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

Discovery: Processing the Details of the Affair

Handling the Details: A Two-Part Series

Part 1: Discovery: Processing the Details of the Affair
Part 2: Discovery: Why Do I Want to Know?

Healing from the trauma of infidelity is a multi-step process. After the difficult step of disclosure comes yet another challenging process: Handling the details. How you address the details of the affair or addiction determines how the recovery process will go. But how do you share these details without causing your mate further pain? And after all this information is shared, how do you process it in a healthy way?

In our free First Steps Bootcamp for Surviving Infidelity, we walk couples through the necessary step of disclosure and how to understand the history involved in betrayal. If you haven’t participated in this program, I highly encourage you to do so. Below is a sample of what to expect from this free resource.


Couples need to be able to develop a common understanding of their history. With that common history in place, the infidelity becomes a part of the story of “Us.” This is what allows the loss created by the infidelity to be transformed into something new. It’s what allows us to transition from the pain of that betrayal into a new life full of possibilities. How couples handle the process of discovery determines how quickly they can develop a common understanding.

Second only to stopping the infidelity behaviors, how couples handle discovery may be the most critical factor in healing and surviving infidelity. Some of you might have already received too much information about what occurred. I’m sorry that happened to you, but I promise that in the long run, with the right help, those memories will fade. As you go forward, it’s important not to inflict more damage.

What’s the Importance of Discovery After Infidelity?

A primary barrier to couples surviving infidelity is not knowing what happened. As counterintuitive as it may seem, recovery is facilitated by the wayward mate answering all the betrayed mate’s questions. The betrayed mate, however, needs to be the one to determine whether they want to know the details and how much they really want to know.

The late-Peggy Vaughan was a well-known researcher on the topics of infidelity and compulsive behaviors. She conducted numerous patient surveys to determine where therapists were excelling and falling short when treating infidelity. In a survey from her book “The Monogamy Myth: A Personal Handbook for Recovering from Affairs," Vaughan found that 72% of betrayed spouses said they recovered from the sexual activity in the affair before they recovered from the deception. It’s the deception, during and after the affair, that creates the challenge for reconciliation.

Deception creates a sense of betrayal and damages not only the trust one has in their mate, but also the trust they have in themselves. They no longer feel they can trust their reality or intuition; they’re not even sure whether they can trust their gut about what they’re seeing and whether it’s real. By providing answers to the betrayed mate’s questions, the wayward mate allows them to find footing in their new, albeit painful, reality.

While it is possible for couples to continue living together after betrayal, they'll have trouble reestablishing a deep, trusting and intimate relationship without discovery. Before the betrayed spouse can trust their mate, they need to be entrusted with details of the affair or acting out behaviors of the wayward mate. Without this full disclosure, they might:

  • Feel insignificant and, quite frankly, foolish.
  • Hear one message loud and clear: I don’t deserve the truth.
  • Feel more hurt, disrespected and unimportant.
  • Be unable to move forward.

Why Disclose When It Seems to Make Things Worse?

The discovery process might seem like a double-edged sword for the wayward spouse. If you don’t tell, your mate is miserable; if you do tell, your mate is still miserable. The act of answering questions might seem pointless when it ends in anger and tears but, the fact is, withholding information from your mate isn't just controlling, it’s also completely self-centered.

In my experience, disclosure is one of the most critical tasks for moving forward — either as a couple or an individual. Without knowing what happened, the betrayed mate most likely won't be able to fully trust their mate again. In the absence of the truth, the betrayed mate might also encounter these recovery roadblocks:

  • Obsessively trying to connect the dots in their head in an attempt to make sense of things.
  • Writing their own version of what happened, which will likely be far worse than reality.
  • Feeling that their relationship’s history has been destroyed and, ultimately, believing that the good times will always be tainted by the betrayal.

How Can the Betrayed Mate Get the Right Information?

Until you’re able to get your mind around what happened, a part of you might continue searching for information to help understand your new reality. These answers play a vital role in healing after an affair. And until you have these answers, you might have difficulty moving forward.

To begin, you need to know the basic details of what happened. When asking questions, there are two important considerations for the betrayed spouse:

  1. Avoid comparison questions: Asking comparison questions, such as how they acted out sexually with the affair partner or about physical attributes, will just make you feel worse. Comparison questions don’t provide relevant information, but they can create painful intrusive thoughts. Please, for your sake, fight the urge to ask these questions.
  2. Limit “why” questions: As difficult as it might be to believe, there’s a strong likelihood that your mate doesn’t understand why the betrayal happened — at least not yet. Most likely, they weren’t thinking about anything other than the fact that they wouldn’t get caught. So while you want to understand why it happened to prevent it from happening again, please don’t get stuck on “why” questions.

How Can the Wayward Mate Get Through Discovery?

Discovery is tough and even scary, but it's an important step in the healing process for you and your mate. So where do you begin? Beyond having an open mind, these are the five recommendations I have for wayward mates as they approach discovery:

  1. Do tell the whole truth. More damage is done by the deception than the sexual acts, so answer their questions; it’s the only way to help them find what’s real. Infidelity is the keeping of secrets, and continued deception blocks opportunities for healing.
  2. Don’t control your mate’s response. Don’t shut your mate down when they get angry or emotional. This might very well be the most painful thing they’ll ever experience, so their emotional reactions are understandable. Be present and listen when they share their feelings.
  3. Don’t get defensive. Defensiveness manipulates and controls how your mate sees you. Rather than being concerned about how you’re being seen, try to understand their perspective. In the long run, defensiveness can create even more distance between you and your mate.
  4. Don’t minimize what you’ve done. Be rigorously honest, sharing the parts you don’t want to share. If you minimize what happened, your mate won’t believe you; if you tell it honestly, at least your mate will know you have good intentions.
  5. Don’t decide what information they need. Let your mate dictate how much information they need. Ask them what level of detail they’d like, and answer their questions. Don’t try to control your mate by controlling the flow of information.

