150: Your Questions Answered (Part 3)

Jul 18, 2023

Dr. Marie Murphy is back for the third part of her Q&A series to answer your burning questions about infidelity, relationships, and breakups. A question that has come up in various forms is: How do you break up with someone you've been cheating on without revealing the affair?

If you're concerned about justifying your decision to end the relationship, being honest without being cruel, the honesty of your affair partner, or feeling trapped in conflicting emotions, this episode is for you.

Tune in this week to discover the truth about providing compelling reasons for the choices you make. Dr. Marie Murphy is addressing questions from both sides of an infidelity situation, highlighting the problem with solely focusing on the positive aspects of a situation, and sharing how to make decisions that are genuinely right for you.

If you’re ready to take this topic deeper in a confidential and compassionate environment, you can schedule an introductory coaching session with Dr. Marie Murphy by clicking here!

Dr. Marie Murphy is planning a Q&A episode to address your specific infidelity-related questions. You can send your questions to her and, if they’re appropriate, she will answer them on the podcast while keeping you anonymous. Submit your questions by clicking “contact” at the top of this page!

What You’ll Learn from this Episode:

  • Why it isn’t your job to give a “good enough” reason for wanting to end your relationship.

  • How to communicate your decision regarding the future of your relationship.

  • Dr. Marie Murphy’s tips for being honest and straightforward without being cruel.

  • How to address doubts about your affair partner's honesty.

  • The similarities and differences between grieving the end of an affair and the end of a marriage.

  • Why solely focusing on the positives in your relationship can prevent you from acknowledging the negatives.

  • How to make decisions that you love if you’re the one who has been cheated on.

Listen to the Full Episode:


Featured on the Show:

You are listening to Your Secret Is Safe With Me, non-judgmental talk about infidelity with Dr. Marie Murphy. If you’re looking for new perspectives on complicated relationship issues, you’ve come to the right place. 

Hi everyone, I’m Dr. Marie Murphy.  I’m a relationship coach and I help people who are engaging in anything they think counts as infidelity to deal with their feelings, clarify what they want, and make decisions about what they’re going to do.  No shame, no blame, no judgments.  If you are in the midst of an infidelity situation and you’re ready to begin the process of resolving it in a way that is truly right for you, let’s work together.  You can schedule an introductory coaching session with me through my website, mariemurphyphd.com, and you can learn more about the coaching packages I currently offer new clients beyond that introductory session on the services page of my website.  I offer confidential, compassionate coaching via Zoom, which means we can work together no matter where you’re located.  I can’t wait to meet you.

Okay.  If you’ve been listening for a while now, or if you’re on my email list, you know that I recently offered to answer listeners’ questions on the show.  And people have been sending me lots of great questions, and some questions that I can’t answer, sometimes because I’m just not qualified to do so, and sometimes because the questions are just a little too long and convoluted.  So for instance, some people have asked me legal questions.  I can’t answer legal questions!  You wouldn’t want me to answer legal questions!  And as much as I want to help everybody, if you sent me a really long description of your situation and a bunch of questions about what you should do about it, I encourage you to schedule a coaching session with me.  That’s what coaching is for!  It’s for us to take a close look at the specifics of your unique situation, and to address all of the questions that you have in depth and detail.  That said, I am going to make at least a couple of these episodes to answer more of the questions that I’ve gotten, so if you don’t hear yours answered today, an answer may come on future episode.  Stay tuned.  

So without further ado, let’s answer some questions.

I got a whole bunch of questions about what to say to someone that you’re breaking up with when part of the reason why you’re breaking up with them is because you’re cheating on them, and you want to be able to pursue a relationship with your other person.  People wanted to know how to give their spouse or their committed partner a “good enough” reason for wanting to end the relationship, without being transparent about their infidelity.  In other words, how do you break up with someone you’ve been cheating on without letting them know that you’ve been having an affair.

Let’s start with the question of what counts as a good enough reason to end a relationship, or leave a marriage.  You may want to consider that as far as your spouse is concerned, there might not be such a thing as a “good enough” reason for you to leave your marriage.  They may just want to stay married to you, and any reason you give them for why you don’t want to stay married to them may not be a reason they find satisfying or understandable or even acceptable.  

