Questions After the Affair
Even after you’ve had time to absorb and process the affair, certain issues just don’t seem to go away. You probably find yourself obsessing over the same questions and upsets over and over again, as if they’re buzzards circling around the dying body of your relationship.
- How could they?
- How can you trust them again?
- Why was your value so insignificant or incidental, that they chose their affair over you?
- Your rage and hatred for what they did.
- Will it happen again?
- Your own failings in the relationship.
- What this says about who they are.
- Are you second choice until there’s a ‘better’ option out there?
Why You Say You Stay
You might dread someone asking you this question because you don’t have an answer that satisfies your own doubts, let alone one that convinces someone else. It’s a difficult question, but let’s ask it anyway:
“After the choices they made, how they behaved, their lies, their manipulations, their callous disregard for you and your family, why do you stay?”
You probably have some answers on the tip of your tongue, ready to make a defensive stand for your ‘reasons’ for staying. You might even believe that these reasons make you sound like a good person, someone worthy, someone worth staying with:
- Because I love them.
- For the kids.
- Because I made a vow, ‘for better, for worse’.
- I don’t believe in divorce.
- They’re remorseful and take responsibility for their affair.
- We all make ‘mistakes‘.
- Because I believe in the power of love.
You might have some other reasons, but ones that you might not be prepared to admit openly:
- I don’t want to be seen as a failure.
- If I don’t make this work, people (myself included) might think that my cheater had a point that I am not worth sticking by, and I am so fundamentally lacking that I can’t keep my mate.
- I can’t afford to leave.
- I don’t want to lose my house, my lifestyle and my financial security.
- I am scared.
- I would rather be with a cheater than be alone.
Beneath the Surface
People tell themselves what they need to tell themselves in line with their own personal narrative. For example, if you’re positioning yourself as a righteous, courageous, and romantic champion, your narrative might be of love, and family, and standing by your cheater. Is there more beneath this?
It can challenging to drill down to the bedrock rationale underneath all the surface reasons to which you’re clinging. It’s uncomfortable to accept that you might be staying because you enjoy your martyrdom, so you deny that you’re being a martyr. It might make you feel weak and pathetic to admit that you’re more afraid of an unknown future without them than you are of staying in a dysfunctional future with them, so you say you’re staying for love.
“You can fool yourself, you know. You’d think it’s impossible, but it turns out it’s the easiest thing of all.”
~ Jodi Picoult
In truth, it’s far less brave and/or authentic to hide behind something you think casts you in a positive light, than it is to be 100% real about why you’re staying. For example, it’s self-defeating, ineffective, contradictory, and potentially harmful to claim that you’re staying for the kids, and then to bemoan your partner’s parental behavior.
Being clear about the foundational reasons for your desire to stay with your cheater will equip you to properly tackle the challenges you face.
You might even consider that you’ve committed the best years of your life to your cheater, and you’re damn sure that you’re not going to let them throw that away without a fight. Oh hell no! You invested, and you want to benefit from it, so you fail to see the cost in staying.
The Misconception: You make rational decisions based on the future value of objects, investments and experiences.
The Truth: Your decisions are tainted by the emotional investments you accumulate, and the more you invest in something the harder it becomes to abandon it.
The principle of loss aversion is often commercially exploited in our daily lives as a marketing tool. We care about losses more than we care about gains. If you’ve used Facebook, you will have heard of Farmville. There was something so alluring about growing pixel crops and tending to pixel pigs, while beautifying your pixel farm with pixel decorations. In fact, it was so alluring that many parted with real money in order to further their pixel-farm world domination. What did you actually gain?
The trick to Farmville’s success was that you very quickly found that you’d made a time investment in these inconsequential pixels. People wanted to prevent their crops from dying, unharvested … after all, they had spent time preparing the earth and seeding the crop. To leave it would mean that they had wasted their time, and it was a loss that they could prevent by further investment of more time. As the time sink climbed, so also did people’s emotional investment - for so many it became more and more difficult to stop.
As adults, we generally try to avoid a perceived loss. We base our decisions in our sense of accrued investment or waste, instead of in the immediate gains and losses of our situation as children would. Adults will make detrimental choices because they are unwilling to lose on their investment but really we’re acting on our perceived sense of loss, rather than any realistic loss or gain.
“As an adult human being, you have the gift of reflection and regret. You can predict a future place where you must admit your efforts were in vain, your losses permanent, and when you accept the truth it is going to hurt.”
“You may not play Farmville, but there is probably something similar in your life. It could be a degree you want to change, or a career you want to escape, or a relationship you know is rotten. You don’t return to it over and over again to create good experiences and pleasant memories but to hold back the negative emotions you expect to feel if you accept the loss of time, effort, money or whatever else you have invested.”
