Cling Kong and the Magical Reconciliation Pixie
Hands up if you feel under pressure about the decisions you make in the aftermath of the affair.
If you raised your hand (mentally or otherwise) then you know exactly what I am talking about: The affair has bulldozed you into eating a shit sandwich that has been speared with one of those gaily colored flags-on-a-stick, commemorating the sheer level of fucked that you feel. Your only choice: bread, or no bread?
What do most faithful spouses do in immediate response to affair discovery? They become Cling Kong. Their happy existence has been decimated, they’re terrified and enraged at the same time, but they love their cheater and will do whatever it takes to keep them/get them back (even if it does mean lugging them to the top of the Empire State Building while fending off attacks all round). Reconciliation, ‘winning’ their cheater back, self-blame, working on the marriage in therapy, rationalizing how it happened - these things are the knee-jerk emotional reactions in the initial aftermath. If unchecked these things will mutate Cling Kong into the Magical Reconciliation Pixie.
It doesn’t take long before anger replaces shock, disgust tempers love, and creeping doubt replaces any relief that the end of the affair might have brought. Cling Kong inhales a heavy dose of What The Fuck?! if the cheater just keeps on cheating, or if everything doesn’t go well in reconciliation land. Even Magical Reconciliation Pixies get a wake up call when the cheater essentially shrugs, says sorry, and asks you to pass the salt (you know, to rub into that oozing, inflamed, pustulant wound that used to be your heart).
Under Pressure: doing the ‘right’ thing
However much the cheater claims to feel the weight of their upset and sadness and shame (because most cheaters still have trouble pronouncing the word ‘consequences’, preferring instead to claim their ‘remorse’ in terms of their own feelings), it is the faithful spouse who is under immense pressure about their decisions as they try to stay afloat in the turbulent post-affair waters. And yes, those waters are shark infested and you likely feel like a stinky tub of chum. It’s unsurprising that ‘my spouse’ is soon replaced with ‘cheater’, which is soon replaced by the universally satisfying, ‘fucktard’ (true for most who land at IHG, anyway! 😀 ).
Unsurprisingly, navigating post-affair decisions presents similar challenges for every faithful spouse - they are subject to the prevailing social agendas and cultural influences, resulting in similar tussles with some core issues. On top of the upset and instability caused by the affair, the stress of trying to balance personal feelings and their sense of obligation and good intent towards others can be overwhelming.
It’s not difficult to list the primary concerns facing people after an affair but we were interested in how people weighted each issue in their decision making process. In an attempt to capture that, we ran a low-key poll for a number of months last year.
We asked the question: What factors influenced your decisions after discovery of an affair?
Life is a series of complexities and interdependent factors, and post-affair decisions are rarely -if ever- going to be contained in neat, discrete packages. A decision that affects finances might also affect children, decisions made for independence might affect extended family etc. Things are already messy enough, and the whole thing is further complicated by feelings for the cheater.
1st Place: Children
It’s unsurprising that this returned as the number one concern. Custody battles, co-parenting vs parallel parenting, continuity and security, whether to tell them about the affair, what is age appropriate … the list of worries for parents goes on and on. Staying for the kids is a common decision, and most people can probably understand it to a point.
However, staying for the kids isn’t necessarily best for the kids. The post-affair relationship will be dysfunctional - I am willing to state that categorically, because damaging and unhealthy behaviors are inherent in both cheating and the knee-jerk post-discovery response. Dysfunction is inherent in a post-affair relationship and it can take years for it to resolve into something healthy, if it resolves at all. Staying for the kids exposes them to that dysfunction, it models an unhealthy dynamic, and tension and upset cascade down to them. Shit rolls down hill after all and kids have no independent ability to dodge out of the way.
Leaving is not without its impact on kids either, of course, and this will take some active and sensitive management, possibly with some professional support. Yet there can be a significant upside to it: they can learn how to respond to challenges and how to identify and protect themselves from manipulation and other dysfunction. Seeing a parent make difficult choices and teaching them that no relationship is better than a damaging and unhealthy one can give them the tools and confidence to make wise, informed choices in their own lives to keep themselves healthy and safe.
2nd Place: Financial Concerns
I doubt there is anyone who cannot relate to this in some way. Regardless of whether you are the cheater or the faithful spouse, contemplating divorce hammers home:
- financial inequity and reliance
- how financially challenging unplanned singledom can be, even with alimony/spousal support and child support
- the loss of a second income where both spouses work
- the loss of disposable income
- the sense of injustice if the faithful spouse ends up paying support to the cheater
Many homemakers find themselves squirreling money away from the household budgets, or openly experience being ‘starved out’ by the more financially viable spouse. Lowered income and the resulting changes to lifestyle, living situation, and ability to engage good legal representation can be a terrifying prospect.
3rd Place: Negative Thinking
Your spouse having an affair can have a significant impact on your self-esteem. Rejection is often seen as the core source of the emotional and psychological damage to the faithful spouse, but it isn’t. Rejection is not unusual in relationships but in affairs, the deception, systematic manipulation, emotional games, and gaslighting aggregates into a highly effective erosion of the faithful spouse’s sense of identity, reality, and value. This can manifest as (to name just a few):
- general mistrust of others, and associated avoidant and fearful thinking and behavior, including social isolation
- self-blame and being hyper critical of themselves, lack of self-worth
- a lack of confidence in their own judgment, up to and including hypersensitivity/paranoia
- enveloping sense of general fear, and associated anxiety, distress, and self-destructive behaviors
- expectations, endurance, and acceptance of future mistreatment and abuse
Negative thinking and catastrophe thinking can freeze someone in place, preferring the known quantity of the cheater and the relationship -however dysfunctional- over the potential future.
