Liane found out her husband Jim has been having an affair. Liane fought with him, confronted him, pleaded with him and finally gave him an ultimatum: either terminate the affair or move out. Jim chose the latter. Now she is unsure.
“Maybe I shouldn't have kicked him out,” she said. “Do you think I did the right thing?”
Liane has done the “right” thing: she made a choice rather than avoid the issue. What she did, however, is only one of many options she could have chosen.
An affair does not necessarily signal the end of a marriage. Yet the inception of any kind of affair is an indication of marital trouble. Ideally a couple needs to deal with the underlying issues which may have triggered the affair. Meanwhile, what is someone like Liane supposed to do at this moment?
“If I really had the choice, I'd rather things remained the same as before the affair,” said Liane.
This is Liane's wish rather than a matter of choice. The fact is, once an event has taken place, people have to confront it whether they like it or not.
When someone finds out their spouse is having an affair, many choices have to be made:
The effects of an affair can't be ignored. It can easily wreck a marriage. It will not disappear by avoiding the issue. The longer the secret is prolonged the more damage will be done to the marriage. The only way to deal with it is to bring it out into the open. However, it is advisable to give yourself several days to get over the shock, then confront the issue with your partner.
Some people might be tempted to let their unfaithful partner “get it out of his system,” and so they silently suffer while waiting for things to get “back to normal.” However, if the unfaithful partner believes his spouse is willing to put up with his behaviour, he is unlikely to do anything about it on his own. Putting up with lies or permitting a partner to violate the commitment of a marriage not only makes the partner lose respect for you, you yourself will also lose self-respect.
If people like Liane choose not to put up with the affair they have to indicate their stand clearly. Begging, pleading or fighting will not accomplish anything. One needs to be firm and give the partner an ultimatum to choose between the marriage and the affair. Obviously they cannot have both.
Many people worry they have everything to lose if they push their unfaithful partner to make a choice. However, what one is asking for at this point is a separation, not a divorce. After all, if the status quo is allowed to continue it will gradually erode any trust or respect between a couple. Losing the marriage will be inevitable anyway. When an individual like Liane forces a choice on their spouse, it can compel them to consider seriously which is more important to them: their family or the affair. It might give them a chance to redirect their focus on their marriage and family.
An ultimatum of separation or divorce shouldn't be used as a weapon to get even. It is simply a way to express a clear limitation within a marriage. One should be firm about the ultimatum without being vicious.
Separation doesn't necessarily lead to divorce. It allows both a chance to think things through before any drastic action is taken. Reconciliation is not easy but is not impossible. Thus, during the separation one shouldn't burn all bridges. Avoid spreading gossip or incriminating remarks. Do not bad-mouth the partner in front of the children or try to turn children against him or her. Do not telephone their family and try to undermine their position with them. If the spouse decides to move out and continue the affair one needs to gain other support and not constantly phone them to beg them back.
Sometimes people will decide to give up their affair and turn back to rebuild the marriage. Of course, both partners must be equally willing to reconciliate. Though the affair may be over, mistrust and resentment remain. Therapy will be helpful in providing an objective view to deal with such feelings and to set realistic goals to reconstruct trust and the marriage.
Dr. Cathy Tsang-Feign is a Hong Kong-based psychologist and author of the book Keep Your Life, Family and Career Intact While Living Abroad. She is the former columnist for the South China Morning Post and American in Britain on topics of psychology and adjustment for expatriates and their families.