Often, the hardest thing to deal with is the failure that the affair connotes in the faithful partner. No matter how much infidelity support forums assert that an affair is not a fault or failure in them, the world at large isn’t privy to this concept. Friends, family, colleagues, acquaintances are largely uneducated about affairs and may even believe the popular myths that, “he cheated because she doesn’t know how to keep her man happy” or, “she cheated because he couldn’t keep her satisfied in bed”.
When your partner’s affair is out there in the big, bad world of popular thinking, you are judged, like it or not. You chose this person, someone might think, “They brought it on themselves for being foolish enough to choose a cheater.” If you’re a shrew one day, someone will think, “Well I can see why her husband cheated on her.” If you’re a Mr Nice Guy type, someone will think, “Ahh, it takes a real man to keep a woman faithful.” The judgment is everywhere, and it will probably have an impact on your own thinking.
You recognize your investment and you evaluate your losses if you leave, and find yourself clinging onto your investment and your perceived reputation. You might even start silently bargaining with yourself that you can tolerate certain behavior and thinking in your cheater, as long as they come home. Perhaps you have sex more often even if you’re not in the mood, because it’s a small price to pay to keep your cheater at home? Maybe you’re prepared to accept half the responsibility for the affair, so that you don’t end up in a custody battle over the kids?
The bargaining can seem so small in the big scheme of things. Maybe you even tell yourself it’s a demonstration of your love for them to make small, seemingly inconsequential sacrifices, in order to ‘save your marriage’? You’re far more invested in your fantasy payoff than you are in the cost to yourself by further investment. You’re making further investments in an already huge money pit of past investments. What’s a few more deposits? This thinking escalates your commitment to the relationship - you’re doubling down … and so the investment/loss aversion spiral continues.
The Sunk Cost Fallacy
It can seem that choosing to stay might give you the better return on your investment. You get to keep your lifestyle, your relationship, your family, your home, your financial security. You get to keep your reputation, your social standing, your position as someone ‘worthy enough’ to keep their mate faithful.
After so many years in the relationship, it’s galling to lose any of this by actions that are not your own. You see that having to start again essentially wipes your ‘life checking account’ balance to zero. If you leave you will have nothing (or very little). It will be a struggle. You won’t have unrestricted access to your kids. You will be alone. Loss, loss, loss.
One of the most difficult things to do in the wake of an affair is to look at the potential for your future and give greater importance to the upside than the down. Maybe it’s an opportunity to move, to try new things, to make new friends or to again enjoy old friendships? Maybe you release yourself from a dysfunctional relationship? Perhaps you can move out from the shadow of a controlling person, or one whose values are different than your own, or whose politics and social attitudes are no longer aligned with yours? Could it be a new opportunity to be who you’ve always wanted to be (or thought you were), to do what you’ve always wanted to do, and to be free from manipulations, betrayals, and gaslighting?
You perceive that the greatest loss is the sunk costs you have in the relationship, but what if the greater loss is the loss of your potential future if you were to leave? What if the perceived gains that keep you from leaving don’t ever pay off? What if you keep investing just to be left with a cheater who hasn’t changed, and to remain in a life and relationship that reverts to dysfunction? At what point are you throwing good money after bad?
Don’t Fear Change
Change can mean an opportunity to reclaim your life for yourself, whether you stay in the relationship or leave. It’s okay to freak out when faced with significant life change, but don’t let that become an barrier to you claiming your own future, on your own terms.
This is the most difficult thing to keep in mind and to put into practice because the psychological distress caused by some changes can make having an optimistic outlook feel like an impossible task. That’s okay. Do all the crying, kicking, and screaming you need to do; then start to seek out ways to make your new situation more livable and enjoyable. Fixating on what was lost as a result of the change will prevent us from experiencing the good things that our new circumstances can bring us. In the case of the loss of a loved one, making the best of the present would mean processing our emotional pain and working on developing an outlook that allows for renewed hope in the future and the possibility of happiness.
Change can empower you to reach for who you want to be, without impediment. It can release you from old patterns and fears and can signal the start of a freer, happier life, where you laugh loudly, speak confidently, and believe in your value in the world as an individual.
Take some risks - dare to expect real and measurable change in your cheater before you recommit to a life with them. Refuse to compromise yourself in order to keep the relationship together while your cheater does nothing to change themselves. Make a fuss about the things that matter to you, be prepared to want more for yourself than crumbs from the cheater’s table. Don’t let things slide back after a year or so of your cheater ‘really trying’ so that you once again find yourself facing all the same pre-affair behaviors and attitudes.
The real question isn’t whether you get a good return on your investment in someone else. Don’t fall into the trap of the sunk cost fallacy - let the crappy investment go. Instead of looking for ways to justify staying (or leaving), look for how your choices support your own goals for yourself, and how they take you closer to achieving them.
The best investment you can make is in yourself, because regardless of the challenges you face, the relationships you lose, the flaws you have, you never have to walk away from your investment - you always get to carry the benefit of that investment with you.
You deserve better than a Farmville relationship, investing to gain nothing. Don’t re-invest in the same relationship that produced an affair.