Joint 4th Place:
A lot of faithful spouses are naturally inclined ‘fixers’. No matter how often they hear that they cannot fix what they did not cause (the affair), their inner Pixie is driven to try. They sacrifice for the good of the relationship and the family, they endure in the hopes that their goodly caretaking of the cheater will be the catalyst to the cheater’s change, and they hope that their bravery and love will reap the rewards they seek: Happy Ever After. Pixies like to feel wanted and part of their identity is tied into a sense of accomplishment in keeping things together with string and sticky tape in the face of adversity. They’re not quitters - but Pixies are terrified. Being out of control, at the mercy of others, being unjustly treated, not properly rewarded for their commitment and work, and losing what they see as theirs? These are the things that motivate Pixies to redouble their ‘fix-it’ efforts.
b) manipulation by cheater
This can take a variety of forms, as we explore in Don’t Pet the Snakes. Victimhood, the New Nice Experience, and anger:
This is a very common manipulative behavior intended to keep you in place and frighten you into submission i.e. put up and shut up or things could get rocky. This is often characterized by threats about custody, a war instead of a divorce, and even threats to cheat again or re-establish contact with the affair partner.
IHG: Don’t Pet the Snakes
The most common and effective manipulation is the New Nice Experience - particularly the promise of reconciliation. The cheater panders to the faithful spouse, promising change and the moon, reparation and Happy Ever After … all while continuing the affair, or having another one, or slipping comfortably into the worn same-old-same-old, no actual change or intent to change in sight.
6th Place: Personal Goals
Yaaaaay! for this making sixth place, and not falling off the bottom of the poll with a big, ugly zero. But boooooo! for it not being first.
It’s time to take a long, hard look at your relationship and whether it takes you further towards your own goals for yourself, or away from them. Don’t reconcile because you think it’s easier, or better for the kids, or because you don’t think you can make it on your own - you can. Be clear about how your marriage disadvantages you, how it benefits you, if it lived up to your expectations, what compromises you make to stay in it, and whether what you get out of it is worth what it takes away from you and out of you.
We’ve all heard the analogy: put your own oxygen mask on first. Your marriage is not of greater worth than yourself. Decisions in your own interests, protection, and for a self-directed life are neither negative, nor notional or unattainable. Enduring ‘less than’, or mistreatment, or unhappiness, or dysfunction is not a measure of your respectability, your rectitude, or your value. If it isn’t working for you, or if your cheater is not demonstrating measurable change to their mindset and behaviors (or even if they are!), you are NOT obligated to stay and it is completely acceptable for you to make an ethical and honorable exit.
7th Place: Zero Tolerance to Cheating
Well, woah! Now that’s a surprise. So much so, in fact, that I smell the faint whiff of, ‘Zero tolerance when reconciliation failed’ and the malodorous scent of, ‘Zero tolerance when the cheating didn’t stop’. I know, I am a skeptical naysayer.
In our experience, very few faithful spouses operate on a Zero Tolerance basis. Very few. Hardly any, in fact, initially at least. Most get on the reconciliation whirligig for a spell until the lurching around stops or they puke enough to get off the ride and run for the hills. I can completely believe a zero tolerance approach after one chance, and my inner pollster tends to believe this is what these votes mean.
Joint 8th Place:
a) external influence and
b) religious beliefs
Clergy, therapists, family, friends, infidelity sites, society (with its judgment and stigmas) - everyone has an agenda. Access to informed, balanced, and trustworthy information is invaluable in helping you make good decisions after affair discovery. You evaluate this information against the backdrop of your own beliefs about marriage, family, divorce, non-traditional relationship models, love, forgiveness, and commitment etc.
These are powerful influences and it can be exceptionally difficult to make decisions which you feel compromise these things. I would simply advise you to apply those same beliefs to as many potential outcomes as you can: reconciliation in dysfunction, reconciliation if the cheater makes the necessary changes to their thinking and behavior, divorce, non-traditional relationships etc. Is being in a marriage where you are mistreated or undervalued or unequal really any more aligned or misaligned than your beliefs about divorce?
10th Place: Other
The catch-all ‘other’ could of course be any number of things. I would take a guess at some: Love, age, legal issues, business, domestic abuse, medical issues, employment potential, guilt. Whatever issues are contained in that umbrella ‘other’, I hope that you can find your way through them.
Under Pressure: damned if I do, whatever I do
Let’s face it - there is never going to be an ideal post-infidelity decision. There’s never going to be an all-round win for you, your kids, your finances, and your lifestyle. Something will take a hit. Understand and accept this as inevitable and then work towards the decisions that move you towards goals that are within your reach and control, and that are not contingent on the cheater’s good behavior.
You can’t escape some detrimental and negative fallout, but you can maximize the benefits of the upsides.
In the absence of a time machine and a thumb drive containing a character transplant to upload to your cheater’s brain when you land in pre-fucktard time, you can’t decline the shit sandwich (and I agree with Chump Lady that it IS a shit sandwich). The only real choices you have when you’re under pressure to make decisions after the affair, are: “Bread, or no bread?” and “Do you want a pickle with that?”
I vote more bread, less shit, and pass on the pickle.