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

Why Couples Fail After an Affair: Part 1 - Not Knowing What Happened

Why Couples Fail After an Affair: A Four Part Series

Part 1: Not Knowing What Happened
Part 2: Coming Soon!

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"What's left in darkness is under the power and control of that very same darkness"

Anonymous

How to Practically Obliterate Any Opportunity for Restoration

When a spouse is kept in the dark regarding the details of their spouse's affair, it's similar to feeling trapped in darkness, trying to find their way out. People naturally try to understand the events of their life. Until we are able to make sense of these events, a part of us continues trying to solve the mystery. If a spouse withholds information regarding their secret life, how long do you think someone who's been devastated by betrayal will spend trying to find the answer to their questions?

Solving this mystery is a key factor for success in re-establishing trust and surviving infidelity.

Without understanding what has happened, there is no way for the betrayed spouse to assess the level of damage and the probability of future success. Until the unfaithful spouse extends trust to their mate by sharing what happened, it is difficult for the betrayed spouse to rebuild trust. People are more than capable of getting over a betrayal, but continued deception leaves no path for trust and obliterates the opportunity for restoration.

A Coherent Story: How To Calm Emotional 'Flooding'

A substantial difficulty for couples recovering from infidelity is the emotional flooding created by the trauma after an affair. Infidelity creates a pain like no other, and difficulty regulating the ensuing emotions is not only common but to be expected. Emotional regulation and stability are created through what is called a coherent story. Up until the point where "what has happened" makes sense to the betrayed spouse, emotions run rampant, confusion rules the day, and the heart of the betrayed remains frayed. Understanding what happened provides a safe foundation on which they can eventually begin to rebuild. (Please keep in mind, this step in the process takes a significant amount of time and cannot be rushed). Empathy from the unfaithful spouse (which we'll address in a moment) is necessary to encourage healing.

affair-recovery_to-move-forward-couples-need-to-come-to-an-understanding-of-their-story

To move forward, couples need to come to a common understanding of their history. Regardless of the type of infidelity (e.g., emotional affair, one-night stand, pornography addiction, etc.), the story of what has happened needs to make sense to both husband and wife. As I work with couples who are stuck, not knowing what happened seems to be the number one culprit.

I appreciate the work done by the late Peggy Vaughan in her e-book Help for Therapists (and their Clients).

She hypothesized: A couple is more likely to stay married after an affair when they thoroughly discuss the whole situation.

55% of those who discussed the situation very little were still married (living together).

78% of those who discussed the situation a good bit were still married (and living together).

86% of those who discussed the situation a lot were still married (and living together).

She concluded that the amount the affair was discussed with the betrayed partner was significantly associated with present marital status.

A second hypothesis stated: A couple is more likely to stay married when the unfaithful spouse answers the questions of the betrayed spouse.

59% of those whose partner refused to answer questions were still married (and living together).

81% of those whose partner answered some of their questions were still married (and living together).

86% of those whose partners answered all their questions were still married (and living together).

She concluded that the extent to which the partner answered questions was significantly associated with present marital status. Understanding what occurred allows both parties to rally around solutions.

Combating Self-Deception

Not only does the hurt spouse have a need to know what happened, that need is just as great for those who were unfaithful. Speaking from personal experience, I can attest to the benefit I received from discussing the events of my infidelity. There is a strong tendency to be self-deceived when facing a side of ourselves that we'd rather keep in the dark. When we feel shame, we betray ourselves as well as others. Exposing what has happened has a unique way of providing clarity, not only for one's mate but also for those of us who've been unfaithful.

After my affair ended, I was not capable of thinking clearly and, consequently, I made many poor decisions. It wasn't just my mate discovering what happened; I also began to understand things I had not seen. Though it is a process, it was a necessary step in my own safety and healing journey.

When Is Enough Detail, Enough Detail?

At the same time, knowing what happened isn't the same as knowing every detail about everything that happened. Too much detail creates additional problems with intrusive thoughts. The betrayed partner might want to know what happened, where it happened, how often it happened, if there are potential health risks, and when it began and ended, and they have a right to this information. Questions comparing themselves to the affair partner, however, serve little or no benefit.

Comparison questions ultimately create intrusive thoughts and complicate the healing process. While it is enticing to ask these questions, too much information only creates more reminders and more triggers.

For those who want to help their mate feel safe and heal by sharing their story, here are some words of advice.