Again, sharing and processing the details of the affair is difficult for both mates. That’s why I highly recommend that couples sign up for our free, seven-day First Steps Bootcamp for Surviving Infidelity. Not only can this program help you during the early stages of discovery, but it also offers guidance surrounding anger management, pain processing and much more. Additionally, I recommend couples continue their healing with our life-changing virtual EMS Weekend. Every month, it’s facilitated by myself and other expert therapists who’ve experienced infidelity firsthand. EMS Weekend is a safe environment to begin tackling the barriers to healing, transforming your pain and putting the pieces of your life back together. Spaces fill up quickly, so I encourage you to register for this restorative program sooner rather than later.

Registration for Harboring Hope opens monthly!

You don't have to do this alone! Join other betrayed mates on the path to healing with our life-changing Harboring Hope online course.With Harboring Hope, learn how to weather the pitfalls and hardships following infidelity and start a better, brighter chapter.

“Harboring Hope gave me the tools to confront the betrayal head-on, outwardly and inwardly, and a community of others who know exactly how I feel. I've learned how to grieve, really feel those scary emotions like anger and sadness, and allow them to transform me. I've learned what forgiveness really means and what it doesn't mean. I've learned to be vulnerable and ask for help. I've learned about what trauma does to your brain and body, and how I can create a sense of safety in my life again.” — C., Minnesota, Harboring Hope participant February 2021.

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Add'l consideration

You accurately stated "Ask them what level of detail they would like and answer their questions" under the "let your mate decide how much information he or she needs" section. I suggest this also become a #3 under the "How much do you really want to know" section as this has HUGE potential to cause issues later down the road. As the betrayed, I remember asking questions which were very detailed; and some of the answers I still can't get out of my head TEN YEARS LATER. A reasonable response from my wife might have been "are you sure you want to know?" Simply put, I can't "unknow". And some information has simply proven NOT to be useful down the road.

Disclosure

I wish my husband would read this and follow the steps. We are 6 months out from Dday, the first 6-8 weeks after my husband drank (a lot) while intoxicated he said horrible things, comparing us physically, sexually, and emotionally. The things he said were devastating and you right you cannot unhear them, they ring through my head daily. We have a therapist, although we have to been in awhile, and I believe my husband is trying very hard to reconnect. His ap lives in the same small town that we do and is in some of the same social circles. She calls and leaves nasty messages, sends letter with vulgar details and magically shows up everywhere.
When I try to get details from my husband his response is always "I don't remember I was drunk". I'm left to fill in the blanks with the details she provides. My recovery feels like a roller coaster and at times I am not sure who or what to trust. Honesty has and always will be the best policy.

the lying is what is killing me

I found out through google timeline what all has been going on, when I confronted her she denied everything, we are 100% divorcing because of that, I didnt tell her everything I knew, but I made a very strong case that I knew she was having an affair, all I wanted was for her to say yes I am, but she said no, "I could see why you are thinking that" the blaming me continued, I signed a lease that afternoon and moved out 2 days later, she disgusts me and i'm very traumatized by the whole ordeal from the moment I wake up to the moment I go to sleep, I hate her so much, I could have handled the divorce fine, but when I found out all the lying, my hurt went to another level

Still waiting...

Almost 3 years from Dday and we still haven't gotten through discovery. I appreciate the helpful topics today, I'm going to send this on to my husband in hopes he'll have an ah-ha moment. However I'm afraid it may be too little too late. All of the warnings you listed for failure to disclose are in fact accurate. I don't feel safe with him, It's been almost 3 years & I'm not even close to recovery, so many triggers and thoughts, trauma on the regs, intimacy (I don't even remember what that is anymore), I can't even remember the man that I married or what the good times were.
I feel like I'm finally at a place where moving on is the only answer, but I would still like the disclosure to help close up this wound myself and try to put myself back together. I've been in this hole far to long.

Disclosure

You are so right about having questions with no answers and then no trust. But what about continued lies? My husband just keeps lieing. He says there is nothing more with this woman, and then I find out he still sees her and talks to her, he even offered to help her move! I feel like he is holding on because he wants her back if things don't work out at home. I don't and can't trust him. Feel right now that he will never be trust-worthy again.

Disclosure part 1

All good points. But too late for me. Who knows enough before disclosure to use this information? Anyone who has not been betrayed likes will not be seeing this vlog.

Always behind the curve

I agree, we keep finding things that are very helpful, and provide great advice, but always too late, the damage is done. How to you go back and redo disclosure the right way when things already went so badly?

Discovery facts

Since the D-day whatever accounts my husband gave was layered with lies, even after eighteen months he cannot clarify most of the issues, he doesn’t want to discuss anything unless I force him, he is always looking for a good time which never comes of course. Honestly speaking I am loosing hope and interest as I believe there are lot more that he is still hiding or may be he is still maintaining his affair

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