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: Not Getting It
Part 3: Denying Your Reality
Part 4: Failure to Grieve

Hope for Healing registration opens today, February 26th at 12:00 PM Central Time (USA).
This life-changing, 17-week online course for unfaithful partners provides community, encouragement, and a path to freedom. (please note: it typically sells out within a couple of hours) Don't wait any longer to begin your recovery journey!

Register Now!

"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 deal 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 an understanding of their history. Regardless of the type of affair (i.e. 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 that 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, the need for those who were unfaithful is just as great. 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 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 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 ingredient to 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.
  • When your mate doesn't remember. Oftentimes, in the disclosure process, an unfaithful partner will resort to "I don't remember." Unfortunately, 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. While "I don't remember" is not the best answer, 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 to come to remember the details. I also commit to sharing any and all information I 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 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 offended 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 infidelity has left 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, February 26th at 12:00 PM Central Time (USA).
This life-changing, 17-week online course for unfaithful partners provides community, encouragement, and a path to freedom. (please note: it typically sells out within a couple of hours) Don't wait any longer to begin your recovery journey!

Register Now!

EMS Online registration opens next week, March 4th at 12:00 PM Central Time (USA).
Tired of not having a thorough plan to heal after infidelity? EMS Online walks you through the critical steps required to address the infidelity and reconnect as a couple. It sells out fast so don't delay.

Subscribe Now!

  1. Vaughn, 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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Comments

Rick, I am so very grateful

Rick, I am so very grateful for your emails and the info you provide. It has helped me tremendously as my husband of 20 years has abandoned me and our children for his affair partner and I am truly healing on my own. Since he was completely unwilling to discuss a thing when the affair was discovered and we've had almost no contact since he left 18 months ago, it is in part by these emails and your website that I am able to find peace and understanding. God Bless You and Stephanie!

Empathy ? My husband has borderline Aspergers

My D-day was January 12th 2017, and so far my husband has not been able to make me feel safe and be empathetic with me. His counselor who is a CSAT just discovered that my husband has borderline Aspergers. Does anyone have experience with this ?? I want to save my marriage but I don't know ???

