I am a mother of two young boys. I recently discovered that my husband has been having an affair with someone he works with for the past few months. When I confronted him about it, he promised to break it off and said it isn’t serious. I’m in shock because I thought we had a really good marriage, and now I have no idea what kind of marriage I have. He seems really sincere about changing. I also feel guilty because I haven’t felt very sexual since my kids were born. Help.
I’m sorry to hear about your situation. There are several themes that come up in your letter: 1) can you trust your husband? 2) how do you heal? 3) do you have any “responsibility” for his affair? Let’s look at these individually.
1) Can you trust your husband?
That’s a somewhat complicated question. However, here are some things to consider: a conservative estimate is that around one out of three couples is affected by an affair over the course of their marriage. While affairs used to be more predominately the domain of married men, young married women entering the workforce are now beginning to outpace those of young married men. While there are huge variations in any statistic that cites gender, a common finding is that men often pursue affairs for sexual gratification and novelty seeking, while women more commonly pursue them for connection and intimacy. This difference has caused some researchers to opine that a man’s affairs may say less about his marital happiness than a woman’s. In other words, if a woman is pursuing an affair, it’s often a sign that the marriage is in trouble, while a man’s affair is less obviously a sign of marital distress.
So, in answer to the first question, your husband may be sincere when he says that the affair doesn’t mean a lot to him and that he loves you. Nonetheless, if you’re like most people, that isn’t enormously reassuring, and goes only so far in addressing the strong feelings of hurt and betrayal that you feel. So to answer the question of whether you can trust your husband, we have to go to the second question,
2) How do you heal?
In After the Affair, psychologist, Janis Spring writes that you should evaluate your partner’s overall trustworthiness when trying to determine whether you can forgive or begin to trust again. Do you trust his parenting? Have there been other betrayals or is this the first? Does he seem truly interested in how his behavior makes you feel? If the affair doesn’t feel like part of a large overall pattern, then you may want to begin the process of forgiveness. However, in order to do this, think about ways that you would need him to be different. For example, some common desires are for the spouse who had the affair to find another job away from the lover, agree to cut off all contact with her, and, if that’s impossible, to limit contact only to what’s absolutely necessary. Sometimes larger shows of trust are in order such as putting all of the assets in your name, or agreeing to move out of the area in order to avoid contact with the lover.
Both you and your husband should be aware that this may take a long time to heal. However, if you have had a good marriage up to this point, it may well be worth saving. Many people heal from the pain of an affair and use the information to make their marriages stronger, though some feel too betrayed to ever trust again. That’s why it’s critical that the second question gets fully addressed and managed by both of you. In order to be thorough, you have to ask yourself if there’s a way that you contributed to the affair.
3) Do you have any responsibility?
This is also tricky terrain. It’s common for mothers of young children to have a decrease in sexual desire due to hormonal changes and the increased stress and workload of parenting. This doesn’t mean that you “caused” your husband’s affair if you’ve been sexually disinterested. But, if you ignored his sexual needs completely over the past two years, he may have become more vulnerable to the allure of an affair. So, try to look at all three of these factors together. If the topic is too heated for the two of you to discuss, meet with a couple’s therapist who can help you navigate this often challenging terrain.