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

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

Series: Why Couples Fail After an Affair

Part 1: Not Knowing What Happened
Part 2: Not Getting It
Part 3: Denying Your Reality
Part 4: Failure to Grieve

A few years ago I threw my back out. In my wife’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, but 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.” 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, but over time (if the unfaithful spouse shows remorse and proves they can 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 and that they are grieved over what their actions have cost their mate. Anything short of that leaves the hurt 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 to slowly but surely move forward in hopes of eventual restoration.

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 or manipulate them. The betrayed spouse actually has the opposite intent: they continue to ask questions in an attempt to heal their wound and to connect 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. This grief will pave the way to begin the ultimate healing process. Alternatively though, when the unfaithful spouse remains hardened and self-centered, 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’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 empathy is capable of reestablishing that broken bond.

It’s very often I come across an unfaithful spouse who tells their mate to just get over it. 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. Listen to your mate and try to understand what your choices 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 safe alternative to the agony of what recovery looks like without a plan. Take for example what one woman said after attending our EMS Weekend in February

“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 years, I assure you, it’s not as hopeless as it seems. 

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Another Great Article

You explain very succinctly why, even though my husband does do some things that indicate he is remorseful, I feel no emotional connection to him. I don't feel he's safe because I have no evidence that he understands how he hurt our children and me. He has no idea what it takes to simply look at or live with him knowing all the ways in which he deceived, manipulated, and deliberately hurt me. For many weeks and months, I asked questions for the exact reason you state. I wanted to get the truth, I wanted him to face up to what he did and acknowledge the ways in which he hurt our family. I wanted to be able to heal from this and find some way to re-connect. Unfortunately, that hasn't happened and I'm very close to moving on.

I feel the same

Kimmi, I feel the same. After 15 months post D-day, Harboring Hope, and EMSW, I STILL don't feel that he understands the damage that he has done. He even can't understand why he and his AP can't still be friends!!!! After all, they have worked together for almost 25 years and she "listens" to him. Everytime I look at him, I see her. She is always on the date with us or the dinner with us....I can't look at him without seeing her - the proverbial "elephant in the room -- but on the date". After his two emotional affairs with her, I fear a third one, and when I ask questions, I get verbal and sometimes (although rarely) even physical abuse.I have never gotten a face to face true apology, he gets mad and verbally abusive when we talk about it over 30 minutes, and i'm just getting weary of it all. I want peace in my life. I want her out of our marriage....if there is any marriage left to save. I, too, am having trouble with reconnection...I'm frightened of giving up my heart again and trusting and then having him go back to her yet again. He obviously has a strong connection to this woman to go back to her a second time. A third time is a real possibility. So I cannot allow myself to emotionally reconnect either. Too risky. So sad that after being high school sweethearts and being married almost 36 years , it has now come to this. Until I see some kind of real remorse, a real apology face to face instead of texting it to me, and real actions that indicate he is through with her for life and wants ME, then there will be no cracking that 6 inch thick cement wall that I erected around my heart. It's going to take a long time to break down that wall...if ever.

Thanks rick

Great article, this is such a vital component for the healing process of the betrayed for the current relationship or one in the future. After attending EMS and trying to work through my ex-wifes infidelity for several months, she couldn't leave her AP and decided to leave the marriage. Despite all the professional help that we received and the effort that I put in to work through it, she was unable to understand the pain that she inflicted through her selfish actions. This was even more apparent to me after we met to sign some of the final papers and she showed up WITH her AP. I'm so sad for her and I hope she is able to heal from the wounds she has experienced in a timely manner to get back on the right track. If you are the unfaithful and you want and deeply believe that you are called to be with your current spouse, then terminate all contact with your A to have a fighting chance at healing together. If you don't feel that way, then be an adult and own it, quit inflicting the pain and leave your spouse to let them heal on their own. It's one or the other, anything else is selfish and inhumane. Rick you are AWESOME... Thank you for the help during this devastating time.... you are a blessing.

So on target

It has been 5 years and I still judge myself that I am not letting go and haven't forgiven. When reading this article though, it hit the nail on the head. I don't believe my h gets the damage. He hasn't aided in my healing process and refuses to participate in the forgiveness process. He has said that he believes I am trying to shame him and gets furious with me and that is not my intent. I am trying to come to a resolution in my own mind but because my h doesn't provide safety and that he gets it I have fear about fully giving myself to the relationship again. You have articulated perfectly what I have been unable to. Thank you.

