“Now what?” is the same question I asked myself over eleven years ago.
In 2004, I’d gotten married on Valentine’s Day, but 5 years later, I was facing my wife and the mother of my child after learning she’d been unfaithful.
I’d known that something wasn’t right. We’d opened a business together that year that hadn’t done well. Financial problems on top of the fact that we started barely seeing one another. I’d be gone before she even got up in the morning, and then she didn’t get home until after I fell asleep.
I would have never thought that she would cheat. I thought we were just in a “season of drought” as they say. A tough time that we’d overcome and get back to one another.
But then she admitted the dirty truth: she’d become physical with a man who was working with us at the business we’d opened together, someone I would have considered a friend. She didn’t, though, want our marriage to end. She was remorseful.
The anger hit me so hard that I had to leave. Immediately. I’ve never been the kind of guy who punch walls or throw things, but I wanted to break everything I could get my hands on.
Once I got in my car, the next thing I felt was sad. Our daughter was 3 at the time. What was I going to do? I thought, Leave her mother and no longer be able to wake up every single morning to that smiling beautiful face?
The anger, sadness, and confusion washed over me again and again as I drove. It felt like everything in me had broken, and I didn’t know what to do. I didn’t know if my marriage was over, and I didn’t know whether I even wanted that.
If you’ve been in this same place, I know you’re thinking much of the same thing: “Now what?”
Here’s what I suggest:
1. Hold off making a decision.
Not every relationship is doomed after one partner has been unfaithful. There also can be a lot to consider if you decide to leave: where you’ll live, asset division, your children, etc.
Given how huge of a decision leaving your partner can be, give it a hot second.
Take care of yourself — yes. Sleep on the couch. Get a hotel room. Take time apart, but give yourself a couple of days, a week before deciding exactly what you want to do — and need — going forward.
2. Be careful who you share with.
A level-headed third party can do a lot to keep you grounded when you’re going through something that has rattled your life and your beliefs about that life.
Whether it be a trusted friend, pastor/spiritual advisor, or individual counselor, make sure that they can keep your confidence and can provide you the kind of insightful advice you’ll need going forward. You’ll need someone you can vent to, but you don’t need someone who’s just going to bash her too.
Most importantly, if you have children with your wife, do NOT say anything around them. Regardless of how mad you are at her, your children don’t need to know the dirty details.
Instead, let them know that you and their mom are struggling and will be taking some time apart that has nothing to do with them. This will be especially helpful if you choose to stay together and work through her transgression.
3. Let yourself have your feelings.
I was told all the time as a boy, “Man up!” “Don’t be a sissy!” I was taught that certain feelings weren’t okay, especially sadness and distress.
Let yourself have all those feelings you may have been told when you were young to suppress. You can’t face this situation as clear-headed as you can if you’re trying to pretend you’re not devastated. Plus, not feeling those feelings can lead to bitter resentment, which will make both reconciling and separation/divorce more difficult than they have to be.
4. Resist vengeance.
You may want to get on a dating app or text her one friend who’s flirted with you before. You may want to find someone — anyone — to bone to get over your feelings of being so betrayed.
I caution you strongly against this.
Not only will it not help, you’d be possibly bringing in another person to an already messed up situation. It’d be best that you handle ONE situation at a time, so give yourself space first to decide if you want to give your marriage a shot.
If you DO want to leave and start dating, talk to an attorney first. In some states, dating while separated can be considered adultery. It wouldn’t matter as much that your wife cheated if you then did too.
5. Resist other bad habits.
I don’t think I’d ever been as hurt as I was when I learned my wife had cheated on me. I’ve broken bones — multiple ones — and it hurt measurably less.
I was lonely and in a lot of pain when I turned to drinking. It numbed and distracted me, but then I felt like crap the next morning. It started to affect my work, and I eventually faced some legal consequences from my drinking. I kept trying to run away from the pain, which is why it’s so important to let yourself feel your feelings.
You may too want to numb the pain by drinking, drugging, gambling, looking at porn, etc. Those things will provide only temporary relief, and unfortunately, as was the case with my situation, they may come with their own negative consequences.
6. Inventory your part.
While it took me a long time to realize this, I did have a part in why my wife cheated.
I didn’t cause her to cheat, and I’m not to blame for her choosing to do that. But, at the time she chose to, our marriage wasn’t in a good place, and I did have a part in that.
As the business was doing poorly and we were struggling financially, I focused more on working than on our relationship. I’d turned away from her. I’d stopped communicating with her about how I was doing. I’d let things stack up and I’d grown resentful.
Think about the state of your marriage when your wife cheated. There might be something you need to address to either make reconciliation possible or to have a less fraught separation/divorce.
7. Forgive her.
Whether you stay with your wife or not, you’ll need to forgive her.
Not forgiving her will hurt you more than her. It’ll eat you up. It’ll curdle every interaction you have. If you have children, it’ll make it doubly hard for them.
“Resentment is like taking poison and hoping it’ll kill someone else.”
— Alan Brandt
You can forgive without forgetting. Forgiving isn’t denying what’s happened and pretending it’s all now copasetic. It isn’t letting yourself be hurt again and again. Forgiving instead means letting go of your anger and bitterness towards that other person.
If you choose to stay with her, it’ll be the only way you can move forward. If you choose to leave her, it’ll be the only way you can move on and potentially find love again.
Forgiveness is, more than anything, an action. You’ll need to work everyday on letting the past stay the past in order to build a different future. It’ll be monumentally important for the sake of yourself, your marriage (if you stay together), and your children (if you have any).
While not every marriage will make it after a partner has an affair, more than half of them will. There’s no such thing as a marriage death sentence, but please do follow the steps I’ve suggested to figure out what you need to do for yourself and your family.