember the first words you spoke at the weekend, “we are here to save lives not marriages,” to which I initially thought what a waste of good money. Well I had no idea what God had in store for me, but if it had not been for A.R. my path would be entirely different from the one now laid before me.

Thank you

Funny, this hit me to as the faithful spouse as well. I have lived in my own denial of how my spouse's actions, even before the affair, made me feel. I realize I probably checked out emotionally long before, due to other circumstances that are no relevant here. I also realize I am in denial now of what I want, but my spouse sees it everyday. He tells me I do not care, and I try to for my daughter. As my father was unfaithful, multiple times I must say, and my mother stayed until I was grown I feel some sense of duty to my daughter. I have also been in denial that I am holding my spouse too an "it will happen again" feeling that probably would not be fair, but based on how he is with women, I just can't shake the feeling. I have to accept how I feel, as if I continue to deny it, we can't move forward.

See the Reality!

Thank you for your article. They have been a big help for me and my marriage. I always come back after a few days to read the comments at the end of the articles. They are usually a great help to me because they put a personal touch to the discussion. Late last year my spouse had an emotional affair that was short but intense. In fact, it was overwhelming and surprised her as it happened. The affair ended when it was discovered by the AP’s spouse. The AP immediately ended the affair and all contact. My spouse was unprepared for the emotions and the loss, as was I. We have been able to put most of our relationship back together. Some days are better, many are emotionally horrible. The thing that holds us back is her refusal to honestly face what has happened. I do not fault her for the affair, something like this has happened to many people and we can overcome this. Quiet honestly it could have happened to me, I am as weak as she is. My feeling is that it has happened, we can survive, let’s deal with it, and make our marriage better. Currently we are surviving and seem to be making the marriage better. I do not feel that we have openly dealt with what has happened though. We will not be able to move forward until there is acceptance into what has happened. The AP was able to end it and put all of his energy into repairing his marriage. My spouse has not been able to face that she was capable of an affair. This denial has allowed the AP to remain in her heart. I am not sure if she does not want to let go or if she does not want to face what has happened. Either way, this has hindered us from moving forward and putting this behind us. As you mentioned in your article, you are guaranteed to repeat the action unless you can face what has happened. My spouse keeps tabs on the activities of her AP and his family. She has also developed a relationship with another man but has not acted on it as far as I am aware. The denial of the affair has left the door open for a repeat affair. She feels that she is not meeting with them so it is ok. The quote from W.H. Auden explains where we are in our marriage. If we are not careful, our marriage will fail because we are unable to face the denial and see the reality. The fear of facing what is in our hearts is more valuable than saving a fifteen year marriage. She will never be honest with me when she can not be honest with herself. I need her to focus on our relationship, face what has happened, and put it behind us completely. Until, in her heart, she is willing to put the affair behind her we will not move forward and it could possibly end our fifteen year marriage. I pray that we see the reality.

Its still there

9 months and counting.....he still won't discuss the second EA with his married coworker, what little he HAS told me rings untrue. I have saved all communications from texts to emails to phone calls on my computer and can now see that I have given him dozens of chances to come clean and try to work on our marriage within those months. I feel that there will be no honesty from him. All those times I begged him to tell me, sobbing my heart out, all the times I threatened to leave, all the times I told him if he couldn't be honest, then I could never trust, respect, or believe him again. And he still chooses to stonewall. I am physically ill from the stress of it all, the lack of sleep, the weight loss, and the utter humiliation and loss of self esteem that this has brought. I forgave him the first time, even when he didn't come clean, because of my kids. This time all of my questions have led to verbal abuse, physical intimidation, and outright fear of him. A month ago, I felt that I could no longer take it, and I chose to move out and be separated. His denial and lace of honesty and taking responsibility for his actions-- for this long-- makes it hard for me to ever believe that this marriage can be saved. How can I ever believe anything he says again, ever trust him again, ever respect him, or believe in him? This is the second time with the same woman! I read about how important it is to save your marriage, recover together, and rebuild, but those people have CS's that are remorseful and are willing to do the hard work to make their marriage work. Mine won't. What am I supposed to do when that happens? I am now just trying to take care of me. That's all I can do. Maybe I'M in denial that he even truly wants the marriage to work. Maybe he just wants out and wants me to be the bad guy by filing for divorce first and is hoping that if he stonewalls long enough, I will give up and file. I just don't know......

I am going through the same things with mine.