The whole crux of the matter

Hi Rick:
Yes, you have eloquently expressed the basic issue which is at the heart of every healing journey after infidelity. I wish someone would film a PR spot about the devastation of adultery, not only to the spouse, but to families, communities, and society at large. Lack of awareness and empathy on the part of the spouse who betrayed are the two biggest obstacles to healing. Over the past four years, my husband and I have had to struggle with this very problem. He finally "gets it" now, but it was a long time coming, and sometimes, we still have to revisit it. It has taken courage, patience, and a tremendous amount of consciousness-raising on both our parts to recover from what should have been the "swan song" of our 30+ year marriage (ie the discovery of my husband's 10 year affair, and over the next year learning about many other betrayals over the course of our marriage). Only through thousands of hours of mutual honest reflection and tremendous motivation, plus articles such as yours to validate what I was feeling, were we able to move forward. One technique I found helpful was the use of analogies that my husband could instantly understand, e.g. when he said something like "Oh, that one phone call to [my AP] during our anniversary trip was hardly enough to ruin the whole memory for you" - I would respond "That's like saying 'Oh, someone ripped a small hole in Mona Lisa's eye - hardly enough to ruin the whole painting!" He got that. Another - I would ask him if he ever would consider slapping me, punching me, or stabbing me multiple times in the back. He was horrified I would even bring up such a thing. Then I gently expressed that what he did was the emotional equivalent. I think this analogy hit him hard in the gut, and he began to "get" my pain. But as I said, it's taken thousands of hours of talking things through. I feel for all the wives and husbands out there whose unfaithful spouses are reluctant to talk about it genuinely and honestly. Again, thanks for your wonderful article, Rick. It's sorely needed.

Thanks

Your analogies are excellent. Thanks so much.

How long is too long

Even I am sick of hearing myself repeat the same requests, in different words, over and over. It has been about a year since d-day and I still do not feel that he "gets it." I have stopped explaining. He does not want to live in the past, talk about the past or explore any part of anything uncomfortable.

After an exceptionally brief and to the point summary of the affair, he was done volunteering information. If I asked questions, he would answer with as little comment as possible; most times yes or no. I would make guesses based on the small tidbits and ask more questions with short responses. And so it continued for a little while until I ran out of questions.

Since then, I have been focusing on making myself a better communicator and creating a relationship safe for opening up. Every once in a while I will ask for further discussion. The response is either, "ask me questions and I will answer" or (with a sigh and eyeroll) "I have told you everything already."

The trickle of information and lack of participation has left me feeling unsafe. It still feels like a hidden part of his past. Even though I was there, I was not and feel I will never be part of that time in his life. He treats it like a square - OW, AP, husband, wife - except he is trying to be two corners; not possible. It can only work as the triangle it was and he has to merge the two parts he played. If he can not come to terms with it, how can I?

It leaves me wondering if he is going to share what he considers uncomfortable information in the future. There is the idea that he will just keep me in the dark again until I find out for myself, once again. He does not realize that sharing would hurt me so much less than anything he told me. It would actually go a very long way to helping restore trust and the bond we once had.

Deliberately was ran over

"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..."
I felt like I had been deliberately ran over (struck) by my husband. He plotted, lied, and struck me while I was not paying attention. Instead of helping me, my husband started ranting and blaming me for his choices. He then proceeded to tell me that I could not talk about how much I had been hurt, that I could not ask him questions because it made him feel "bad." After finding out, I was in shock. Who expects the victim that is laying on the floor to be considerate to their "attacker," is unnatural, we are in self-preservation mode. We are in need. We need reassurance that we are safe. I got all the love and support that I needed from family and friends.They held me while I cried, they were the ones I called when I was bombarded with triggers, I bonded deeper with them because of this crisis. I think if my husband had been willing to be there for me our marriage could have survived this affair, but my husband's inability to help me feel safe has made his presence obsolete in my life. He dismissed opportunities to show compassion for my pain and improve our relationship.

