Get Over Her Affair

Q: My wife and I have been married for three years, and together for eight. We have four incredible boys together. Over the years, we have become honest and open with each other about nearly everything. Seems to be a great marriage on the surface. However, six years ago, my wife, who was then my girlfriend, thought I had cheated on her and left me to start seeing someone else. She became pregnant and had her second child with that guy (her first was with me). She left him after nearly a year and we got back together. During that time, I had seen several other women. We were married after having our second child (her third). Then our last child was born about a year ago. Recently, she left me again, saying it was for her own reasons. Two weeks later, she was pregnant with someone else's child. A month passed, and she wanted me back. She told me she was pregnant, and I did my best to get over how. (She then had a miscarriage.) I have done all I can to try and get over this. I love my wife and kids. I need to get past this, and it is difficult to even bring the subject up without her guilt fueling straight to anger, and then lashing out at me. I have so many questions I WANT to ask. Can you outline a path that may help avoid the guilty/anger responses I get, and help me find a final decision on whether I am either too nice, or getting too old for all this. I am hurt, sick, angry, sad, can't sleep, jealous, weakened, lonely, always worried, and driving myself crazy. I want to get over it! -- David, 34

Dr. Susan: At 34, you're not "too old for all this," of that I can assure you. Life-shaking betrayals happen at any age, and some couples manage to get past them and evolve a new, stronger relationship. But the two of you, and I emphasize the TWO of you, have your work cut out for you. It's not a matter of too much niceness on your part. Your curiosity and jealousy and anger and overall misery are all too common. You cannot "fix" this entirely on your own.

What I found when I interviewed a batch of extremely happy long-term couples for my book Loving in Flow was that, perhaps surprisingly, many of them had affairs in their past. What it seemed to take was a new deeper openness on both their parts, especially an openness on the part of the affair perpetrator to hear the negative feelings of the stay-at-home partner. Your wife must be willing to acknowledge the pain she has caused you. While she doesn't owe you specific gritty details about the affair, she has to understand that you can't just go back to the way you were before. It's crucial to rebuild trust. And the only way she can do that is to open up. You both need to allow the other to speak without interrupting and judgment. Begin by framing everything you say as an "I-message." I feel so alone, so worried this will happen again, so sad that what I thought we had wasn't real. It might be helpful to see a therapist to begin these necessary conversations. One handy tip is to designate a small soft pillow as a "talking pillow." One of you holds it and speaks until finished. Then the other is handed the pillow and has her turn. No talking when you don't have the pillow. It's not an easy strategy to learn, but I've found it truly helpful, and it can be used multiple times until the worst of the feelings has been allowed out in the open air.

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