That’s something I’ve talked about in other episodes, including the one that’s called “Breaking up with someone you’ve been cheating on,” which is episode number 131.  

And to echo what I said in that episode as well as in other episodes I’ve done about breakups is that it isn’t your job to convince your partner that it’s okay for you to want to leave your relationship with them.  And this might sound callous, or cruel, and perhaps it is kind of tragic.  We tend to get into relationship by mutual agreement.  But for a relationship to end, only one person has to want it to end.  And that may seem sad.  Perhaps VERY sad.  But I want to suggest that the solution to that sadness is not to try and come up with a “good enough” reason to tell your person that you don’t want to be in a relationship with them anymore.  The solution to the sadness is to allow the sadness.

Now, as I’ve said on other episodes, I do think it’s really important to clearly communicate what you have decided in terms of your continuing participation in the relationship.  For instance, if you want a divorce, I encourage you to say exactly that.  So often, we focus more on justifying our decision than on clearly conveying what specifically we have decided.  You don’t need to justify your decision.  It may not be possible for you to justify your decision.  But my opinion is that one of the most generous things you can do for your partner is be really clear about what exactly you have decided.

And you can certainly give them some insight into why you want to leave the relationship.  Absolutely.  I think that in a lot of situations, it’s appropriate and generous to do that.  But you’ve got to remember that even if you give your partner twenty thousand detailed reasons why you don’t want to be romantically involved with them anymore, they may not consider those reasons good enough reasons for you to want to leave.

But you can still give them some insight into why you have chosen to leave your marriage, or end the romantic relationship you’re a part of.  You can give them reasons that have everything to do with them and your relationship with them, and don’t have anything to do with whatever infidelity you’re engaging in.  You can be honest without being cruel.  You can be direct, without blaming them for anything.    

The truth – aside from whatever you have going on in the infidelity department – may simply be that you aren’t interested in being romantically partnered with your committed partner anymore.  The truth may be that you care about them very much, but you want to be able to pursue a different kind of romantic relationship.  We tend to think that wanting something different isn’t a good enough reason for wanting to leave a marriage, or leave a committed relationship, but what if it is?  What if that’s a totally sufficient reason for wanting to leave?  And you could probably be more specific than that.  Let’s say you are dying to travel the world and you have the means to do so and your spouse has made it clear that they never want to leave their favorite spot on the couch.  You can tell your spouse that it is deeply important to be with someone who is as passionate about travel as you are.  You don’t have to tell them that you’ve already met someone who fits that bill.  You can be very honest about some things without telling them everything.  And it’s not your job to make sure that your reasons for wanting to leave are good enough for them.  You don’t have control over that.  But you do have control over clearly and consistently conveying what you want and why. 

Now if your spouse asks you outright if there is someone else, and they aren’t satisfied with you saying something like, “Well, I’m ready for another romantic relationship,” or something equally honest but evasive, you may be faced with the choice to lie or not lie.  That’s what it may come down to.  And you get to weigh the benefits and drawbacks of telling the truth or not telling the truth.  

Some folks asked follow up questions about how to then give other people, outside of the marriage or the relationship, a good-enough reason for wanting to leave the marriage, WITHOUT disclosing the existence of the affair partner.  Here too, you can probably be honest about some things.  You might say that you and your spouse had grown apart.  That might be very true!  You might say that you came to realize that if you were going to be in a romantic partnership at all, you wanted to be in one with certain attributes, and your marriage didn’t have those attributes.  That might be true, too!  

We may think that we owe people an explanation – or a particularly detailed explanation – of why we’ve made certain decisions, but do we?  I want to suggest that we might not.  And if other people think that you owe them a particular sort of explanation as to why you have chosen to leave your marriage, you can let that be their problem.  And then you can introduce your former affair partner who is now just your partner to your family and friends when you see fit, and you can say as much or as little about the origins of that relationship as you see fit.  And if people want to speculate, well, they can speculate.  

Here's another question:

How do you determine if the “love” your affair partner professes is genuine or just a ploy to keep you on the hook?  Especially when this is intertwined with trust issues you have with your affair partner – for example, are you really the ONLY affair partner they have?  This is coming from the perspective of someone in a five-year affair in which neither party is planning to attempt to be together outside the affair.