Thanks Rick

Thank you so much for an encouraging word of Hope. I unforunately was unfaithful to my dear wife many times over the short years we have been together and married. I never got why she would always ask the seemingly same questions over and over. I started to before i read this article, but somehow this article just made it that much more clear. I have always wanted to be open and help the healing of our marriage, but sometimes it was hard and sometimes it still is. Though each time I read another article of yours I feel new inspiration to push forward and keeping going, for my wife, for our son, our marriage and us as a couple.
I know so many times when my wife has tried to talk to me I've gotten that exact way, shut off and defensive. I have to say to any that betrayed a love one, it may seem like the best course of action to protect yourself, but it is NOT. When it happens step back and think about the extreme pain that your betrayed spouse must be feeling, than looking again at your own pain of embrassment or whatever. It should show you that your temporary embrassment is nothing to the pain you cause your spouse. So than let the truth flow and open up to your spouse. It is easier said than done, but when you do, it makes the healing that much easier for both of you. You will also feel much better about it after. Society has made us feel like men cant make emotions, but excuse my language, that is bullshit. A real man is not afraid to show emotion be it fear, tears, sadness or whatever else. Your spouse wants to fix it with you so make it easier on both of you and open up to them. I did it and it still hard sometimes and i want to shut off but i force forward and keep open and it has made it so much easier.
Thanks again Rick

Spot on

Thank you Rick. This is where I found myself. I am the betrayed spouse totally committed to working forward on our marriage. My unfaithful husband has been wonderful and has done all the steps to partner with me on this. It wasn't until I read this article that I realized that I was backsliding in my recovery because of this very subject. In addition, the Anonymous writer here wrote such words of humility and transparency that helps. Man! Thank you both!!!

Great article again, I

Great article again, I identify completely, have told my Husband so many times that I don't think he gets it at all. We do not talk, he thinks it is useless and frustrating for us to discuss the "most awful things" he has done. He said I like making a bigger thing out of it than it was, and that I am unforgiving. He feels there is nothing to be gained by talking about the past so if we talk, it should be about now & the future rather than dwell on the past which he tells me is gone and you can't do anything about it anyway. These are his exact words, along with telling me that I must enjoy wallowing in my misery.
At this point 3 years from DDay and 25+ from infidelities we have a compatible home life , zero intimacy. I stay because I don't know what else to do after spending my life with him. I don't know if I could ever feel love or passion, or even excitement again for him, but as a Christian I can love him in a bigger way. I try to be kind and caring and honest.

Very helpful

I am in a similar situation! It was very inspiring to me to read your reply even though our issues are on a much smaller scale than yours(we are only a few short months from his infidelities, and 2 years from mine) My husband also doesn't quite, "get it," but we do love each other, and we are making our lives compatible for the children we have in common, but there is a certain level of disconnect between us. I hope you can find some happiness.
Hugs to you.

Disconnection after infidelity

I was glad that you could say you both still love each other, I think that is key to recovery. In our situation we have commitment to our vows as the thread holding us together. Not quite the same but at least we do have something. Hugs to you also

How to communicate this to my spouse?

This article is exactly on target. How can I communicate this is how I feel without just coming out and saying it? Should I just forward he this posting and say, "this is where I am"? Although it's been over a year and I have forgiven her the affair, it is STILL very painful and triggers abound everywhere. In the midst of the pain I often withdraw and then she asks me what's wrong and I have to lie because if I tell her the truth then she says I am just throwing her past failure back in her face to hurt her. So, I suck it up and act like everything is "OK" and die a little more. What can I do?

Continue to amaze us! Great Article!

Recently, we have had a set back at a place of "not the whole truth". No affair just a place where an agreement wasn't met and we have not been able to fully get back to where we were at before this and after our EMS weekend. Part of the reason for this is from him shutting down and not talking or answering questions again.
I know, or I hope we find our way back and beyond where we hope to be. Every time we visit with someone it seems the shame diminishes and we get better.
Our hope in in the Lord and what the Lord has brought us through you Rick and your ministry. Our children now say, "it's Tuesday aren't you guys getting on call" or "we can't do that Tuesday night you guys have call". LOVE IT!!! What your children teach you.:)
Thank you for everything you've done.

So true and so thankful

It was exactly 5 years ago this month that I had my day of discovery of my husbands affair. I thank God daily that my husband was willing to own up to the affair and work to restore our marriage. The first several months I was full of questions which he answered as best as he could. We were in couples therapy and he was in individual therapy. And he was willing to do that which was HUGE! He is a flirt and gregarious which never amounted to anything until this one particular woman came into the picture. My h had a lot to learn about boundaries and how they could be misinterpreted. There was a relapses with another woman 2 years later which I found out about immediately. This time he got defensive about the emails but when he was shown how his words could be misinterpreted, I think he finally got it. Like I said it has been five years from discovery and we are in a good place. At times I think it was only a horrible nightmare and not reality. Couples can recover if both parties are up to confessing and forgiving and learning from the experience.

Thank you

It gives me hope that things are going ok for you. We are only one month into this hell and it is hard to have hope.

