Is it reasonable to want to talk about the affair?

(Since I have received so many questions about the unwillingness of the spouse to answer questions about the affair, I will offer some details about the importance of talking through what has happened in order to recover and rebuild the marriage. Below are two letters from the many I have receive on this topic.)

Question #1:
Four months ago, I discovered my wife was having an affair with her boss. I confronted her with evidence, she confessed, and she has ended the relationship with the lover. We have committed to restoring the marriage. She does not want to talk about it much anymore, and I still feel the need for discussion of the affair.

Question #2:
My husband's affair has been discovered and acknowledged for six months. He has broken it off and we are trying to rebuild our marriage. I still have questions and am trying to make some sense of the 7 years that he has been unfaithful. Although I am not throwing it up into his face, the mere mention of the events of the affair shut him down. He refuses to talk, and those friends whom we have told, counsel me to forgive and go on. Is it reasonable to ask about the framework of the events?

Peggy's Response:
During the past 20 years, the most prevalent issue people have asked me about is "talking about the affair." That's because the person who has had an affair would like to "put it behind and go on" without talking about it—while the spouse has an intense "need to know" in order to try to make some kind of sense out of what has happened before they are able to "go on").

The needs of the two people are very different, and the reasons for their needs are different as well. Here's a brief overview of "why the person who had an affair doesn't want to talk" and "why the spouse wants to talk and get answers."

Why the person who had an affair doesn't want to talk
(Each of these is discussed in detail in my book, The Monogamy Myth.)

--Belief in the Basic Code of Silence:
("Never tell; if questioned, deny it; if caught, say as little as possible")
--Feelings of guilt and shame
--Protecting their partner's feelings
--Avoiding a showdown
--May want to continue having affairs

Why the spouse wants to talk and get answers

--If you have no opportunity to get information to try to "make sense" of something that has turned your life upside down, you have no way of getting beyond it.
--If someone knows something you want to know (but won't tell you), it makes you feel like a child, creating an imbalance of power with no sense of fairness or equality in the relationship.
--If you can't trust your spouse to be honest about the past, how can you trust they'll be honest in the future.
--"Not knowing" is worse than any particular facts—because the imagination is worst of all.
--The willingness to answer questions shows a commitment to doing what's necessary to rebuild trust. (This willingness is even more important than the answers per se.)

It's reasonable to want answers

The bottom line is that it's perfectly reasonable for a person to want to talk and get answers to their questions. Each person needs to decide for themselves the timing of when/what/how much they want to know (and no one should be forced to hear things they don't want to hear), but if they do want to hear details, they deserve to have their questions answered.

I had been aware of the benefits of talking from all the years of hearing the stories of people who shared with me. The results of my Survey on Affairs confirmed that getting answers to questions and thoroughly discussing the details of the affair increase the likelihood of maintaining and rebuilding the marriage and increase the likelihood of recovering from a spouse's affair. For more, see my Survey Report.

While it's possible to stay married without getting answers to questions, it's likely to be a deadened, meaningless marriage. Answering questions is usually an essential part of being able to rebuild trust and build a strong relationship for the future. Since most people would prefer a "meaningful" marriage to a "deadened, meaningless" one, having their questions answered makes a big difference.

Most of the time when you can't get answers to your questions, your partner is hoping that at some point you'll give up and that this will just "go away" and no longer be an issue. It sometimes helps to make it clear that this will always be an issue—whether or not it is dropped as a topic of conversation. (While obviously, no one can "make" their spouse talk, they can make it clear that this will always remain as a barrier between them.)

It's unreasonable for the person who had an affair to expect their spouse to suffer alone in silence—"pretending" they're OK when they're not. It's like ignoring the elephant in the room or burying your head in the sand. And it won't go away just because everyone may wish it would go away. You can't just bury it—because that's actually burying it alive, and it will come back to haunt you and to be a barrier to ever fully recovering.

As I've said before, I've never known anyone (including myself) who completely recovered from the emotional impact of a spouse's affair in less than 2 years—even with the best efforts by everyone concerned. However, let me clarify the whole idea of discussing an affair. It's not that it needs to be discussed "over and over again;" it's that it needs to be discussed enough to feel there's some understanding of what happened, what can be learned from it, and how to proceed in the future. In fact, going "over and over" the same thing is not the point of talking in the first place. The importance of talking is for the sake of "moving the process along."

Among those people (including myself) who have most thoroughly recovered from a spouse's affair, the key is talking through the whole situation for as long as necessary to reach a point of putting it in perspective where this experience no longer has the power to prevent you from going on with your life. The goal is not to get to the point of "never talking about it." (That does not represent recovery.) The goal is to get to the point where you can talk about it—without the talking triggering the old painful feelings.

Here's the way I described my experience in Beyond Affairs:
"We spent many, many hours talking about our feelings and trying to get a handle on the whole experience. Little by little it got easier to handle the emotional aspects too... Finally, one day the pain just slipped away when I didn't even notice."

Our responsibility not to "punish" for answers we get to questions we ask:

While it may not seem "fair," the one who asks for details about the affair has a responsibility to hear them in a way that doesn't punish the partner for doing what they've asked them to do. It's simply not "smart" to punish someone for being honest (despite the potential pain from the honesty) because it means the honesty will be unlikely to continue. Responding to honest answers with emotional abuse that leads to arguments is clearly not going to lead to healing or rebuilding.

I personally know how difficult it is to hear this kind of information without reacting in a way that shuts down future efforts to get answers to our questions. But we sabotage our own desire for the truth unless we find ways to reinforce our partner's honesty. The key to being able to handle the painful facts that may be disclosed through this process is to consciously remind yourself that the honesty and commitment represented by the willingness to answer questions is more positive than the painful facts themselves are negative. No matter how hard it was to hear the facts (about the past), I was comforted by the more significant fact that he was being Honest (in the present) and respecting my "need to know."

I strongly encourage the hurt spouse to read the section on "Reinforcing Honesty" (excerpted from The Monogamy Myth) in The Need to Know.

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