My Partner is Having an Affair. Now What?

Your partner is having an affair?  This is one of the most profound shocks you can receive – almost limitless pain, even if you’ve been through it before.  Everything in your world turns upside down and the intensity of finding out your partner has been cheating is hard to describe.  As the cheater, your partner is not tuned into your pain because being on the cheating side is a vastly different (and much more positive) experience. 

You are not alone.  Ari Tuckman’s research with ADHD adults and their non-ADHD partners suggests some sobering statistics.  36% of non-ADHD women had had an emotional affair and 22% had had a physical affair.  49% of women with ADHD had had an emotional affair, with 40% having had a physical affair.  On the men’s side of things, 25% of men without ADHD said they had had an emotional affair and 43% a physical affair while 28% of men with ADHD claimed emotional affairs and 39% physical affairs.

That’s a lot of cheating.  And, for some, repairing.

Some couples find that the discovery of an affair is the jolt to their systems they need to really explore the issues they face, and craft a more sustainable future (about 25% of married couples successfully survive affairs, according to recent research) .  Others find there is no clear path to recovery.   Many couples fall in between.  They try for a while, then can’t overcome the violation of trust.  But at the outset, at least, you don’t really know which group you’ll fall into.  Here are my suggestions for ways to respond when you’ve landed in this horrible situation.

8 Steps for Responding to A Just-Discovered Affair...and More

Don’t make any rash moves.  Your first instinct may be to ask for divorce and be done with all the pain – perhaps because you assume others will believe this is the ‘right’ thing to do.  It may end up being so, but many couples do recover from infidelity.  Give yourself some time – at least a few weeks – to gather information, get a bit stabilized, and assess what your options may be.  The most important immediate decision will be how much time you wish to be with or near your partner as you digest this hurt.  Some ask their partner to move out.  Others want to keep the partner close, in order to interact.  That decision is up to you.  (Note – if you are considering moving out yourself, contact a lawyer first to see what implications this might have if you do decide the only path is divorce).

Seek non-judgmental support.  Confide in a close friend whom you trust not to tell you what your decision should be, but who will act as a non-judgmental support system.  Someone with whom you can cry and talk about your feelings, including your anger and confusion.  In addition, professional support can be incredibly helpful at this time.  I suggest the friend first because you need immediate support and may not be able to find a therapist to see you immediately, but do find a professional.

Be compassionate and strong.  As hard as it may be to hear this, your partner is also probably hurting.  Putting aside an affair partner, particularly on short notice, can feel traumatic.  So you won’t be the only one in pain.  (As you contend with your partner's pain, remember it’s all too easy to create a fantasy about what it might be like to be with the affair partner, but the vast majority of the time those who go off to start a new life with an affair partner don’t end up staying together.  An affair is WAY different from living with a person full time.)

Don’t trust, and do verify.  Unless your partner came to you to expose the affair, chances are good that exposure it isn’t going to bring the affair to a screeching halt.  A partner might say they are going to end the affair, but many go underground again and linger for a while…sometimes for a long while (or stops temporarily but then restarts again).  Remember that your partner has been having this affair because it feels good…and that there is an affair partner with a desire to keep it going exerting influence, as well.  For healing to begin in what was supposed to be a monogamous relationship, the affair must stop but be aware it may not do so right away.

Here are some things that may indicate your partner still has something to hide:

  • S/he refuses to allow access to all credit card accounts and phone records
  • You find keys or a phone in your partner’s briefcase you don’t recognize
  • S/he refuses to allow you to peruse his or her electronic devices
  • Make excuses when you do come across evidence of the affair partner that has not been shared openly (“that call must have been a drunken butt dial” or “I forgot to block him/her in Facetime” after having assured you all contact options had been blocked)
  • Still traveling more than expected or needed, sometimes stays into the weekend rather than coming home
  • Unwilling to leave the phone on for access to him or her at any time
  • Spends lots of time in the bathroom with a phone or tablet (or outside or in the car)
  • Other lies – even small ones – are still obvious in the relationship
  • The partner quickly minimizes windows on the computer whenever you walk into the room
  • S/he is defensive rather than contrite when you bring up your concerns – tries to deflect blame for his or her choices back on you
  • S/he is angry about your pain or threatens to divorce you if you keep acting up
  • Things keep happening that don’t make sense – your partner wants to purchase another car even though there seems no need for one; your partner brings home bags of goodies from stores he never frequents; your partner seems eager for you to do things on your own rather than join you when you go out; your gut keeps telling you ‘something’s not right’ though you can’t put your finger on what.