  • Begin by asking your mate if he or she wants to know. If the answer is yes, then tell them the story. I find that carefully telling the story from beginning to end is the best way to relay the information. Far too often, the story is told piecemeal, i.e., drip-feeding or trickle-truth, as the betrayed partner asks questions and the unfaithful partner tries to answer. This, unfortunately, starts the clock over every time new information is brought to the surface.
  • When you finish telling the story, please don't say, "That's everything." You're far better off realizing that you've told everything you remember at that moment, but there's always the possibility that other memories will come to mind and/or your mate may not have heard everything and will later be devastated if more information comes to light. Tell them that you're committed to honestly answering their questions and exploring what happened.
  • Oftentimes, in the disclosure process, an unfaithful partner will resort to, "I don't remember,” when the truth is that they may not want to share the information as they are convinced that if the betrayed knows the details, they are done and gone. Other times, they genuinely may not remember the information and may need time and even help to remember what transpired. However, "I don't remember," is not the best answer—even when it’s truthful. A better answer may be, "I don't remember the exact information right now, but I'm committed to getting the right help and the right process in place so that I can remember the details. I also commit to sharing any and all information I do remember as we get immediate help to start this healing process."
  • Ask what author Esther Perel, MA, LMFT, calls Investigative Questions, especially if your mate says they can't remember. Not being able to remember certain answers won't prevent them from answering the questions below, and it will create the opportunity for the unfaithful spouse to share what they are feeling. You can read a full list of these questions here: Esther Perel's Investigative Questions for Couples Experiencing Infidelity. I've posted just a few below:
    1. What did the affair mean to you?
    2. Did you feel entitled to your affair?
    3. Why do you think you could not express your needs to me: emotional, intellectual or sexual?
    4. Did you ever get to a point where you felt you were losing yourself or felt torn and confused?
    5. Did you ever worry that your affair would destroy our relationship?
    6. What was it like for you to lie?
    7. Do you think I have a say in it?
    8. Did you want to leave me or was the affair just an addition to us?

A word of caution, the WHY will be much more difficult for both of you than the WHAT. Therefore, we've written a series called Why Did They Cheat?. As you are working through why the infidelity happened, it is important to remember the necessity of safety in the recovery process. For the betrayed party to feel safe, there must be signs of genuine empathy. Without truly working to understand the depth of your mate's pain, all attempts at reconnecting will appear hollow or self-serving.


Rebuilding trust after such a heavy blow will never be easy, but the good news is you don't have to have trust to rebuild a relationship. In the meantime, you can replace trust with a whole lot of honesty and a whole lot of empathy.

Unfaithful partners, these two gestures will go further than you may realize to soothe the deep soul-wound that infidelity has inflicted on your mate. If you are not sure where to start or how to develop empathy, please consider joining a group in Hope for Healing, our course for unfaithful partners. You'll be in a safe, encouraging atmosphere with a group leader and several other unfaithful partners who will walk the 17-week journey with you. There is hope for healing!

Hope for Healing Registration Opens Today at Noon CT! Space Is Limited!

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"The curriculum was invaluable. It changed me in so many different ways. It is helping me help my wife heal and recover. And it revived & rescued our marriage. Our group leader was exceptional in so many ways. Our mentors enriched the course and my life, immeasurably." - Anonymous | May 2021 HFH Participant

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  1. Vaughan, Peggy. Help for Therapist and their Clients: Report of Survey on Extramarital Affairs. Dear Peggy. n.d. Web. 07 July 2014.

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wife affairs

I knew of my wife's one-night stand 33 years ago, confronted her, which at that time she supposedly stopped the affair. Two years ago, I mentioned in a conversation with her of the telephone calls I was getting with nobody on the other end. This also took place 33 years ago. After a couple of days of agonizing, she told me , that back then, she had a long-term affair ( 8 months ) with a different person . This was also stopped when I caught her after her one-night affair.
I am still with her. The reason why is because in the mid-'80s Texas was in terrible shape, it was very hard for me to make a living. I felt she strayed because happiness was in very short supply and I had let her down. Those economic conditions were never repeated for me. However,
although we went to a marriage counselor, we never really discussed what happened in a one-on-one conversation or were there other affairs that I did not know about. I am constantly thinking of what I did wrong but afraid to approach her to have the honest conversation that we need to have. I love my wife and would never leave her, but I would like to know the whole truth. Its is time.

Fell backwards

I had an affair, met him once. There was sexual contact, no intercourse, no oral. Not that it makes much difference. I went along with my husband’s suggested scenario of where / how things happened. 3 weeks of healing went down the tubes when the truth came out yesterday. He’s even more angry, even more hurt. We met as kids, reconnected 30 years later. I was the one that got away and all I can do is hurt him. Part of me feels like I deserve what I get. The rest wants to build something new.

Hello, I am new to having an

Hello, I am new to having an online conversation about these things.. but I need help. I feel ridiculous for not being over this by now because it has been 3 years.. I found out that my spouse was cheating on me with multiple people (one of them being her ex) since the beginning of our relationship. When I asked her about what happened the only response I was given was that she doesn’t remember. It just feels like I can’t get over what I don’t know about. I don’t know the timelines or even the extent of the infidelity. I just don’t know what I can do at this point to make myself get over it.

What type of affair was it?

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