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

Discovery: Processing the Details of the Affair

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Handling the Details: A Two-Part Series

Part 1: Discovery: Processing the Details of the Affair
Part 2: Coming Soon!

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 partner answering all the betrayed partner’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 research pioneer in both infidelity and compulsive behaviors. She conducted numerous patient surveys to determine where therapists were excelling and failing 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 destroys not only the trust toward their mate, but also their trust in themselves. They no longer feel they can trust reality or their 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 partner 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 never be able to reestablish 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 partner. Without this full disclosure, they:

  • Feel insignificant and, quite frankly, foolish.
  • Hear one message loud and clear: I don’t deserve the truth.
  • Feel more hurt, disrespected and unimportant.
  • Can never 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 partner is not only controlling, it’s 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 will never be able to fully trust their partner again. In the absence of the truth, the betrayed partner 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. There are two important considerations for the betrayed spouse when asking questions:

  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 without going through this process, you’ll never be able to fully heal. 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 any hope of healing.
  2. Don’t control your mate’s response. Don’t shut your partner down when they get angry or emotional. This is most likely the most painful thing they’ll ever experience, so emotional reactions are normal. Be present and listen when they share their feelings.
  3. Don’t get defensive. Defensiveness manipulates and controls how your mate sees you. So rather than being concerned about how you’re being seen, try to understand their perspective. In the long run, all defensiveness does is create 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 partners. 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 after betrayal. Spaces fill up quickly, so I encourage you to register for this restorative program sooner rather than later.

Registration for Harboring Hope opens soon!

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. Designed exclusively for betrayed partners, Harboring Hope guides you through the pitfalls and hardships following infidelity.

“Harboring Hope has given 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., M.N., 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.

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