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

Discovery: Part 3 - Guidelines for Discovery

Discovery: A Four Part Series

Part 1: How to Handle Discovery?
Part 2: Advice for the Wayward Spouse
Part 3: Guidelines for Discovery
Part 4: Goals for the Betrayed

A client once shared the following story with me. As always, I've changed some of the details out of respect for the parties involved:

"I watched in horror as the police subdued my partner. It was 2:30 in the morning, and I needed sleep so I called 911. I thought the police would simply tell them to give me space. When the police arrived, though, they could hear my partner's rage from the other room. They were yelling and screaming, before they eventually busted through the locked door and lunged at me. Once they began hitting me, the officer moved into action and tased them. I couldn't believe what was happening in front of me. I was only trying to diffuse the situation after many failed timeout attempts. How on earth did we get to this place?"

Guidelines for Discovery

This week's article, "Guidelines for Discovery," is the third installment of a four-part series on the discovery process. I hope it can prevent the above-mentioned situation after disclosure of an affair. Without establishing proper boundaries and guidelines, raging emotions will hijack the process and delay healing. Below, I've provided my suggested guidelines for discovery. While these are not written in stone and every situation is uniquely different, I do hope to at least help create a safe container for the process.

Remember, the goal of discovery is to make things better, not worse.

Couples in recovery need other shared experiences beyond dealing with the infidelity; they also need regular interactions and positive experiences. You can't deal with the negative aspects of the infidelity all the time, but you also can't stuff them and avoid addressing the situation without those feelings later reappearing as anger, a critical spirit, disengagement, depression, etc.

Making the Process Safe and Productive

Both parties need to make a commitment to the discovery process after the affair and commit to be safe enough for the process. Some ways to go about this include:

1. Maintaining Healthy Boundaries

Agree to no verbal or physical abuse during discovery — or ever in your relationship, for that matter — as well as not talking after 11:00 at night. Your ability to control emotions will be limited if you're tired, so try not to put yourself in these potentially charged scenarios. Also, make it a priority to have rational conversations versus emotional conversations. Agree to keep children out of your marital issues and don't talk around them.

2. Agreeing on People to Loop Into Your Situation

Try to agree on two or three safe people each of you can talk with about your struggles. Some of the best people to lean on during this time are other survivors of infidelity. Be careful not to share your story with everyone, though, as this can cause you to relive the trauma again and again rather than begin to heal and move forward.

3. Dealing With Questions as They Arise

Attempting to deal with questions at predetermined times, such as on Wednesdays at three o'clock, can be counterproductive. If the betrayed spouse has to wait to ask questions, the frustration of waiting builds, which may in turn cause the unfaithful spouse to be defensive. Dealing with questions as they arise, when it's appropriate, helps the discovery process be less emotional.

That said, only ask questions in a safe space. For instance, continually texting your mate at work or calling them will be counterproductive — especially if they have a job where it's not safe to talk.

Don't make any major decisions until you've had time to process through the information and calm down.

Guidelines for the Betrayed Spouse

1. No Deal-Breakers

First and foremost, commit to the process. Agree not to make any decisions until you've gone through the process of discovery. Don't punish by threatening divorce or threatening to have your own affair each time they tell you something you don't like. It's difficult for the unfaithful spouse to answer questions if they feel as if there's a gun held to their head. If the injured spouse wants the information, they need to make it safe enough for their mate to share the answers.

To encourage your mate's disclosure, try to not react. If you can't be safe enough to receive the information, they won't feel safe enough to give the information. For the unfaithful spouse to rebuild trust, they first have to trust you with the information. For them to trust, you need to avoid punishing them for being honest. If you've been guilty of over-reacting in the past, acknowledge your mistake and make amends. This isn't condoning what they've done, but without honesty there is no way to deal with the deception. Their willingness to be honest indicates their move toward intimacy, loyalty and commitment. Keep reminding yourself that regardless of how devastating the information, the fact that they are answering your questions is also positive in that it indicates change and hope for the future.

2. No 'Marathoning'

Most discovery questions can be answered in ten minutes; if it goes longer than that, you've started lecturing. If each question asked takes hours to answer, then it's not going to encourage the process. Letting them answer the question and then moving on helps the unfaithful spouse be more open to the process.

Try to stay rational. If emotions escalate out of control, stop the conversation. The objective is to have a rational conversation. If either party gets overly emotional, the conversation will be hurtful rather than helpful. Both parties need permission to call a timeout when it's apparent the conversation will only make things worse. When using timeouts:

  • Both agree to a timeout protocol.
  • Either party can call a timeout.
  • The person calling timeout has to say when they will resume the conversation, e.g. in 30 minutes.

