- Isabelle Morley, PsyD
What to do Right After Discovering an Affair
If you've just discovered your partner's affair, you're probably reeling. Here are the first things you should do after finding out that your partner has been unfaithful.
Discovering that your partner has been cheating on you is one of the most upsetting things a person can go through in their relationship.
It turns your world upside down.
The person you trusted has betrayed you, and everything you thought you knew feels uncertain.
You are probably devastated and disoriented, and wondering what to do. So here are the first things you should do and keep in mind after discovering an affair.
Don't Feel Pressure to Make Any Decisions
You might think you need to decide about staying together or ending the relationship, but give yourself time. Your world has been rocked and you don't have all the information yet. Barring some extreme scenarios, you should take time to process what you've discovered and postpone any definitive decision.
If you share this discovery with close friends or family, you might get some pressure from them to end things. People who care about you will be hurt and angry on your behalf, and with the best of intentions they will want to get rid of the person who did this to you. However, this is not their life or their relationship. Don't let people push you into action before you're ready. It's up to you whether you stay or leave, and there's no right or wrong decision.
Shore up Your Supports
You will need support during this time. The person you've trusted more than anyone has just broken that trust and (probably, totally understandably) made you feel very insecure about your relationships. You need to find a few core people who can be there for you and make you feel safe.
Now, pick these people carefully. A few select friends or family members is a good place to start. Also, your therapist can be one of these support people. Just be mindful that anyone you tell will have an opinion about what you should do, so pick people who are good listeners and are able to provide support without pushing you one way or another.
Find Out if It's Over
First things first, you need to know if the affair is over. If your partner came clean about cheating, ask them if the relationship (including all contact) has ended. If you were the one to discover it, ask them if they are now going to end it. If your partner is unsure or unwilling in response, you need to set some boundaries. You can't heal yourself or your relationship as long as your partner is still seeing this other person.
And to be clear, because of the very nature of an affair, ending one means the end of all contact. Your partner can't stay friends with someone they've been cheating on you with, full stop. If your partner refuses to stop speaking to or seeing this person, that might be your answer. In order to have any chance at getting through infidelity, the third person needs to be completely out of the picture.
Ask Investigative Questions
The well-known couples therapist Esther Perel differentiates between two kind of questions after discovering an affair- investigative ones and detective ones. Investigative questions help you understand what led to the infidelity, make sense of the nature of their relationship, and figure out what you want to do. These are questions like "Did you feel badly coming home after cheating?", or, "Did you ever think about telling me before I found out?" They are aimed at understanding what your partner was thinking and feeling, and making sense of an incredibly confusing and upsetting situation.
Detective questions, on the other hand, are painfully specific and serve no purpose besides deepening the wound. They are detail-oriented inquiries about what happened, where, by whom, how often... you get the idea. Answers to these questions paint a terribly vivid picture in your head that you can't shake, and they don't help you gain understanding or decide what to do next.
Prepare Yourself for Some Difficult Conversations
As you begin asking those investigative questions, you're going to get hard to hear answers. Maybe your partner didn't feel that badly about cheating. Maybe they are pretty sad about not having contact with the other person, even though they want to stay with you. The emotions that accompany infidelity are complex, and you may have a partner who is also feeling sad, distressed, lonely, and hurt, in addition to (hopefully) remorse.
This may be hard to hear, but people don't cheat for no reason. Research from the Gottman Institute shows that affairs are usually the result of some unmet meed in the primary relationship. Your partner may have been feeling emotionally isolated, physically disconnected, or a number of longings that led them to find another person to feel close to. This doesn't excuse the cheating, but prepare yourself to hear that your partner has been unhappy and that you'll both need to make some changes if you want to stay together.
Allow Yourself to Feel All the Feelings
There's no way around it, you're going to be on an emotional rollercoaster for awhile. Unless you're amazingly skilled at the defense of denial, you are going to be facing some difficult feelings. From devastation to anger, confusion to connection, and loneliness to jealousy, you might be surprised and even worried about your many feelings.
It's also not uncommon for some people to seek closeness to their partner after discovering an affair, which many find confusing and distressing. After all, why would you want to be comforted by or even have sex with someone who has been cheating on you? But keep in mind- although this person deeply hurt you, they are also the person who has been your biggest source of reassurance and love. It makes sense that you would try to reestablish that connection after feeling so hurt. Be compassionate towards yourself and any/all of your feelings and responses.
Take Care of Yourself
This is a time for intensive self-care. You need to prioritize whatever will make you feel stable and secure during this time. The best go-to strategies are exercising, spending time with people who love you, getting outside, sticking to your routine as much as you can, and getting enough sleep.
One part of self-care to consider is your living situation. If you live with your partner you may want more or less space from them. Maybe you want to stay with a friend for a few days, or maybe you just want to be at home more. Maybe you ask your partner to leave for some time, or you spend more time with friends, or you spend more time alone... you get the idea.
"Ok, Then What?"
If you've regained your balance after discovering an affair, now is the time when the real work can start. If you've decided you're open to working on the relationship and staying together, you should consider couples therapy. Navigating a rupture in trust as big as infidelity is no small task, and an experienced couples therapist can be invaluable.
If time or resources don't allow for that, I'd recommend reading as much as you can about the healing process (these books by Esther Perel and this book by Janis Abrahms Spring are excellent places to start). Make sure your partner does this too; they need to be willing to do the work.
If you've decided you can't forgive your partner, then it's time to end things. As painful as it is to go through a breakup or divorce, you will heal from this, too. There is no rule that you have to "give it another try" if you know that you can't or don't want to.
Again, there is no right or wrong decision. Some people want to stay with their partner and some don't. You need to decide what is best for you and then do that, no matter what anyone else thinks.