I am going through the same things with mine.

withered, dry, and dead

Four years ago I discovered, again, that my husband engaged in another round of adultery. In past years, I had not held him accountable when I learned of his affairs. I had the twisted idea each time that he would change, that the deceit would end, and his character flaws would be transformed. I finally breached the barricade of my own denial that a husband could purposely and willfully do the terrible damage he did. During these four years, he has maintained that he has been faithful and true to his marriage vows; all a lie. The evidence to the contrary is extensive, even including a court deposition about another matter but that contains testimony of his adultery. I slowly righted my world and untangled my thinking, and as healing truth was unchained, I finally recognized what was the truth. I will no longer deny my right to personal dignity. My husband has embraced the denial of his serial adultery so completely that I think he halfway believes it himself, or he "doesn't remember." But inconvenient truths expose more than surface dirt when they are unleashed. The more my husband denied his serial adultery, the more our marriage relationship withered; trust, essential in a marriage, was slowly strangled The marriage became dry and brittle, and is now on its death bed. Divorce is on the horizon because I no longer care about my lifeless marriage. My anger, pain, and devastation are nearly all gone; swept away by truth that at first was so hard to see and accept. It may be a bumpy road, but truth does set you free; denial enslaves. So, thank you Rick. You voiced what has long been in my thoughts. I am sad for all the things that are lost, but truth is a sweet, bonny companion.

Denial

I enjoy all your articles and couples comments....I have been dealing with denial my spouse who left to be with then women who he had the affair with....everyday I struggle to get pass this ...it is the saddest part of my life...I cry everyday and yet I try to move forward everyday...like walking in muddy water....I deal with rejection ,fear , anger , i do go for counseling and wish one day I could wake up and say I am happy ....we had a loving home family and a great life...everyone is shocked by this nightmare....but as I explore I see this is common everyday ....I do feel moral compass are missing in everyday choices ....I am sad but I won't play the victim ...it has made me face reality....which I wish I didn't have to face ....I guess it is a journey of truths ...and I want to come to my truth of happiness....thank you for your articles they are truly inspiring and I am happy to see couples do the work ...I am only sad that my husband felt he was more important and not the shattered life's of his family ....thank you and god bless .....

denial

Yes the term "pretend normal" perfectly describes that state of my marriage after discovery of husbands affair/s that he basically denied never happened. I have been living this lie for 9 months and after reading your article have realized that it's nothing but smoke and mirrors to keep me under his control. We are the poster family for pretend normal dysfunction. After discovering suggestive texts messages on his phone, we have (I thought) worked to improve our marriage. Initially we had very little discussion about it because all he did was deny or downplay events. He still claims that he never met with her in person-ever over a period of at least 10 years-I don't buy it but I have been unable to gather concrete evidence. However JUST TOO MUCH circumstantial evidence and knowing what I now know I can see the red flags every where in our past. I wonder if there have been others? how many? Maybe this has gone on the entire marriage I just don't know. I have forgiven him for the past (the one I know of) indiscretion, admitted my part in the break down of our marriage, worked hard to improve all that I had neglected in our marriage and basically we never are to speak of it. He continues simply to deny, lie and gaslight me further.
Reading your article has helped me to see why I can't move further especially in the area of working- I want to work always enjoyed it. Here I thought that we were going to survive this affair, since we are still together, but knowing that his actions really don't match his words and the lack of responsibility, remorse, empathy, respect, transparency have left me worn and broken. He takes no ownership and simply cannot see how his actions/inactions have the walls getting ready to crumble around us. I had hoped that once we got to a better place together, I acknowledged that I had areas that needed work, that he might slowly see the light. But i'm beginning to wonder if that can ever really happen (prefers the façade of a "pretend normal" for everyone to see ). Funny thing is after years of not loving him, I have fallen in love with him again and don't want to give up 20 years together. It could of been so good because where I was weak he was strong and vice a versa, but he would never "let me in". I thought we could make this better -with all of this out in the open (well not really because basically no one knows of affair) that we could of worked together finally but I have my doubts. I wonder if he ever truly loved us. Thank you Rick for your article I plan to read every word you've written. I can't believe I haven't found you before as I have been glued to my computer, reading and writing since D-day. I pray for us all!

Living with spouse’s denial and lies

Thank you Rick for well written and truth in denial article. It validates my feelings for 2 1/2 years. Denial by spouse has kept me stuck, us stuck. Cant do it any longer. Will copy and give to spouse right away. He is doing some “right” things but after years of betrayal and lies, it is hard to trust him even now. God bless you Rick. I pray for you, your entire team. EMS is God working thru all of you.