This is such an interesting question.  How do we ever know if the love someone professes for us is “genuine”?  And I’m asking that question very seriously.  My answer to that question is that we assess, using whatever framework we are operating from, whether or not we THINK someone’s love for us is genuine.  Or put a little differently, we simply decide whether we think someone’s love counts as genuine or not, based on our operating criteria.  It might sound wild, but there’s no way to objectively determine whether someone’s love for us is genuine or not – or if it’s even love at all.  But we can decide to believe what someone says to us, or not.  We can decide to interpret someone’s behavior as an indication of genuine love for us, or not.  

And the same goes for the question of whether or not we are the only affair partner someone else has.  How do we know for sure?  We might not be able to know for sure!  Or, we might have to do some things to find out that might be difficult and nefarious and not necessarily worth the trouble.  We might prefer to take someone at their word, OR, if we think we have good reasons to suspect that someone is telling us things that aren’t true, we might want to engage in the relationship differently.

So if you’re entertaining questions like, is my person’s love for me genuine?  Am I their only affair partner? I encourage you to get really clear on WHY you are asking yourself these questions.  For instance, why do you think someone might be professing love as a ploy to keep you on the hook?  My guess is that one of two things could be going on if you’re asking yourself that question.  One possibility is that your affair partner is doing things that you don’t like, and you’re trying to make sense of that behavior, or figure out what you want to do in response to that behavior.  And another possibility is that your mind is just looking for something to fixate on, or freak out about.  Sometimes our minds do that to us.  It’s a real bummer, but it’s a really human thing.  So be alert to that possibility, but also ask yourself, is my affair partner doing something that I am genuinely concerned about?  If so, what exactly is that?  Why don’t I like it?  What do I want to do about it?  It may be that your person is behaving in ways you don’t like, and you want to talk to them about that, or set some different boundaries, or even consider ending the relationship.  But if we’re just repeatedly worrying about whether or not someone’s love for us is genuine or not, or about what they’re doing when they aren’t with us, we may just be driving ourselves crazy.  

And here’s another question:

How do you grieve a marriage when you have decided to end it and pursue your relationship with your affair partner?  This person says that they have listened to the episode on grieving the end of an affair.

To a great extent, there are similarities between grieving the end of a marriage, and grieving the end of an affair.  There are likely to be common threads within grieving the end of any romantic relationship that was important to you.

But there are also differences.  If you’re grieving the end of your marriage, and you’re involved with the person who was your affair partner but now is just your “normal” partner, chances are your partner knows about the end of your marriage.  Chances are you don’t feel compelled to hide your grief, or completely hide your grief.  So that can be a huge plus.  However, your former affair partner MAY – not necessarily, but MAY – expect you to be so excited about the two of you getting to be together that you aren’t sad about the end of your marriage at all, and that can be a little tricky to navigate.  OR, you may be surprised by the extent of your grief.  You may have really wanted to leave your marriage, and it may be strange to find yourself having mixed emotions, now that it’s over.

Allow for the experience of leaving a marriage and grieving its end to be strange.  Allow for the experience of the transition to surprise you.  Be attuned to the possibility that there may be some aspects of the grieving process that you’ll want to keep to yourself, no matter how supportive and understanding your new partner is.  And remember that it’s normal for any big life change to come with mixed thoughts and mixed feelings.  For instance, you may wake up some mornings and kinda wish you’d stayed married.  You may wake up some mornings and REALLY wish you’d stayed married.  But you can allow these thoughts to float through your mind without making them mean that you made the wrong decision, or that you need to dash off to try to get your ex-spouse back.  

You can intentionally do multiple things at once: you can allow yourself to have mixed thoughts and feelings about the end of your marriage, AND you can very deliberately allow yourself to feel your grief, AND you can also actively remind yourself why you chose to leave your marriage, and dedicate yourself to making your current life wonderful.  These things do not have to be in competition with each other, or cancel each other out.  More than one thing can be true for you at once.  Seemingly conflicting things can be true for you at once.  

Here's another question:

I’m a “betrayed spouse” and have found your podcast incredibly helpful. I am choosing to stay married (for reasons that I like) to my husband who is unfaithful and lies to me. But at this time, I am choosing to live in this reality and commit myself to the marriage. How do I think about this so I can stop torturing myself over a person I can’t force to be truthful?

