There are lots of ways to end a marriage, and they all stink. No matter how tactfully it's delivered, if the message is "I don't want to be married to you anymore" it will inflict pain.
Being dumped is a nightmare. Being replaced? That's a new level of hell. Cheating is a game changer.
Maybe it doesn't seem right. Perhaps, though you had an affair, you resent being painted as the villain. Especially if your marriage has been rocky for years and/or you feel you've been mistreated by your spouse, you may wonder: "Why is everyone pointing the finger at me?"
I'm not the morality police, but there are reasons why infidelity is the "trump card" of bad marital behavior, including:
- If one member of the couple is in a new relationship, they're out of touch with their grief over the split-- that's agonizing for their spouse
- Mental images of one's partner being intimate with someone else are torturous
- Cheating involves public humiliation
- Cheating calls into question all past behavior and all past promises ("Did you ever love me?)
- For a person with a history of betrayals by loved ones (i.e. an abandoning parent), being cheated-on is a re-traumatization
If your infidelity landed the fatal blow to your marriage, you're in for more-than-ordinarily tough sledding. You owe it to your spouse, your children, and yourself to dial up your emotional awareness.
Here are some things to keep in mind:
The Cheater's Guide to Divorce
Get ready for the tsunami
The early months will be marked by high intensity emotion and unpredictable behavior. One moment your spouse will think you're evil incarnate, the next they'll beg for reconciliation. Try to be empathic. They're not crazy, they're reeling.
By the way: If you ever falsely denied the affair and/or never disclosed it (but rather got caught), your spouse's sense of betrayal will be greater. And if you cheated while in couple therapy, it'll be exponentially greater.
Don't compound the problem with more lies
The jig is up; it's time to put all your cards on the table. Tell the whole truth: don't obfuscate the chronology, minimize the significance, or deny any aspect of the affair. Lies of omission count.
Draw the line at graphic details
There's a crucial difference between admitting you weren't alone during that business trip to Poughkeepsie and answering the question "Which of us is better in bed?" Even if your spouse pushes, nobody benefits from you sharing more than the basics of who, what, where, and when.
Prepare an authentic apology, not a self-flagellation
Figure out what you're sorry for and what you're not. You're entitled to feel your marriage was doomed before you cheated. On the other hand, you picked a destructive way out. If you proffer an artificial "You're right, I destroyed our family and deserve to be punished," it might gratify your ex in the moment but they won't buy it over time. Stick to something truthful, like "I'm sorry. I ended the marriage in a hurtful way that was unfair to you. I think divorce is the right decision, but I will be honest with you going forward." Your ex might not feel it's enough, but (because it's real) you'll be able to sustain the message.
Protect your family from your giddiness
The endorphins generated by your new-found love (and lust) might anesthetize your pain, but they'll double that of those around you. Your spouse will find your happiness insulting and unfair beyond bearing. And while your kids might not be consciously aware of its impact, they'll experience you as emotionally absent just when they need you most. They'll also be confused ("Why does my parent seem fine when the news is bad?"), and inhibited from expressing their true feelings.
Keep your paramour away for now
Your family's emotional plate is already full. If you pile on the idea of a new partner, it'll overflow. Even if your kids know about the affair, postpone introductions until they've adjusted to living in two homes. As for your spouse: If he or she encounters your love interest at a little league game anytime soon, heads will roll. Understandably.
Cuckolded people take scary positions. Don't panic if your husband or wife threatens to "take you for everything you're worth," says "you'll never see your kids again," or promises to "tell everyone at your office what a low-life you are."
Unless your ex is truly incapable of reason or of putting the needs of your children first, they'll set the worst of their bitterness aside when it's time to make important decisions. Be patient; they deserve it.
Don't rush to hire a pitbull attorney
Your spouse will probably come to accept that no judge can make this right. At that point they'll likely be open to an out-of-court process. Set the stage for a constructive co-parenting relationship by hiring a lawyer who prefers to keep things peaceful.
A bad spouse can be a great parent
You didn't cheat on your kids. Don't stay away from them out of guilt, or let shame hobble you in discussions about a time-sharing schedule.
Still, don't insist on everything you want right away
It's normal and common for a cheated-on spouse to have difficulty engaging in productive discussions about kids and money. Can you blame them for being outraged that you can perpetrate this injury and remain entitled to half of all they hold dear? Consider pressing pause on financial negotiations while feelings settle. And, within reason, consider accepting a bit less time with your kids in the beginning. If you don't push for too much too fast, you're likely to land in a better spot.*
There's no such thing as a free (emotional) lunch
Whether your affair was fleeting or ended in happily ever after, you'll need to grieve your losses. So if you're not already in therapy, now's a good time to start. And while you're at it, learn what you can about why you chose cheating over more direct, constructive approaches to dealing with your relationship woes.
It's what we don't understand about our problematic behaviors that causes us to repeat them.
You don't want to be reading this article again five years from now.
*It's never wise to make divorce-related agreements (even verbal or informal ones) without first consulting an attorney.
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