Timely info

This was very timely info for us. I hope that what I’m about to write will help someone who is also going through the initial stages after discovery.
Disclosure day was a week ago. The initial disclosure day was five weeks ago where I received probably 3/4 of the story. In the ensuing weeks there were many incidents of trickle truth as he remembered things. The affairs were over a period of time spanning 4 years, mostly online affairs and inappropriate messaging/photos/videos with strangers he met through various means like craigslist and online forums. Probably 8 people total. At year three he had an opportunity to meet up with one of them but canceled in guilt the week before they were to meet. By year 4 (2019), he started an online relationship that ended in a physical affair lasting about nine months with a two month break over the summer when he tried to break away from the affair because of guilt. He and the AP met up about eight times, but messaged each other frequently, except for those two months over the summer. This last December things were starting to fall apart with them because he felt so horrible every time they met, and he was wanting to meet with our pastor to confess but was struggling because he felt I would leave him. On January 18, I ended up discovering an email that had nothing really to do with the affair but caused me to ask him questions. That’s when he decided to tell me the truth.
I have some advice for betrayed spouses. The waiting time for a full disclosure timeline is excruciating. It has to be one of the worst things you’ll ever experience, I felt like a 1 ton boulder was poised over my head, ready to drop at any moment. I was so fearful of new information and more detailed information, but I knew that I needed to hear it. Our counselor told me to give him the time that he needed because I really deserved the full story not just bits and pieces, and that takes time. He put the timeline together probably over a two-week period. In that time he remembered two other online APs that he had failed to tell me about. So it was important that he have that time to think things through. My husband’s memory is not the best on a good day, let alone over a span of four years and a desire to forget it all because of shame. He would go months in between these incidents without acting out and wanting to work on our marriage and himself, but then he would eventually give in because he really had no support in this. My husband is a journaler, so I could probably go back and see the times when he unsuccessfully tried to journal his way out of this hole. This is an important lesson to unfaithful spouses. You cannot do it by yourself, it is impossible. You could have every good intention and really love your spouse and want to stop, but you won’t be able to until the whole secret is out and the motives are addressed. The enemy works best in darkness and secrets, and temptation will eat away at you and your best intentions will be nothing but ashes. I’m actually glad my husband had experience with this because now he knows that he needs to be open and honest, and be accountable to others about when he’s struggling. It’s about being a real, authentic human with frailties and a propensity to sin. There’s no shame in that because that is everyone of us. That’s why we need a Savior.
This week has been a week of questions, some I have not wanted to ask. I have carefully avoided comparison questions even though I wanted to know some things. One of the hardest things I asked him was if he held her hand when they strolled around a park. You would think that the idea of them having intercourse would be more painful for me, but this was far more painful because it seemed more intimate and less connected to sex. Last night I had a revelation. My husband explained the affairs as a type of infatuation, but in our discussion this morning we decided infatuation is the wrong word. Infatuation is what he and I had when we first met, dated and fell in love. It has a very pure feel to it, a rightness, it’s the way that God designed us to be when we are searching for a mate. The best term I’ve seen for this “other infatuation” is limerence. Limerence thrives in secrecy and deception and obsession. It’s not love, it’s selfish lust that has more to do with what it provides for the individual and not for the other person. My husband loved me and knew me, just as I loved and knew him; reality, not fantasy.
What has been helpful for me in my discussions with my husband was to think of the analogy of a sinking ship. As the ship goes down I, our children, my husband’s mother and siblings, our grandchildren, and the affair partner are all in the water and he is trying to rescue us. Guess who he would rescue last, if at all? I know this because never once did he think about leaving our marriage and the thought of me leaving once I discovered the truth was what prevented him from saying anything. He never spoke about me with the affair partners, he only spoke about his own loneliness and desperate need for affection and attention. This is something that I am finding I need to work on. Because although I was faithful to him and loyal, I was not treating our marriage in the mutual way that I should have been. I was living a pretty independent life. No excuses for sin on his part, just part of the larger picture of how this affair happened. I need to own my part in it, especially if there’s to be healing for both of us. He is a man who truly loves his family, and did something very foolish that nearly destroyed it.
So I hope this is a hopeful message to both betrayed and unfaithful spouses; become students of the affair. Learn as much as you can on this website and through other resources. I cannot believe at times where I have come from the initial discovery on January 18, 2020 until now. We are both going to counseling twice a week as a couple and he’s going once a week on his own. We watch the videos on this website together and share things that we learn. We try to spend as much intimate time together as we can so as to reconnect. We are going to bed at the same time and going grocery shopping together, I’m getting up and having breakfast with him in the mornings, and we now do bible study together. I’m joining him for dinner the nights that he works 24 hour shifts. I never did that before this happened. We are working on mutuality. We also know that we need to work on conflict resolution because that was a major part of the failure of our marriage.
Last of all, the most important thing we do is that we pray together several times a day, we have a commitment to pray together every night. When he’s at work he calls me and we pray together on the phone. I see God’s hand in everything that has happened so far. I see that the Holy Spirit was working when he caused me to initially question my husband. Believe me, I was completely in the dark about any of this at the time.
Without that prompting none of this work were doing now would be happening. Last month my husband moved to a fire station five minutes from our home and I see that as God’s hand. The two men that he works with are fellow Christians. Again, I see God at work. I picked our counselor at random from local online resources; he happens to be trained in affair recovery and sexual addictions, my husband really relates to him in a good way and can talk to him. Again, this is God at work. There have been many other incidents of God revealing himself to us these last five weeks.
I’m still working on trust and I know that will take time. My husband is doing everything he can to make me feel safe. Last night I woke around four in the morning and he asked me what I needed, I asked if I could present a question to him and he said yes and we talked for an hour. I know that healing can take a long time but certainly it doesn’t have to be excruciating. We are having many sweet moments together that we haven’t had since our early days of marriage. I see that my husband has a lighter spirit and a freer smile, his eyes are lighting up again. I haven’t felt this in love with him for years (we’ve been married 25). Thank you to all of the staff here at AR for the work that you do and know that it really does make a difference in people’s lives. It’s such important work when you consider the fallenness of this world and the enemy’s attack on God’s most important institution here on earth, the relationship between a man and a woman as husband and wife.
“God created man in His own image, in the image of God He created him; male and female He created them.”
Thank you for letting me post my long-winded response.
To healing!

