You are still hiding the affair. In fact, as you lay in bed with your lover you think about your husband and how much it would hurt him if he knew. You don’t love this other guy, but the sex; well… the sex is great. But you love your husband and you’ve been together for so long. And the guilt kicks in. You get up, throw your clothes on, apologize and rush out the door to get home before your husband knows you’ve been gone.
Or you are sitting across from each other in the therapist’s office. You’re both hurt. She’s crying. You feel lost. Instead of wanting to leave her and end your marriage you’ve decided that the whole affair was a big mistake. But in your heart you know that the affair isn’t over. You’re not sure how to end it. And you’re scared.
How do you end the affair?
There are three steps to ending an affair and really making your marriage work. For all the great advice your friends, family and even well-meaning therapists will give you, these are the three things you need to know to move on and help your marriage survive.
Number one: Let yourself grieve. Know that it’s not easy. Cheating is based on lies and deceit and there are usually feelings involved, even if the feelings are guilt and fear. You may have had a vision of how things might have been different with your affair partner. Maybe you had a fantasy that this relationship would work out better than it did. You are grieving that right now. Just like a death, ending the affair means you have to feel all the feelings that an ending brings. And endings can be complicated. Most people don’t come back from an affair saying “That was awful!” Instead, they come out of an affair feeling like they had a wonderful experience of passion, aliveness, intensity and fun. It can hurt to let that go. The guilt and remorse over hurting your spouse or family may be very real at the same time. And your affair partner has feelings too. They’re not just someone you cheated with. They have a life and a heart and they have a whole story to grieve as well.
Number two: End the affair with integrity. Unless you’re still in high school, don’t act like a teenager. Walking away and never looking back might feel nice at first, but don’t underestimate the impact you have made on someone else’s life. I’ve had clients who had affairs with people they work with. When they get caught or they go back to their spouse, they decide they want to end the affair and cut the affair partner off as if it never happened. They stop returning phone calls; they don’t answer emails, and don’t make eye contact in the hallway. While this may be at the request of the spouse or of a well-meaning therapist, how can you maintain that you are doing the right thing by your spouse when you can’t end this relationship like a grown-up? Clean up your mess, treat your affair partner with dignity, and end the affair with integrity. Make amends if necessary; apologize for hurting them, leading them on, or getting them into this mess in the first place. Let them know you are empathetic to their feelings and that you take responsibility for all of the consequences that have happened as a result of your actions. Make it clear that the affair has to end, but do it with care and respect. Your spouse will never believe that you are really done with the affair until you can end it with true remorse. Ignoring it and hoping it will go away just drives the feelings underground. Most likely they will pop back up someday and you may even end up going back in order to resolve your feelings.
And Number Three: Accept that you became a different person in the affair. When you were with the affair partner, a new part of you was created. Perhaps you were more charming, sexy, engaging, and maybe you really liked that part of you. Your affair partner may have brought out qualities in you that you never knew you had or that have been dormant for a long time. When you end an affair, you may feel that you have to give up not only that other person but the new person that you have become. Giving up that part of you is now no longer realistic. If you try and cut yourself off from the good feelings that new part brought you, it will only force you to hide those parts from your partner or push you back into the affair to allow you to be that person again. You have to acknowledge that this new part of you exists and find a way to integrate him or her into your marriage. This will take work with your partner and you may need the help of a therapist as well.
These three things, grieving the affair, ending the outside relationship with integrity, and integrating your new self into your marriage, are the best ways to end an affair and move on. If you want to stay married to your current spouse and make things work, sit down and talk about these three areas and how you each feel about them as you work them through.
Share what it is like for each of you on either side of the experience. You may gain some insight and understanding of your own behavior and feelings through this process.
If you are ready to put as much energy into your married life as you put into your affair, you may find that can have a new marriage — now.