Sadly, it is this stage - when a discovered affair goes back underground - that has the most destructive long-term impact on a couple.  It is particularly difficult for someone who has been cheated on to recover trust if the cheating partner convincingly states they are done.  You do the work to repair some trust and think things are better, your partner assures you it’s all over, and then the affair shows back up again.  You discover that you can neither trust your partner NOR trust your own instincts in assessing the situation.

Consider exposing the affair to other involved parties.  I’ve talked with quite a number of couples in which the affair partner was known and married.  If this is the case, I believe you owe it to fourth person in this mess to expose the affair.  It IS your business that the affair partner get pressure from the other side to clean up his or her act and I’ve only heard gratitude from partners who’ve received a call and heard ‘my partner is having an affair with your partner’. If your partner doesn’t like this, take that as an indication that their heart is not fully with you.  Because discomfort at getting outed is one of the consequences of having an affair.

Make it clear your partner must fully commit if they want to continue with you, and not with the affair partner.  Full commitment, and proof of that commitment, may take a good bit of time, and can fall apart, so is quite nerve-wracking.  Here are some ways partners may prove they are changing their path and are no longer involved with the affair partner.  (As you read these, remember that you are protecting your ability to learn to trust again):

  • Full transparency for all financial, social media, phone and email accounts – no financial accounts are hidden or off limits, including credit cards.  Insist they are shared.  If your partner balks, too bad.  They’ve earned this oversight.  If you’re not sure your partner is being transparent, let them know you’ll run a credit report to check for hidden credit cards or hire a detective to verify they are doing what they say they are doing if needed (do these things transparently - you don't want to add to the lying in the relationship)
  • Partner acknowledges they have personal work to do – takes full responsibility for improving his/her side of the partnership
  • Partner is willing to go to individual counseling and couples counseling for as long as it takes
  • Partner is willing to discuss your pain, even if it’s hard.  (Responsibility for choosing to have an affair rests solely with the person having the affair…other options for solving relationship problems existed.  They owe it to you to engage with your resulting pain.)
  • Partner is willing to discuss his or her own confusion and painful feelings openly (and I urge you to listen - though painful, there is much to learn here)
  • Partner, if still seeing the affair partner, is willing to move out and work through his or her next steps openly to conclusion
  • Trust your instincts.

Live your pain and confront your fears.  The pain is intense, but boxing it off somewhere rather than experiencing it fully hurts you in the long run.  If boxed off, you can’t work through what the pain means and address the issues behind it.  Eventually, pretending everything is okay means everything is definitely NOT okay.  In addition, to successfully determine what is best for you, you’ll need to confront any fear you might hold about leaving the relationship. Fear of being on your own can lead you to make decisions that are NOT in your best interests.  Bottom line – you are always better without a partner who has decided your needs are not important than you are with that person.

Long-term, address the underlying rot.  Somewhere, there is a reason that the affair happened.  There are feelings or habits or addictions or trauma or something else in one or both partners that has made the relationship vulnerable to a third party.    Work with a counselor – usually for quite a while – to compassionately understand the weaknesses in your partnership, and make meaningful improvements in how you are together.  Listen to, and believe, your partner’s concerns, and make sure to fully and compassionately air your own.  If you don’t do both, you risk having the same issue crop up again because the underlying problem is still there.

Interested in more resources?

Not “Just Friends”: Rebuilding Trust and Recovering Your Sanity After Infidelity by Shirly Glass, Ph.D.

Living and Loving after Betrayal by  Steven Stosney, Ph.D.

“I Love You But I Don’t Trust You”: The Complete Guide to Restoring Trust in Your Relationship by Mira Kirshenbaum