I Discovered an Affair; How Do I Approach My Partner?

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Reader’s Question

I just discovered that my partner of three years has had at least an emotional and perhaps physical relationship with someone else for the past year. AJ travels for business and has plenty of opportunity to cheat while on the road, and although I know of a past affair she had while committed to her previous partner, I am completely shocked that she has done this again.

I’m trying to find a way to talk with her about it but because of the way I discovered it, that is going to be tricky. AJ works with this person, and I discovered intimate emails they shared on her computer while downloading some software she asked me to get for her. While there, I saw an intimate email that propelled me to dig deeper. I also checked her cellphone, and there is no doubt these two were involved for at least a while. The emails appear to have stopped a couple of months ago, but I’m wondering if they’ve just gotten more clever at hiding.

I doubt AJ will ever confess to this affair because I have told her that if she ever cheated, our relationship would be over. How should I approach this very difficult subject?

Psychologist’s Reply

Several factors make this difficult to approach. If you discovered an affair, whether it was emotional or physical, you are likely feeling betrayed. You shared that you are feeling shocked, and I imagine you are having a range of other feelings, including anger, sadness, and worry. The shift in a person’s experience of both the partner and the relationship after a discovery like this is significant. You might be questioning her, yourself, the relationship, or even a conversation between you from two months ago. You might also feel tempted to ask for details and information regarding the affair. Although this is understandable, keep in mind that once you know something, you cannot un-know it! Only you can decide what amount of information will be most conducive to your ability to move forward (if that is what you want to do).

Your thought is that she will not spontaneously confess to you that this affair has occurred. This leaves you with the decision about whether and how to discuss it. For some, it feels impossible and even damaging to the relationship to sit with the new knowledge for even a short period of time. Others want time to consider options, become clear about a position, and choose words carefully. Again, no approach is right or wrong; there are as many variations as there are people.

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You mentioned feeling unsure how to discuss this with AJ because you discovered the affair by reading emails and cell phone records, which is sometimes called “snooping.” Snooping is a violation of privacy. If you read about others’ experience with infidelity, I think you will find that it is not uncommon. There will likely be some anger on her part regarding this. You will likely have to discuss your actions in the midst of your own feelings of anger, betrayal, and hurt because of the affair that you discovered. It will be tempting to engage in “blame shifting,” which is when someone ducks a focus on his or her actions by introducing the other person’s mistakes. In these situations, each partner has a part in the resolution, and each might be able to identify a part in pre-existing problems. Affairs and snooping do not occur in a vacuum; I would hope that if you were to stay together, you would eventually drill down to some of the issues that underlie the current situation.

You have not mentioned whether you want to continue the relationship. There is no prescription for whether a partner should leave or stay after infidelity. It is easy for those outside of any situation to say, “one should never stay with someone who…” However, black and white statements such as this are difficult to apply, because the history, context, and uniqueness of individuals in any particular relationship demand a more nuanced approach.

One type of therapy, called solution-focused therapy, is based in part on the idea that it is useful to identify your goals by considering ‘the miracle question.’ The miracle question goes something like this: Imagine that you were to wake up tomorrow and by some miracle everything good you could ever imagine for yourself had actually happened, and your life had turned out the way you wanted it too.

  • What will you notice around you that lets you know that the miracle has happened?
  • What will you hear?
  • What will you see?
  • What will you feel inside yourself?
  • How will you be different?

The key here is that you cannot go back and change what has already happened. The miracle question helps people clarify exactly what it is they would like to create or move toward in their lives given their current circumstances. What would you want for yourself assuming that you know exactly what you know now? This question might be helpful in letting yourself envision whether you desire a resolution with AJ or not. And your answers to this may change with time.

Another tool in solution-focused therapy is to review past successes and apply them to current problems. In this vein, a solution-focused therapist would ask you to consider how you and AJ have solved problems before. You might be feeling as if you do not have the tools in your toolbox to deal with this situation in particular, but the key is to assume that you do. How have you initiated conversations about difficult topics with her that then led to a conversation, ideas, or eventual resolution? What role do you typically take in these conversations? A solution-focused therapist would assist you in reviewing the successes you and AJ have had in moving past conflict.

There are many self-help books written about moving through and past infidelity in relationships. A search of “classic infidelity books” on a major online bookseller offers a list of books, descriptions, and user reviews. One title, Not “Just Friends”: Rebuilding Trust and Recovering Your Sanity After Infidelity, by Shirley P. Glass and Jean Coppock Staeheli [Amazon-US | Amazon-UK] caught my eye because it appears to match your situation. Another book that is frequently recommended is, After the Affair: Healing the Pain and Rebuilding Trust When a Partner Has Been Unfaithful, by Janis Abrahms Spring [Amazon-US | Amazon-UK]. A word of caution for anyone who reads books with an eye for advice: even the best self-help books do not always include information that is inclusive of cultural concerns or gay and lesbian relationships. You will probably find a range of opinions and positions, so feel free to use and discard the advice as it feels helpful to you.

As I frequently do, I will end this by noting that couples’ counseling can be a private, supportive, and safe place to work through problems. For many couples who are dealing with infidelity, it can be helpful to have assistance from someone who has seen how these things typically unfold. You might not know what to expect, but a therapist could alert you to common feelings and pitfalls. Couples’ therapy can also be a resource for communication tools that can be helpful in any case, whether a couple chooses to rebuild the relationship or part ways.

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