Don't focus on the argument during the timeout; instead, read something and relax. When you come back, seek first to understand their perspective before trying to be understood.

Allow yourself to take breaks from discovery. If you need a break and want to go out and have a good time, tell your mate they can take you out but that nothing has changed. It's just that you need a night off. Tell them that tomorrow you'll probably go back to where you were the night before.

3. Get the Information You Need

Ask yourself two questions: "Why do I need to know this?" and "Will the answer to this question help me move forward in my healing?" If the answer to either of these questions is "no," then, as difficult as it might seem, don’t ask the question.

Limit "why" questions. Your mate probably won't know the answer. Generally, they thought no further than, "I'll never get caught." You can ask, but don't spend too much time trying to figure it out in the discovery stage. It may be months before they understand why.

Try to ask the appropriate questions. Don't ask comparison questions; they will only create intrusive thoughts.

Agree to the 24-hour rule. If a question is asked where the unfaithful spouse feels the answer would cause more intrusive thoughts, such as sexual positions, then allow them to use the 24-hour rule. They will agree to give you the answer in 24 hours, but during that time, think about it and make sure it's an answer you really want. This step is key to gaining ground in both spouses' recoveries.

Guidelines for the Unfaithful Spouse

1. Agree to answer your mate's questions.

2. Tell the whole truth and nothing but the truth. More damage is done by the deception than by the sexual acts. It's the deception that creates the sense of betrayal. Not only can they not trust you, but they can't trust reality or their intuition. They don't even know if they can trust their gut about what seems real. Please answer their questions; it's the only way to help them find what's real.

3. Cut off all contact with your affair partner.

4. When asked "why," if you don't know, then say so. Also, let them know you will do whatever is necessary to find out why.

5. Listen to what your mate has to say. If it's true, let yourself feel it; if it's not, let it pass. If you don't know, then ask others whether it's true.

6. Take note of what makes your mate anxious and do what you can to minimize those situations. Put proper boundaries in your life as proof that you're doing what's necessary to not only protect your mate but to also protect yourself.

7. Don't be defensive; rather, take full responsibility. Don't blame your mate. Bad marriages don't cause affairs. Two people can be in a bad marriage, but usually only one has an affair. That shows that bad marriage is not the cause. Bad marriages don't cause affairs, bad choices do. Take responsibility for what you've done.

8. Be patient with the process. Discovery and surviving infidelity takes time and may include times of irrationality. This process might take up to two years or longer. Don't expect your mate to "get over it." They care enough about you that they're willing to go through this in an attempt to find something new for the two of you.

9. Don't minimize what you've done. Be rigorously honest. That's the type of honesty where you share the parts you don't want to share. If you minimize it, your mate won't believe you; if you tell it honestly, at least your mate will know you're trying to be honest.

10. Let your mate decide how much information he or she needs. You really don't know what they need to know. Ask them what level of detail they would like and answer their questions. Don't try to control your mate by controlling the flow of information.

11. If they begin asking comparison questions, use the 24-hour rule. Tell them you will give them the answer, but you want them to think about it for 24 hours to make sure it is information they want.

12. Give your mate permission to talk with others.

13. Don't make the process all about you. If you become self-consumed with guilt and shame about what you've done, you won't be able to be present for your mate.

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Subtle digs on B/S

It’s so unfair (on top of being unfair) that the betrayed spouse is expected to be calm, open, receiving, without judgement, when hearing all this crap! Quit treating the unfaithful spouse with kid gloves! They deserve to take ALL the heat from their choices and then some. It’s nothing near the heat the betrayed spouse will feel the rest of their lives! And the flooding that inconveniently comes up, I’m sorry but no job is more important than to stop what your doing immediately and address the flooding your B/S is going thru. If you lose your marriage I guarantee your business life will suffer greater than you walking out of a meeting. The middle of the night flooding, so sorry to inconvenient the poor U/S who’s just so ‘exhausted’ from his life of shame. A/R could do a lot better job at defending the B/S. The PTSD is real. These guys are the U/S not the B/S and I don’t care how much you think you know. Until you’ve walked in someone’s shoes you can’t really know their pain. No man, even if he’s a OB-GYN, is going to tell me what childbirth feels like. If we’re trying to void buildup of resentment then U/S have to 100% take the heat.
God bless any B/S going through this nightmare. Maybe in 5 years you’ll have ‘2 days of peace’.

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