For sale

I’d also like to add that as a result of this disclosure, my husband is now having to sell his beloved truck and his personal vehicle because I will never ride in them again. He is willing to do this for me. If you are an unfaithful spouse these gestures can go a long way to making your husband or wife feel safe again.

Prayers for you

Prayers for you and your husband, Bighorn Mountains. It’s a rugged journey to healing, but it sounds like your husband is doing everything he needs to do, in order to help you heal. My own journey began 2 1/2 years ago with the disclosure that my husband of nearly 30 years had been cheating throughout our entire marriage and even before we were married. His betrayal included bringing people into our home for hookups and also introducing new “friends” to me who were portrayed as lost souls in need of care and compassion. My world shattered when I learned the truth, but he and I are still together, by the grace of God. I’m still in therapy, and I still have bad days, but my heart no longer feels like it’s in constant agony. We are closer than we’ve ever been, but I still haven’t been able to feel the forgiveness that I believe will finally free me to move into the future. This has been the most painful experience of my life and I wouldn’t wish it on my worst enemy. (We had to move out of our home because the triggers became too much to bear.)

Thank you

I just want to thank you for your comments here on this site. I had disclosure of my husbands affair exactly one year ago on Monday 2/24. however he was not honest about it, he was caught on tape and was still speaking to the AP when I found out. We immediately separated but have been working on our marriage. We see a marriage counselor once a month now but are still not living together. He also sees one on his own once a month as well. In our rural area counselor's are hard to find and we typically have to drive 2 hours to find one. I feel we are still struggling and I have a very difficult time letting go of things even though he is doing everything he can and has given up many things. We owned a business that we started together and we have turned that over to other owners. He has no part in it anymore. My struggle is the lying that he was able to do for so long. According to him it was about 4-5 months long. He and the AP worked at the same location and she was 23 while he is 51. They still work at the same place but don't see each other. She has seemed to have moved on and my husband has no interest in her at all. He had a lot of shame and guilt but thought he could get away with it and not tell me because he knew it would ruin our marriage. We had been married 22 years. I feel like we should be farther in our recovery yet, I know that I hesitate still not knowing if I am making the right decision to work on our marriage. I appreciate reading your story. I'm just not sure what our next steps should be. Thank you for sharing.

Impressed!

Wow! I am truly inspired by your story. You have made great progress in such a short amount of time. I am just getting to where you are and it has been almost 1.5 years since D-day.

thanks so much for this post.

thanks so much for this post. We're almost at 3yrs post discovery - discovery was made when he confessed to me. I really appreciated your description of the infatuation. I have been so certain that my husband was infatuated with his AP, however he has continually denied this stating she was simply a friend and the said friendship went horribly wrong. I shared with him what you wrote and he agreed completely with your description of infatuation vs limerance. I had read the posting on this site about limerance but this context helped me to understand it much more clearly. We are well on our way to healing, although I still have times when I get emotional (very) about it. We are more in love now than ever and he has learned to be more open/honest with his feelings, etc., in a way that he has never been before. I am glad that I stayed and we are now approaching our 33rd anniversary. Thanks again for sharing and I pray that your recovery continues as a shared journey.

