It is a very rare occasion when I hear from a betrayed spouse that their unfaithful partner has told them the truth about the extent of their infidelity right from the start. Instead it is way more likely that the truth has been trickled out over a period of time – trickle truth. This is an extremely painful way to come clean about the affair for the betrayed spouse. And it gets worse when lies are told to cover up other lies or minimise the truth. Layer upon layer of deception that has to be unravelled.
An example: “we only kissed I can assure you we never had sex”, which leads to “well we did have sex but only a couple of times in total” which then becomes “well a couple of times a week over the past 3 months” which then becomes “a full on sexual and emotional affair which has been going on consistently for the past year…”
I liken it to removing a bandaid – you can do it swiftly with one swoop stings a bit but over fairly quickly or you can pull it slowly millimetre at a time prolonging the pain. I know – it took about 10 months for my husband to tell me the truth about his affair. Over the 10 months he made promises and reassurances about things that did and didn’t happen that were nothing more than more lies. He is not alone – this is standard behaviour.
Why do they do it? Most will say because they don’t want to cause more hurt. They know that the revelation of the affair has been painful – they see it every time they look at their partner’s face. The reality is that response is still all about them - protecting themselves from having to deal with the extent of their partner’s pain – the real consequences of their actions. The pain of their shame (and it is very painful). It is like them saying: “I have done something really wrong that I hope one day you will forgive me for but I don’t want to tell you what it is – OK?”
There is also an element for some that they have lost touch with reality. They have spent so much time lying and covering up it has become second nature and they find it hard to tell fact from fiction. The lies just roll off their tongue. This habit must be broken for the future of the relationship.
Why is it so painful? I have written before about the revelation or discovery of an affair being a major relational trauma. When something traumatic happens we want to make an assessment of the damage and understand the extent of the event, but we can only deal with limited information and the facts as they arise – our brains are scrambling and struggling for a way to make sense of the event (going numb or into shock at this point is a way of our bodies protecting us from the enormity of the task of making sense of something that is seemingly senseless). Our sense of reality is tested – that feeling of the rug being pulled out from under our feet – freefalling.
When the unfaithful spouse tells the betrayed spouse some information that can help them once again make sense of this world they cling to it like a life raft and use it to help their brains put order back into chaos. If they are told it was just kissing and a bit of flirting their brains use this information to assess the extent of the damage. Worse than that they tend to comfort themselves by comparing what they have been told happened, to worse “what could have happened” scenarios – it is bad but at least s/he didn’t have sex with him/her or its bad but at least they never did it in my house.
Later when it is discovered the original facts were actually false they get thrown right back to the initial trauma – their brains are back to scrambling around making sense of the new information. Depending upon how slowly the truth comes out it can feel like you are just regaining your balance when the rug gets pulled again – a very unsettling and painful place to be.
This ongoing pain and retraumatisation can be contained by telling the truth from the outset. In fact the betrayed spouse will not begin to truly heal until that has happened. And the unfaithful spouse will not feel truly free until they tell the truth.
What made my husband begin to tell the truth? Finally understanding that to rebuild our relationship it needed a foundation of truth and honesty – this is not possible when you are still lying about the affair. At the Healing from Affairs Workshop we attended, Anne Bercht was clear that if you keep lying you may as well sign the divorce papers now. At the time he needed to hear that from someone other than me.
You cannot rebuild a relationship in a swamp of lies and dishonesty and you cannot truly be forgiven if the forgiveness is based on a fake understanding of the affair. So if you are the unfaithful spouse and what you have just read has any truth for you - go rip that bandaid off – short term pain for long term gain.