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Published May 29, 2009, 12:00 AM

Keeping a marriage after affair is discovered

In my experience as a counselor for troubled marriages, I have seen many situations where couples enter counseling in a state of crisis just after an affair has been discovered.

By: By Val Farmer, INFORUM

In my experience as a counselor for troubled marriages, I have seen many situations where couples enter counseling in a state of crisis just after an affair has been discovered. There is great pain and ambivalence for both parties as they seek to communicate and sort out what comes next.

The abrupt discovery of the affair was not the unfaithful spouse’s idea or choice. If it were, the affair would have already ended.

No goodbyes have been said. There has been no grieving the loss of the relationship. Finally, the decision to end the affair is being forced instead of being one’s own.

Instead of a wholehearted response to the marriage, the unfaithful spouse bargains for time and rationalizes reasons to meet or maintain contact with his or her lover. In most cases this prolongs the affair and complicates immensely the process of reconciliation. There is no fresh start for the marriage and a muddled painful parting for the lovers.

Holding on to both spouse and lover.

To illustrate the destructiveness of this ambivalence, let’s take, for example, the anguish of an unfaithful husband after his affair has been exposed.

A decision has to be made. But oh what a decision!

Does he give up his lover who has brought a fresh flame of romance into his life? Couldn’t he keep her as a friend? Or does he give up the companion whose years of steady love and devotion have meant so much? With the probable loss of custodial care of his children, can he stand to be away from them? What about his sense of honor and obligation to his wife and children who don’t deserve to have their life ripped away from them with such a blow?

He doesn’t make a decision willingly. The decision is put off as long as possible. Being perched precariously on the fence is an anguishing experience, but to him it seems preferable to jumping off on either side.

His wife and lover, provided both still want him, are pushing and pulling to resolve an unnatural situation. To them, love can’t be shared. His wavering loyalty seems to depend on his feelings at the time and whom he is with.

Ending the affair.

After much agony, he finally decides to stay in his marriage and end his affair. But out of a sense of misguided obligation and to ease the blow for himself and his lover, he wants to meet with his affair partner.

Even his voiced need to assist his lover with her pain rankles his wife. What about her pain? Isn’t she the victim? The test of his love is his loyalty. Especially now at this very moment.

Not all affair partners passively or willingly accept their fate. They can be angry, vindictive or seductive. The ending of the affair wasn’t on her timetable or her choice either.

There is a “chance” meeting, one “last” phone call, one “last” meeting to give a full explanation and one “final” goodbye to be said. Only it isn’t the last. Given the slightest opportunity or encouragement from his affair partner, the wayward husband climbs right back on the fence.

A second betrayal.

There is a new round of deception, more desperation, and more reluctance to give up his affair. His wife, with all her intuition, again senses his lack of commitment and motivation. New doubts and accusations are voiced.

With great intensity, the affair is denied, only to have the secret become unraveled to expose a second and more devastating betrayal. Trust is shattered again. Again, the husband comes down in favor of working on his marriage.

For him, it is not much different than the first time, but for her, her trust and confidence has been dealt a second and perhaps a more deadly blow. She wants with all her heart to take him back, but her trust and openness cannot be given freely to his promises and entreaties.

She is more guarded, less able to forgive or forget. He was so convincing! Will there be a next time? How does one really know? He lied and then he lied again after he told the truth.

All contact must be cut off.

Many affairs end with fumbling false starts that rip scabs off wounds, inflict fresh pain and prolong the healing process. Is there a right way to end an affair? There is, but it requires courage and character. A fence sitter won’t like this message.

The way to end an affair is to end it. No meetings, no phone calls, no letters, no promises, no hedging, no explanations, no goodbyes, no contact, no nothing. An attempt at a bittersweet ending, a la Hollywood, dissolves into a pathetic renewal of an illicit relationship that continues to destroy everyone in its path.

Lack of contact is the clearest message of all that the affair is really over. Everyone involved needs that message.

Reconciliation and trust are much more difficult when the affair partner remains a part of the offender’s work and social environment. Negotiations about boundaries are painful and awkward. But that is another story.

Ugly mistakes wound and hurt precious relationships, but the real test of character is what we do about those mistakes once they occur. Instead of inflicting more wounds, it is time to choose and act decisively.

Val Farmer is a clinical psychologist specializing in family business consultation and mediation with farm families. He lives in Wildwood, Mo., and can be contacted through his Web site,