Beyond broken leaning on GOD

Thank you so much for the “long winded” post I feel like GOD put that in front of me to see he always knows what’s best! As I read this there were so many things similar to my situation. My husband and I had the initial break through moment late summer and have been working on things..it took ALOT for me to get him to FINALLY say the word AFFAIR...finally in October (our 22nd anniversary) he basically told me he was totally committed to working in US I saw many differences in his demeanor and really was feeling great about things it seemed that he was really working on it letting her go etc. then a couple of weeks ago for whatever reason (she lives 4hrs away) she had a 3day weekend and reached out to him about coming over and rekindling things since it had been so long since they’d seen each other..well he went for it...it didn’t take me long to put the pieces together and realize what was going on..:finally this morning (after much prayer that he would just come to me- which he didn’t) it finally came out...and basically he just said...”I dint really know what to say” I asked how he could be so emotionally detached and he said he wasn’t but he really just didn’t know what to say...I’m so broken after we have been working so hard and have so many other blessings in our life...I realize it’s not all her fault..but she’s well aware of me..and just continues to pursue the situation and has no regard for the lives being destroyed by this

Thank You!!

Thank you for sharing. This gives me great hope in my recovery 🙏

Truth.

My d-day was June2 2019. The emotional affair started in 2009 as a friendship and working relationship. I came across old texts accidentally. But those texts were from an old phone from 2014. I still don’t know what happened before that.
She was 24, he was 57. It went on for ten years. The last five years is what I came across. The texts were an affair of the heart. Love texts, telling her things Lille how much he missed her.
After I discovered this, I threatened to leave, but he begged me to stay. He said he loved me and this relationship was about helping her because she was suicidal.
That was an excuse to me, and it still is.

He called it a special friendship. But if anyone reads these texts that is not a friendship. The texts were frequent, everyday, , sometimes several times a day,. And there were hour long phone calls a few times a week.

He won’t see a counselor. We have talked it out, usually fighting. I gave him an alternative, end it or the marriage is over. He ended it this past September.
We talk now, instead of yelling. He has apologized over and over and has been very attentive and is trying to show how sorry he is.
However, I don’t think he is telling me everything. I have asked him over and over about any physical contact, not sex, but holding each other, kissing, hugging, holding hands. He never really answers me. He says no, not like I think. But I still have this gut feeling he is not telling me everything. In many of the texts he says he misses her and wants to spend a weekend with her reliving a business trip they had. But it want just them, it was with other people. He keeps repeating that it was so much fun, and wants to do,it again. He is retired.
This makes me think something else went on.

So my question is, how do I believe him when he tells me there was no physical contact when his texts assume something else?
Is he being honest with me? I want to know everything. But what if he is telling me the truth? How do I get past this? I just can’t believe that this went on for so long and there was no physical involvement, especially when the texts imply there was.

I also want to know

It has been three months since I found out. I read text messages that suggest a physical relationship. At first he said nothing happened besides dancing too close at the club and talking all night. His text were in Spanish, so I couldn’t read them all, but I took pictures of some before he deleted them. I later translated the few that I had and she said he had soft lips. He later admitted to her kissing him, (he claims there is a difference) but he swears that is all that happened. I don’t believe a word he says and I can’t move on without knowing the extend of what he did. He would go on vacation with friends in places where that is a lot of prostitution (Latin America) and went a lot over a two year period (before I hear another person on these messages boards tell me to get an STD test, I’ve had one). I can’t seem to move on with my life and he is not providing any meaningful answers that satisfy me. The other problem is lets say he is telling the truth (which I doubt) and he did not have sex, I don’t know how I could every believe him based on the few text messages I read and I he lied before about the kiss. Three months later, I am stuck in place playing detective trying to put the puzzle together myself and I have an amazing imagination (lol). I love my husband and we are trying our best to make this work (except he does not like reliving his past events, but I’ll give him some credit that he is doing everything he can in the present), but feeling like I don’t have all the information keeps me stuck in neutral.

What if you still think they're not telling the whole truth?

What do you do when a spouse's story just doesn't make sense) doesn't add up? When my wife's infidelity first can't out, she said it was just an inappropriate friendship with another man. Then I found out there were three men. Then I find out there were inappropriate texts/images shared. I found all this out on my own by looking through her phone. When I confronted her she said that was all that happened. Then, a few days later, she said she did actually go to one of their houses and was planning to sleep with him but got cold get and they didn't do anything - just hugged and talked. That's the part I struggle to accept. It's been almost 6 months. I still don't believe her but I fear telling her that will end the marriage. I'm at a loss.

What type of affair was it?

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