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

Why Couples Fail After an Affair: Part 2 - Not Getting It

why couples fail no empathy

Series: Why Couples Fail After an Affair

Part 1: Not Knowing What Happened
Part 2: Not Getting It

A few years ago I threw my back out. In my wife Stephanie’s defense, this was the first time and both of us were unaware of the seriousness. Stephanie had helped me get into bed, called the doctor, and made a run to the pharmacy to get some muscle relaxants. Apparently, the longer I lay in bed, the worse my back got and when I finally decided to go to the bathroom, I found it almost impossible to get out of bed. Fortunately I was able to use the nightstand, the door, and the countertop to hold myself up as I inched along. I was quite proud of myself for successfully making it to the bathroom, only to make a startling discovery; I couldn’t get off the toilet. I yelled for help, but Stephanie was in the living room talking to a neighbor and was unable to hear me. Because she didn’t get the seriousness of the situation, I ended up on the toilet for almost 2 hours.

You can imagine when Stephanie finally came in to check on me that I was quick to let her know the seriousness of my condition and informed her that we now had a bigger problem since both of my legs were asleep. Her delay in checking on me was the result of her not understanding the seriousness of my situation. I look back on that day with amusement.

There is nothing funny about an unfaithful spouse failing to understand how their actions have affected their mate. One of the primary reasons couples fail when dealing with infidelity is the unfaithful spouse not “getting it.”

They Just Don’t “Get It”

Empathy is imperative when it comes to healing the wounds of betrayal. When the connecting bond is broken in a marriage, the betrayed spouse experiences something like a primal panic. It’s as if someone had struck them in the chest and knocked all of their breath out. Initially, all they can think about is getting that next breath. When first dealing with infidelity, the thought of placing themselves back in a situation where that wounding could occur again seems ludicrous. Yet, over time (if the unfaithful spouse shows remorse and is willing to do whatever it takes to one day be safe again) they might consider reconnecting. However, one very important step needs to occur before that can happen. The betrayed spouse needs to know that their mate understands the pain the betrayed is experiencing and that their spouse is grieved over what their actions have cost the betrayed. Anything short of that leaves the betrayed spouse wondering whether or not their mate really cares or even wants to care.

Early on, what we call the ‘want to variable’ is vital. If they want to get it, and want to get healthy, it will provide a safe foundation too slowly but surely, move forward in hopes of eventual restoration. There are not guarantees in the pursuit of restoration however there are markers you hope to see if there is going to be forward momentum in the recovery process.

Why The Betrayed Keeps Bringing It Up

Until the betrayed spouse believes their unfaithful spouse “gets it,” they experience an internal pressure to keep talking about it until their mate understands. Many unfaithful spouses interpret this behavior to be a tactic to shame them, torture them, or manipulate them. The betrayed spouse actually has the opposite intent: they continue to ask questions in an attempt to heal their wounds and to actually reconnect again. If the unfaithful spouse will accept responsibility for their self-centeredness and dysfunction early on, their spouse will feel safer earlier and begin to grieve. Oddly enough, this grief will pave the way to begin the ultimate healing process.

Alternatively though, when the unfaithful spouse remains hardened and self-centered, justifying their choices, the betrayed spouse is stuck and can’t even imagine a healthy marriage. It just doesn’t feel safe if their mate doesn’t care enough to empathize with them and feel their pain. It also doesn’t feel safe if the unfaithful spouse continues to refuse to talk about their choices or the impact of those choices upon the heart and life of the betrayed spouse. It’s human nature to want to know that we exist in our partner’s mind, that we matter to them and that they will be there for us. After a betrayal however, the hurt spouse no longer feels their presence in their mate’s mind. Only the emotional intimacy created through genuine empathy is capable of one day reestablishing that broken bond.

Unwilling To Process What Has Happened

It’s very often I come across an unfaithful spouse who tells their mate to just get over it or “I don’t want to keep talking about this anymore.” And, while they may try to take responsibility for what they’ve done, their unwillingness to process what happened and their unwillingness to consider what their actions have cost their mate leaves their mate feeling paralyzed, unimportant, and unloved. In this type of situation, the unfaithful spouse communicates that their discomfort is more important than the pain their mate experiences as a result of their betrayal. There is hope for healing and reconciliation, but a willingness to try and understand the impact of the betrayal is essential. If you happen to be the unfaithful spouse, I’d encourage you to open your ears and to commit to the long haul of healing. Listen to your mate and try to understand what your choices have cost your mate. Your willingness to put yourself in their shoes will go a long way in helping them know it’s safe to reconnect with you.

While the thought of working through what may be years of hurt, pain and sorrow seems impossible, it doesn’t have to be. Our EMS Weekend continues to prove itself as a safe alternative to the agony of what recovery looks like without a plan and qualified guide. Take for example what one woman said after attending one of our EMS Weekends.

“Coming in I didn’t think there would be anything that they could say that would make me change my mind or my husbands who has been in denial for over 15 years. I’m leaving today more at peace with myself and in shock that we both have hope. I know it’s not a guarantee and that we both have a lot of work to do, but it’s a chance I’m willing to take after being here for just 3 days.”

I hope you’ll consider getting expert help for what you and your spouse are facing right now. After working with couples in crisis for over 30 plus years, I assure you, it’s not as hopeless as it seems. 

 

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Comments

How do you show understanding?

This is so true and I've seen the need my husband has for me to understand and be empathetic. It's taken a loooong time for me to be bale to listen to his pain without breaking down in crying and begging spells. Besides listening to his pain and responding with "you're right" or "I;m so sorry I did that to you" how else can the betraying spouse show empathy and understanding?

Empathy

You can show empathy by listening, reflecting back what you heard and asking questions about their pain. "Is there more about that? Can you explain more about that? How are you today? Do you need me to listen? I'm interested in what you are going through. Etc"

Exactly how I feel

I found out about my husband's affair two years after it began. It's been another two years. He finally ended the affair and in that time of separations I thought I had healed. Now as he really is empathetic I am the one with constant fears and insecurities. We had this discussion just today how I need to feel safe because of his reluctance to end it I can't believe he's real now though his actions I see prove other wise...i really do feel stuck.