Dr. Val Farmer
Rural Mental Health & Family Relationships

How Many Chances Do I Give Him?

February 3, 2003

A woman wrote me these questions:

My husband had an emotional affair. I am normally a loving and forgiving person. I believed him when he said he would end his relationship with this other woman. He seemed so humble, contrite and decisive that I really trusted him.

Now I find he still sees her. He assures me nothing sexual ever took place. I believed him so thoroughly the first time that I don't know what to believe. Now he says it is really over and, like before, seems to mean it.

Why should I believe him now? I love him. I still want my marriage to work but I am scared to death to give him my heart again. How many chances do I give him?

You are right for being skeptical. Here are some ideas you may find useful in evaluating the sincerity of your husband's resolve.

1. Search for understanding. Get to the bottom of all the lies. Make him explain his motives, his actions, why the affair got started, what he was thinking, why the second deception once the affair was confessed, etc.

His answers should be detailed, consistent and ring true. Expect complete honesty. If new things come out or if facts don't jive, he is still trying to protect himself. The whole truth heals. Anything that comes out piecemeal will damage your trust. His attitude about your right to know these things will also make a difference.

Don’t make quick decisions based on pride or hurt. Don’t cheat yourself. One more chance won’t hurt. He is the one on the spot.

2. Expect him to give up his "special friend" completely and irrevocably. Any more contact between them will destroy what fragile trust you are trying to nurture. Don't listen to any rationale that the two of them can be friends. An emotional affair is an affair.

If she is in his life, the potential is there to re-start the affair. He must give her up. That means no contact whatsoever. Any attempts on her part to initiate contact should be immediately disclosed.

3. Be cool and standoffish. It is up to him to put forth the effort and love to win you back. He can promise you the world but it is action that counts. Until he proves his commitment to you and your happiness, you don't know what his motives are. It may not feel normal to either of you, but this is time when a one-sided relationship is appropriate given the circumstances.

Love-making is symbolic of your willingness to give him your love. You may not want to be intimate with him until you are confident about his loyalty. Waiting a while to test the credibility of his love doesn't mean you are being a sucker or stupid. All you are doing is giving him time to see how respectful, loving and loyal he is willing to be.

He can't expect instant forgiveness until you have worked through your hurt, anger and loss of trust. A husband who is defensive, self-centered and unwilling to give of himself will have difficulty restoring the relationship.

4. Expect him to go to counseling with you. A destructive process of interrogation and defensiveness won’t promote healing, even if the answers are truthful. Both of you need to feel safe.

Allow someone else to help you examine his thoughts and motives and see if his explanation remains consistent. Your own raw feelings, tears, jealousy and anger may be too intense for him to remain positive. Your traumatic reactions need support and validation, not used by your husband to make you, the victim, into the problem. You may also choose to go for individual counseling to work on managing your emotions and gain perspective on what you really want.

His willingness to expose himself in a situation that demands complete honesty is a sign that he has nothing to hide. It is a price he should be willing to pay to win back your love, forgiveness and trust. He needs to put you and what you need first.

He should also give a full apology that recognizes the deep wounds and hurt he has caused you.

5. Recognize marriage problems but deal with them later. Your whole marriage needs to be discussed. Use counseling to correct problems that may have preexisted prior to the affair. Whatever faults and weaknesses might have been certainly they are no excuse for an affair. Deal with the issues surrounding the affair first and hen move to marriage problems that preceded the affair. Otherwise you will feel violated again.

You will need to give him credibility and work to change things for the better. Where you can, be empathic and understanding of his concerns. One small benefit to the affair will be his honesty and openness about his emotional needs and concerns. This is not the time for your marriage to settle back into pre-affair mediocrity. It has to be better than that.

5. Trust will come back when you feel loved. His love needs to be wholehearted and consistent. Time is a part of this equation. His betrayal harmed your relationship grievously. He needs to be patient and give you time for your feelings of trust to be earned.

A renewed and better love is the balm that takes away the sting of the affair. Be willing to forgive, yet understand that forgiveness takes time.