Denial

Very insightful. The main question is how to get her past it

Deep in the denial trench

I wish my runaway husband could find the courage and the honesty to overcome his denial. Reading this would be a start but I am too afraid to even send it to him in case he ignores the content as he has before and it feels like rejection all over again. I'm not even sure I want to save my marriage anymore, but I would like him to face up to the reality of the pain he has brought upon the whole family, especially our wonderful children.
I certainly identified with the idea of the pretend normal. He pretends it is normal that he just packed his bags and left because he wants to "be happy". He pretends it is normal to forget his son's birthday, normal to visit home from abroad where he now lives with his affair partner and not attempt see his children, normal that he should have no further responsibilities towards his family because his life was "stressing him out". If for no other reason than our children's well-being I so wish he would take the first step away from denial and towards healing himself and his relationships with them. Meanwhile in my non pretend normal world, the cold hard reality is that he has abandoned me, our children and the life we built together and I can't deny or avoid the day-to-day responsibilities that come with his choices. Frustration and sadness go along with a determination to build a new life for myself and my family. Thank you for all your resources, even though it appears reconciliation is not on my husband's bucket list!

Fascinating

Rick, How can one be so smart as you are? I know, because God has revealed Himself to you that only you and He would understand. It's been 5 1/2 years since my husband of 26 years began an affair and I held on for 2 years hoping he would be brave enough to admit to something...anything. An apology would've even been something. Nothing still to this day. Denial. I will not cast stones as somewhere inside of me, I am denying something that I don't even know what it is merely because I'm human. The battle is the Lords, not mine. Therefore, I am accountable to God for myself and I will keep moving my feet until the scenery changes. Please pray for me and my 3 daughters who long to heal inside. Thank you Rick for teaching me and so many others who need your work.

how do i know for sure it is denial

I am absolutely alone in my situation. No one to discuss. Therapy is not common here , in India. So I wish what i deduce from my situation could be validated somehow. My husband had / is having an emotional affair ( but I have reasons to believe that it could be physical too ) since 21/2 years with his student 25 years younger to him. Since then and more so now, he just blames everything on me. Once our daughter left for college after summer break, only me and my 11 year old son are here. So no one else to correct him once he behaves unreasonable. He is rude, gets angry all the time, comments on house being too cluttered, dirty ( i am not a home maker and it is not my responsibility entirely ) - says he will shout ' if the need arises' and ' i will throw things ( of my son ) if they are in the way as he has reached his limits of tolerance ' etc. I feel it is abuse. I am not seperating because I hate to have my children in a house without a father. But my husband threatens me with ' i will leave soon ' very often. I just dont know how to deal with this. He behaves ' normally' according to him the next moment as if he was never rude. He is in complete state of denial. He asks me not to preach to him. Says he will do what he does otherwise he will leave.I think this is just unacceptable, immature and inappropriate behaviour towards me and our children. What does it seem to you ?

Denial

I have lived with denial from my wife for 5+ years after discovering her affair with an old HS boyfriend reunited through fakebook. Three years of trickle truth and I'm certain there is more never disclosed. The other day during a serious discussion over a disagreement, she turned contemptuous, often the case, and stated seriously "I never wronged you in our marriage". Unbelievable. Is that level of denial possible? Any wonder we're still struggling with recovery.

Living with Denial

Dear Team, thank you for your amazing informative information, this has helped me so much coping with what I am experiencing. I have been married to a cereal cheater for 33 years (yes ...33) He would get caught out, I would want to leave, he would beg forgiveness and always promised to change, only to go deeper under cover and the whole process would repeat itself! Yes, I feel stupid to admit that I forgave,believed and stayed every time. He is a very likable, lovable, viby outgoing, successful man. I had to always scrape myself of the infidelity tar road myself, with no help or guidance, as all he would do, is say sorry, lets move forward and be an even more loving kind wonderful husband than ever before and this behavior convinced me time and time again. Until last year, the last time for me. I realized that he actually killed every emotion inside me, I feel absolutely nothing for him anymore, I could not even cry! I got the divorce papers ready just before Covid 19 lock down struck SA. We were all of a sudden stuck together in a home 24/7. I told him about the divorce, I explained how I feel ... to absolutely no avail, Either selective hearing or the eye opener for me, is that he is in total "denial" and "acting normal" and tells me that he is going to fix it all, we are going to be ok, he is a changed man, he is even planning our immigration to the UK together? This is emotionally exceptionally draining for me as I am quite reserved and not a fighter but I just cannot seem to get thru to him that it is more than over between us. I have asked him, every time he romanced another woman, did he ever think this day would come that I will walk away? Obviously not because I always forgave him! He is now more than willing to admit to anything I want to know, more than willing to apologize and acknowledge but I am not interested to know anything, I played PI for too long in our marriage and just want out. I gave him a few of your videos to watch and he even agrees to it everything and understands, but will never out of his own seek help or watch more videos.
Bottom line, I want to thank you all at Affair recovery for the amazing work you are doing, if only I found your site in my earlier years I would have been better equipped emotionally.

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