Imagine that you woke up one day and realized that all of your memories from the past couple of years were false. Everything that you understand in your current life is based on your memories of past events, of how you got to the moment that you’re in now. How much confidence could you have in your present life and your current relationships if those memories suddenly became unreliable? Your first reaction to such an experience would most likely be to dig for answers, to reconstruct your memories according to reality. Whether or not those memories were more pleasant than the ones you previously held would be secondary to your obsession with discovering the truth, and you would most likely be willing to restructure your view of the present according to that newly discovered reality.
This is how I felt upon discovering my wife’s affair. I suddenly realized that my memories from the past two years were inaccurate, but I had no idea what reality was. Before I could focus on any attempt at moving forward, I had to reconstruct my memories of the past. I needed to know when the affair started and how I could have been so blind to it. I needed to know significant dates when my wife was with the other guy instead of with our family. I needed to hear the truth behind lies that I been told. Most of this wouldn’t be pleasant for me to hear, but at least it would be real.
The problem was that as I started to get those details, they tainted my existing memories. A family event that I used to look back on fondly now just felt like a façade masking our turmoil. An evening that I spent alone with our two kids now just represented my ignorance as I recalled the lie my wife used to get out of the house. On one particular Saturday, I took the kids to a college volleyball game. I later checked the phone records and realized that she had used our absence to spend the afternoon with the other guy. A positive memory of a great day with children was stolen from me and replaced with ugly thoughts of the affair.
I found myself confronted with conflicting goals. I needed sufficient details of the affair to reconstruct my past, yet those details consumed me and tainted my positive memories. My initial reaction was to try to suppress the negative thoughts, to be content with the information I had and put the past behind me. But that would mean that my wife and I would have to essentially pretend that those events never occurred and never discuss them. How could we build a marriage based on mutual trust when such a significant event in our lives was off limits? How could I have an honest relationship with my wife if I was forever left with lingering doubts that I had been given the full story?
Rather than trying to suppress the details of the affair, we had countless conversations about it. Those were thoughts that were going haunt me anyway, so there was no point in making a futile attempt to avoid them. I learned all about the other guy, confirmed suspicions that I had regarding specific dates and events, even asked details about the sex. While it was obviously painful, forcing myself to thoroughly confront that information addressed a variety of symptoms of the affair.
Your pride takes an enormous hit when you learn that your spouse has been having an affair without your knowledge. I felt stupid for believing lies she told me. I felt foolish as I recalled smug comments I had made over the years about our great life and solid marriage. I felt naïve that I never considered an affair the remotest of possibilities. But uncovering the details of that affair helped to restore my pride. I may have been stupid and naïve in the past, but at least I was being intelligent now. While it may have taken some time, I did discover those secrets. My wife and the other guy were now the ones who looked naïve for thinking that they could keep the affair a secret from me.
Married couples are supposed to share exclusive information with one another. They share special moments and have knowledge about one another that no one else has. One of the most difficult things for me to deal with was the knowledge that my wife and the other guy shared those things while I was an outsider to their relationship. As I learned more about affair, I took that exclusive information from them. Just like my positive memories became tainted by my knowledge of the affair, her memories now had to include the pain and embarrassment of revealing them to me. It was as if the affair could only survive as long as its details remained hidden, and I could dismantle it piece by piece as I slowly uncovered its secrets.
A person who I had never met knew intimate details about my life. The other guy had information about me and about my marriage that even I didn’t know. He was my wife’s confidante while I knew absolutely nothing about him. Having influence over my wife gave him an influence in my marriage that he didn’t deserve. As I learned more intimate details about him and the affair, I slowly diffused that power and shifted it to me. I had previously felt completely inferior to this person as my wife desired him enough to risk destroying our family. But now he became a vulnerable and flawed individual who was finally being confronted with the justified results of his actions.
I saw a news story recently where a woman’s ex-boyfriend posted risqué pictures of her on the internet. She responded by publicly posting her own nude photos in a more flattering context. Rather than play the role of victim, she took control of the situation and removed the only power that her ex-boyfriend had over her. In a similar way, by directly confronting the details of the affair, I diffused its power over me. I don’t have to avoid those ugly thoughts anymore because they don’t have the visceral effect on me that they used to. The affair has just become another chapter in our marriage, and we’re more likely to joke about it now than argue about it. It’s difficult for something to have power over you when you’ve reduced it to a punch line.