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In the last section, we discussed 4 differences between how male and female hurt partners respond to an affair. These four gender differences involve the desire to preserve the relationship, depression versus anger, feelings of inadequacy, and obsession versus distraction.
In this section, we will discuss five conflicting aspects of the unfaithful partner’s response to the disclosure of the affair. These five conflicting aspects of the unfaithful partner’s response are relief, impatience, absence of guilt, isolation, and self-disgust.
Jerry, 29, began counseling after his wife Olga discovered he had been carrying on an affair with their babysitter. Jerry stated, "Olga won’t even try to consider my feelings in this. I’m confused and hurting, too! But if I try to talk about my feelings, she just gets more angry!" Sound familiar? I explained to Jerry that his feelings of confusion were normal and understandable.
I also encouraged Jerry to remember that Olga was likely in no frame of mind to appreciate or discuss his conflict. I stated, "Perhaps the best way you can help yourself and Olga through this is to identify your intense and contradictory feelings. By identifying these conflicting feelings, you can recognize that they are appropriate and normal at this stage of your journey."
♦ Conflicting Aspect # 1 - Relief
I explained to Jerry that many unfaithful partners find that confessing their secret makes them feel whole again. However, as you will see with Jerry, this relief often quickly changes into a more complex array of emotions.
♦ Conflicting Aspect # 2 - Impatience
As you may have observed in your practice, Jerry’s impatience is a second conflicting aspect of an unfaithful partner's response to the disclosure of an affair. I explained to Jerry that although he was ready to move on, Olga needed space and time to experience her feelings of shock, rage, and despair. I stated, "It is normal for you to feel impatient, but there are no quick fixes for Olga’s pain. What will help heal her are small, gradual steps that will build up to convince her that she can trust you again." Does your Jerry need to be reminded that while he or she may be ready to move on, their partner will probably need a long healing process?
♦ Conflicting Aspect # 3 - Absence of Guilt
I explored Jerry’s generalized statement about male fidelity with him. Clearly, his belief that men were built to "roam around" was a core assumption that justified his infidelity. During our discussion, Jerry revealed that his father had been unfaithful to his mother. Jerry realized that he developed the belief that men could not control infidelity to protect himself from hating his father.
Another reason an unfaithful spouse may not feel guilt over the affair, which did not apply to Jerry’s case, is anger at the spouse. After thirty-seven years of marriage, Jorge blew up at his wife Maria when she confronted him about his infidelity. Jorge stated, "I’ve been miserable for our entire marriage, and you’re a bitch!" Jorge convinced himself that he had sacrificed his happiness for Maria, thus he was able to justify his lack of guilt. However, this also allowed Jorge to distract himself from thinking of ways he had hurt Maria.
♦ Conflicting Aspect # 4 - Feelings of Isolation
I explained to Jerry that his family and close friends may be too close to his marriage to provide support. Jerry stated, "That might be true. Rich and his wife are close to Olga, too." I encouraged Jerry to find friends to talk to who had no personal stake in his decisions concerning Olga, who could be firmly there for him. I also advised that these friends be able to challenge him to accept his complicity in his problems at home.
♦ Conflicting Aspect # 5 - Self-Disgust
I stated to Jerry, "Guilt can be a healthy reminder that you have been untrue to yourself. But if you focus your energy on trashing yourself, you distract yourself from learning from the experience and rebuilding." I encouraged Jerry not to focus on blaming himself, but instead to focus on identifying the aspects of himself which he disliked. I also reminded Jerry that he was doing himself a disservice by focusing only on his role in the affair. I explained that while he had no right to blame Olga for the affair, it was healthy for him to address how Olga contributed to his dissatisfaction in his marriage.
Time Projection Technique
I find that by visualizing the end result of these small changes, clients like Jerry can often find the motivation to put bitterness and despair behind them. Jerry also found that rehearsing these visualizations helped him be more patient with Olga’s need for stricter rules at home.
In this section, we have discussed five conflicting aspects of the unfaithful partner’s response to the disclosure of the affair. These five conflicting aspects of the unfaithful partner’s response are relief, impatience, absence of guilt, isolation, and self-disgust.
In the next section, we will discuss three gender differences in the unfaithful partner’s emotional response to an affair. The three gender differences we will focus on are what kind of partner is sought, what justifies an affair, and what internal tensions the affair causes.
Cornish, M. A., Hanks, M. A., & Gubash Black, S. M. (2020). Self-forgiving processes in therapy for romantic relationship infidelity: An evidence-based case study. Psychotherapy. Advance online publication.