Finding out about an affair is like the first rumblings of an earthquake: anything is possible and none of it is good, writes therapist Mira Kirshenbaum in a new book for anyone who’s been betrayed, I Love You But I Don’t Trust You: The Complete Guide to Restoring Trust in Your Relationship.
Thirty years ago, Kirshenbaum’s husband confessed he was involved with another woman. He called it an emotional affair. “He told me right after seeing the movie Kramer vs. Kramer,” Kirshenbaum says in an email from her home in Boston. “Seeing Dustin Hoffman and Meryl Streep get such an ugly divorce scared him. He realized how much danger we were in. He did feel guilty but he felt much more scared about losing me.”
Kirshenbaum describes the aftermath. “I hated my husband. I hated myself. I hated how miserable I felt. I mean, why should I have to feel so bad? I hadn’t cheated. I hadn’t lied.”
At the time, she writes, her rage caused her to make mistakes. “I came within inches of destroying a marriage that had been good. The only way I could’ve handled things worse would’ve been to shoot him.”
Now Kirshenbaum and her husband are happily married and she believes trust can be restored. “I’ve lived it and seen it. Hell, if betrayal kills love, then love is too fragile to exist in the real world. Because the world is made up of imperfect people who make mistakes.”
On the road to rebuilding trust, first ask if you can imagine the possibility of forgiveness. If the answer is yes, then it makes sense to work on the relationship. “What’s the worst that can happen?” she asks. “He’s still meeting his supposedly ex-lover. Okay then. Now you know. He can’t do what he needs to do to deserve your trust. Think of it as his way of letting you go.”
If you stay, expect to be angry, but also know that your anger accomplishes something. “All hell has broken loose. The person who’s been betrayed is not a fun person to be with. This is most of us at our absolute worst. But if the person who’s betrayed you can hang in there, he’s passed the do-you-care test. That’s what we look for, this sign of his commitment to you and to the healing process.”
Kirshenbaum gives the example of one woman who decided to trust her husband again because, for weeks on end, she told him how much he’d hurt her and he just listened without complaining.
“But I beg you to listen to what I’m about to say,” she writes. “The less anger we indulge in, the faster healing happens.” One man who cheated on his wife told the therapist he understood his wife had a right to be angry, “it’s just that her anger is bottomless. I just can’t help thinking, ‘What’s the point?’ ”
In the book, Kirshenbaum provides a timetable for recovery. After the first month, you shouldn’t feel the “white-hot anger” anymore. You should feel it cooling down. By the end of the first year, you may still experience flashes of anger but “generally speaking you are no longer angry,” she writes.
One betrayed wife decided to send emails. “The woman wrote ‘venting’ in the subject line, and told her husband, ‘I’d like you to read them but you don’t have to. I’m not going to quiz you on them.’ ” Kirshenbaum says this allowed her to release her anger, and gave her partner the opportunity to hit delete when he needed a break from it.
To recover fully, the betrayed person needs to hear more than endless apologies. In the book, Steven betrayed Julie but constantly felt bad and that angered his wife. “I’d had the same experience with my husband and it was extremely puzzling,” writes Kirshenbaum, who finally figured it out. “Julie experienced it as his way of telling her to shut up.”
Instead, Julie needed to hear Steven talk about how hard it must be for his wife to drive past the library where he met his lover. “We need to know if the person who has betrayed us really understands how much pain they have caused us,” the therapist writes.
In the end, she says forgiveness is possible, but don’t wait around for it. Forgiveness is a decision.