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My husband cheated on me one year ago and we’ve been working to heal our marriage, but it’s taking a longer time than I imagined. I’m not doing well most days and feel like I have to pretend that things are better than they really are, especially around my children and my parents. We’re a very close family and my sibling and parents are involved in each other’s lives. I don’t think they know about the affair, as neither of us have said anything to anyone, but they do ask me on a regular basis how I’m doing and I think sometimes they can tell that I’m not great. I feel like it’s our business to deal with and no one else’s business, but I also know my siblings and parents would want to support me (and us) if they ever found out. What are some good guidelines on who to tell?
The discovery of your husband’s affair creates a difficult dilemma of wanting to scream out for help and simultaneously wanting to hide from the world. Unfortunately, for most women, these kinds of betrayals push them toward deep isolation that makes it difficult to say anything, even though they desperately want to share their pain with someone.
Infidelity creates chaos, so it’s good to be aware of common reactions that can surface. Many women feel worried about exposing their partner’s behavior to others. They struggle to protect his reputation, even though they’re terribly hurt by his actions. This is not an easy decision for a betrayed woman. She not only worries about how others will see her partner, but also how others might see her for being in a relationship with someone who cheated. This fear usually keeps women silent and hiding in shame.
Of course, there are betrayed partners who have the opposite reaction and tell anyone who will listen. Since this is not your particular struggle, I’ll focus on what to do about the isolated state in which you find yourself.
Sometimes it’s safer to begin telling your story to someone outside of the family so you can fight the pull of isolation and at least have the experience of sharing your story with a safe and healthy person. Everyone needs a witness to their pain so they can know that they’re not alone. Isolation is one of the most punishing things we can experience as humans. You need to know that you are a human worthy of love and belonging. You need to know that your pain matters to someone else. Ultimately, you need ongoing reassurance that you won’t have to do this alone.
Naturally, the fear of being judged, criticized, misunderstood, blamed, has likely kept you silent. At the same time, sharing with anyone who will listen can be just as harmful to your long-term recovery. You don’t want to spend any time worrying about what happens to your information. You don’t need additional betrayals of people gossiping and criticizing.
Dr. Henry Cloud and Dr. John Townsend wrote a book called “Safe People” that outlines the characteristics of people who are more likely to protect you and your story. They identify safe people by the following characteristics:
- They value love and connection
- They have the ability to trust others
- They value responsibility and aren’t overly dependent on others or allow others to be overly dependent on them
- They are honest and transparent with their lives
- They work on their own issues
- They have good track record and have respectfully deal with yours or other people’s private information.
- They encourage you to grow individually and in your relationships with other people.
I will also add some qualities I’ve observed in safe and healthy people:
- They are well acquainted with suffering and have graciously learned important lessons from their trials
- They are good listeners and don’t interrupt
- They don’t gossip about other people
- They are fair and work to see the big picture
- They keep their promises
- They don’t jump to conclusions
Carefully consider if there are people in your life that fit these criteria, including family members. It takes time and experience to find safe relationships. You don’t need to have more than one person in your life that fits this description. Even though it’s good to have multiple people in your life that can support you, recognize that when you are working through the messy and vulnerable early stages of an affair, it’s not a good idea to broadcast your situation to multiple people. This will leave you feeling more exposed, scattered, and anxious about having to keep everyone updated and in the loop, as things can change quickly.
While there is a natural reflex to turn toward parents or siblings after the crisis of discovery, this may not always be a good idea. Once you unload all of your trauma on your parents and siblings (who are naturally going to take your side), they may have difficulty supporting your marriage down the road if you choose to reconcile. You don’t want to spend the rest of your marriage trying to defend your decision to get back together.
However, many families are healthy and provide the best kind of support. Healthy family members know you, care about your marriage, and will give you a permanent shoulder to cry on when you’re struggling to put together the shattered pieces of a betrayed life. Just make sure you make sure this person is grounded and won’t make things worse after you tell them. Brene Brown put it this way, “If you share your shame story with the wrong person, he or she can easily become one more piece of flying debris in your already dangerous shame storm.”[i]
If word starts to get out about your situation, please remember that you don’t owe anyone an explanation of any details just because they ask. And, you certainly don’t need to apologize for not sharing your story with them. You can simply tell them that you appreciate their concern, but you already have the support you need.
It’s critical to take a little time to carefully select someone who will hold your story with respect and compassion. Find someone who has earned the right to know that story.[ii] Trust is earned. It’s not something you give someone just because they’re family, you attend church with them, or you roomed with them in college. Safe people have passed multiple relationship tests and continue to provide you with the steady reassurance that they can handle your reality.
Start by identifying the safest person you can think of and start sharing with them. Obviously, I don’t recommend you do this by text message or email. Sometimes phone is the only option you have, but if it’s possible, face-to-face is best. You need the nonverbal reassurance that you’re not crazy, to see them reflect your pain, and to know that you can be comforted by someone who cares deeply about you. Even if it’s a tremendous sacrifice to get with this person face to face, I promise you it’s worth it. Perhaps they might even come to you if you ask them.
If you can’t identify anyone in your natural support system that meets the criteria for a safe person, then don’t settle for the next best person. It’s better to find a therapist or a church leader (male or female) who can hear your messy story and provide you with a secure space to share. Then, after you feel more grounded and clearer about your situation, you can take the time to find other people who are safe.
Don’t worry about how your story is shared. If they’re a safe person, you won’t have to edit your information in a way that makes it easy for them to hear. Just share and release and let it go where it needs to go. A safe person will track you and stay with you and let you know you can say whatever you need to. This is not a time to worry about protecting them. It’s a time for you to organize your shattered reality. So, put all the pieces out there in whatever order they appear and trust that over time it will all come together.
The experience of sharing your story with safe people allows you to reaffirm you worth, see your progress, and even open up more support to others who are struggling. It’s not a betrayal to your husband’s mistakes. I believe that if he’s interested in your healing, he’ll understand that you need support, especially in those moments where you have difficult trusting him. Everyone wins when sharing is done in a respectful, compassionate, and safe environment.
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.geoffsteurer.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.