Wow I agree and dis agree

Wow I agree and dis agree with this. I disagree with the premis that the actions of one person is need for the healing of another personly I feel to many people combine healing after infidelity but there is 3 healings that have to take place the hurt spouse personaly the unfaithful spouse and the marriage. For the hurt spouse to heal they need to first be able to forgive past present and future I know this sounds crazy but it is imortant again using the terms from EMSO I am talking vertical forgiveness the point is you are working to heal yourself to help get over the pain if we shift our focuse to how God see's us and not a sinful spouse and can draw on that to heal you will do it much faster and more completely because it is not dependent on a flawed spouse to do so. The healing of the marriage will take the actions of the other spouse but if you have found healing through Christ then you are better able to look at your unfaithfull spouse in a more honest light with far less bitterness and more hope than when you are still hurting and feel alone. And I speak this from personal expearance because healed this way I did not depend on my wife's behaivor to heal she struggles with the consept of empathy she was not going to be of much help but again it was my personal healing that was needed so I learned to forgive her past, present and future that done I was able to release all that pain andself dout and everything else that overcame me with the finding out of what had happened. Once I was able to look at my self as a child of God and not just her husband I was able to rebuild my self image and worth which went a long way to be able to then look at my wife as who she realy is and not for what she had done which also speed up the rebuilding of our marriage. I think she still has healing to do with in her self but our marriage is better now than it may have ever been and that has been possible because I was able to find healing through Christ and not bedependent on my wife.
David

Heal union with flawed spouse who's happy to stay that way?

Thank you for your words of wisdom. I think I 'get' the process you describe and how you have changed your focus to building yourself a safer life by looking vertically for guidance, wisdom trusting in God. I try, but when it comes back down to day to day life and being able to feel trust and safety within my partnership with my spouse and reconnect with someone who doesn't "get it" and who shows litter remorse, empathy or understanding of what I am feeling and struggling with......It doesn't work for me. I have grown stronger with Gods help and in many ways because of looking vertically grown farther away and more different than my spouse. I try to return time and time again to the belief that God does not want me to look only to my Man as a source of safety and secure haven in the storms of life.....And have to struggle with the question of 'does God really want me to go through the rest of my life this alone?" Yes, I know He is there for me. Yet, I don't get the feeling that my spouse ever be...any more than he was through our past and his betrayals. That is not the way I want to continue to live. So, I have to ask God, is this it? I get to grow old and learn a lot waiting for a spouse who doesn't (or not on same time line, and its 5 years after discovering 2 affairs)...what's next?, continue praying for my spouse, waiting well, continue living in an unsafe relationship?

David you may be right

Hey David just found out 2 mouths ago wife was with coworker. She won't all the way admit it. But I know she is sorry and is trying. She does want to be with me forever and I can tell she is sick she did whst she did. However she to has hard time showing this and just shuts down if I talk about it. What you say is right in my eyes you your self has to come to peace, I do trust now that it's over, she is sorry. I'm just trying to come to peace of it. It hard.

Thankyou!

For the first time in nearly two years I feel that someone actually cares. Thankyou for writing this article, it's exacy what I have tried and failed to explain atleast 100 times. I don't have much hope for us, but I finally have now have some hope for me. Thankyou!

What if the unfaithful spouse needs empathy

I found this article when searching for "empathy for spouse leaving affair." My husband of 18 years had a two-year affair with a coworker. She became pregnant during the affair, the child was born, and he was proven the father. We separated for a couple of months because he wasn't sure what he wanted, but he finally came home to me and our children. I have forgiven him. However, the marriage is stuck because he is racked with guilt and shame. She was supposed to be on birth control but claims it failed so he feels that he forced her be a single mother (by choosing me). He has been back with me for 18 months now, but our marriage is still really dysfunctional. He says no one knows how he feels and he just wants to be supported for his loss. I have been trying to show him empathy but he says he can't believe it's genuine. Yet he has no one to support him. His family hates what he did. His friends aren't very empathetic either. In the meantime, my wounds are not tended to at all. He says he has nothing to give me because he is so empty inside. He misses the other woman and child, and believes he is a terrible person. I have told him I know that he did not mean for anyone to get hurt by the affair, especially not an innocent child, but he says that's logical but does not address his emotions. He wants me to tolerate the "stuck" marriage because that would show I was empathizing with his pain, loss, grief. He says he doesn't know if he'll ever get over it, for the rest of his life. He is so shame-filled and stuck, we are more disconnected than ever. He can't even give me a real kiss. He says it feels like a betrayal to her. I don't know what to do.

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