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My wife had an affair years ago and I’m now wondering if it’s normal to not deal with those emotions for a long time. And, will it help me to ask about the details seven years later? I worry that it’s too late to bring it up again. I’ve been okay for years but it continues to hinder my trust for her.
It’s very normal to avoid dealing with painful experiences. Numbing pain is something we do quite reflexively in our weak and fallen state. We numb through distraction, substances, food, working, anger, money, or avoidance. Eventually, however, the numbing wears off and we have to do something about it. We can increase the numbing or we can square up to the difficult emotions and begin exploring the reality we’ve been avoiding.
Dr. Judith Herman wrote that when it comes to atrocities, the “ordinary response is to banish them from consciousness.” She continues:
“Atrocities, however, refuse to be buried. Equally as powerful as the desire to deny atrocities is the conviction that denial does not work. Folk wisdom is filled with ghosts who refuse to rest in their graves until their stories are told. Remembering and telling the truth about terrible events are prerequisites both for the restoration of the social order and for the healing of individual victims.”[i]
I’m glad you want to bring this up with your wife. It’s never too late to talk about your emotions. These feelings aren’t expired just because it’s been seven years. They’re current, fresh, and active. Since you’ve never discussed these feelings with her, then you don’t even know how she feels about what you’ve been through. You have both missed out on important opportunities to heal and build intimacy. You need to speak, she needs to hear, and both of you need to have a chance to heal from these terrible events.
If she hasn’t ever provided you with a complete disclosure of her behaviors, then rebuilding trust is going to be more difficult. Work closely with a qualified marriage therapist who specializes in working with infidelity so they can help structure this disclosure. A proper disclosure provides you with a chance to unite realities instead of living with walls between you. It also allows her to bring you the whole truth instead of you having to extract it piece by agonizing piece. Her willingness to open up and turn to you with the truth sends a clear signal that she will protect you and the marriage instead of protecting herself and her secret life.
There’s a principle I learned years ago that goes something like this: “If you can name it, you can tame it.” In other words, you will cope better with the difficult emotions you’re feeling if you can name them. Perhaps you’ve forgiven her for what she’s done, but you still worry about certain aspects of the affair that still leave you feeling unsettled. Maybe she’s maintained some distance from you since the discovery and you wonder what changed for her as part of that experience. Whatever the reason, you are experiencing feelings that won’t resolve until you have a chance to organize them and share them.
Your wife may long to talk about the relationship as well. She may feel that she doesn’t get to discuss her concerns because she violated the marriage covenant. Both of you need permission to explore what this affair has changed for each of you and what you want to do now in the aftermath.
You’re worried about bringing this up because you don’t want to make things worse for the marriage. You can tell your wife that you are worried about making things worse, but that you have questions and concerns you’d like to discuss. Let her know how important she is to you and that you only want to talk so you can get closer to her. If you get stuck and don’t know how to move forward, then, as I mentioned earlier, seek specialized help so you can rebuild the fractured marital bond.
Elder David A. Bednar reassures us that, “the results of sincere repentance are peace of conscience, comfort, and spiritual healing and renewal.”[ii] This renewal comes not only to the one who violated their covenants, but can also come to the injured partner and the marriage. Elder Bednar further emphasized that it requires a complete healing, which can’t be short because it’s uncomfortable. He said, “Please remember, however, that the extent and intensity of your repentance must match the nature and severity of your sins—especially for Latter-day Saints who are under sacred covenant. Serious spiritual wounds require sustained treatment and time to heal completely and fully.”[iii]
Geoff will answer a new family and relationship question every Friday. You can email your question to him at firstname.lastname@example.org
About the Author
Geoff Steurer is a licensed marriage and family therapist in St. George, UT. He is the owner of Alliant Counseling and Education (www.alliantcounseling.com) and the founding director of LifeStar of St. George, an outpatient treatment program for couples and individuals impacted by pornography and sexual addiction (www.lifestarstgeorge.com). He is the co-author of “Love You, Hate the Porn: Healing a Relationship Damaged by Virtual Infidelity”, available at Deseret Book, and the audio series “Strengthening Recovery Through Strengthening Marriage”, available at www.marriage-recovery.com. He also writes a weekly relationship column for the St. George News (www.stgnews.com). He holds a bachelors degree from BYU in communications studies and a master’s degree in marriage and family therapy from Auburn University. He served a full-time mission to the Dominican Republic. He is married to Jody Young Steurer and they are the parents of four children.
[i] Herman, Judith. Trauma and Recovery. Basic Books, NY (1997), p. 1