“Fish or cut bait!” It is one of those sayings you hear when it’s time to make a decision that shifts the course of life, one way or the other. When marital infidelity is brought to the light, a husband and wife begin dealing with tumultuous feelings produced by this betrayal. One client facing his wife’s affair with a good friend said, “I feel like I’m in a hurricane, and I’m no longer the captain of the ship…HE is!” Confusion and shock are replaced by sadness, fear, anger, rage, embarrassment, shame, and guilt. These waves of strong emotions in uncharted waters do not allow for thoughtful decision-making about how to proceed.
As hard as it is to believe, taking time to let the emotions level out can help both people get to a place where they can discuss salvaging their marriage or turning toward divorce. Many hurt spouses remark that they never thought they would stay or fight for a marriage broken by infidelity. It is difficult for hurt spouses to commit to a process of rebuilding trust. Likewise, offending spouses worry they will never be considered trustworthy or wonder if they “chose the wrong one.” Couples who eventually survive an affair, begin the journey to a better marriage with caution, ambivalence and trepidation. Actually their mutual hesitation to re-commit to the marriage creates a common ground. It is here that a better, stronger marriage can rise from the stormy seas of “what was.” In most cases a mediator, coach or counselor is useful in creating some ground rules to create safe communication in what seems like shark-infested waters. These ground rules make it possible for each person to have a safe place to talk and to actively listen thereby creating emotional intimacy. This emotional intimacy is typically the foundation needed to repair the marriage.
It makes sense that both the hurt spouse and the unfaithful spouse have pretty distorted perceptions of each other. The hurt spouse may have difficulty believing there was a problem “in the marriage,” and might only see the adulterous spouse and their lover as culprits. The adulterous spouse may have a skewed perception of their lover and their spouse, idolizing one and degrading the other. These negative filters need to be challenged and new ways of relating to each other can be established.