Okay, there are a lot of different ways we can approach this question.  This person says that they are choosing to stay married for reasons that they like.  How much can you focus on what’s awesome about those reasons?  How excited can you get about your choice to stay married?  You may find that you can like your reasons for staying even more than you already like them.  You may find that you can get so enthused about your reasons for staying that you are so busy focusing on what’s great about staying in your marriage that you don’t really have that much time and energy and focus left to concern yourself with the things you don’t really like about your marriage.

That’s true more generally, by the way.  If you can focus so intently on the things that are awesome about your marriage that you just don’t have that much bandwidth left to think much about what isn’t awesome about your marriage, your experience of your marriage is going to be awesome.  Or at least, a lot more awesome than it would be if you were to focus on the things you do NOT think are awesome about your marriage.  When we use our power to focus on what we enjoy and appreciate and love to our advantage, we can totally transform our experience of being married.  Or of anything else, for that matter.  When we use our power to focus intentionally, we can totally transform our experience of being alive.

So that’s something to keep in mind if you are staying married for reasons that you like.  

It’s also worth remembering that we get to decide whether someone else’s infidelity is a problem for us or not, or how much of a problem we want to make it.  Now before I go any further, let me make it absolutely clear that if you thought you were in a monogamous relationship with someone, and they do something that you think counts as cheating, you have every right to not like that!  You have every right to not like that one bit.  But here’s the paradox: if you know someone has cheated on you, and is continuing to cheat on you, and you decide you want to stay with them anyway, you have the option of deciding if you want to continue to not like that.  Maybe you want to decide that their cheating is just a feature of who your partner is, and what your partner does.  Maybe you decide that their cheating is something that you’re going to consider neutral.  You could decide to think that way!  You certainly don’t have to, but this is one way to, as this listener wrote, “stop torturing yourself” when you can’t force someone to do what you want them to do.  If you’re choosing to stay with your partner even though they cheat and you don’t like that, you have the option of deciding to not be so bothered by their cheating.  That might sound crazy, but it’s a very effective way to set yourself free.

Recently I helped organize a reunion of returned Peace Corps Volunteers who served in Zambia – I am a returned Peace Corps Volunteer who served in Zambia – and I was reminded of a situation a friend of mine there encountered during his service.  In Zambia, when I was there, most volunteers lived in rural villages, and most Zambian villagers did not have a heck of a lot of resources.  I think our stipend, as volunteers, was roughly equivalent to $200 a month, and that made us millionaires by village standards.  So having things like enough firewood or charcoal was never a big deal for Peace Corps Volunteers.  But on the other hand, plenty of villagers had a hard time buying charcoal, or firewood.  So anyway, this friend of mine, this fellow volunteer had a guy stealing firewood from him.  Some guy in the village just kept on stealing his firewood.  And it just kept happening and happening, so finally this friend of mine told the firewood thief that he could help himself to as much firewood as he wanted to, whenever he wanted to, from his supply.  And that put an end to the stealing.  Not because the guy stopped taking firewood, but because it was being explicitly given to him.  

You could do something similar in response to your spouse’s infidelity, if you wanted to.  You could decide that you’ve decided to stay with them for reasons that you like, and since you want to free yourself from your own self-imposed torture, you’re going to decide that they have your permission to cheat.  

Another option is to continue to dislike their cheating and get REALLY, REALLY good at digesting the feelings that come from disliking their cheating.  That could significantly reduce your experience of suffering.  We can continue to dislike something, and also change our relationship to that dislike.

Finally, I’ve just got to say that if none of the options I’ve mentioned here seem even slightly appealing to you, it might be worth reconsidering your reasons for wanting to stay married to someone who is doing something you don’t like.  Maybe the benefits don’t outweigh the drawbacks for you.  Maybe they do!  But it’s important to give yourself the option of that not being the case.

Okay, next question.  I love this one.  I love them all, but I very much love this one.

You say a lot on the podcast that "should feels like shit." I interpret this as meaning that we're not going to feel very good about doing things if our reasoning is purely out of a sense of obligation or doing something because other people/society think it's the "right" thing to do. My question is, don't all of us have to do things based purely out of obligation? I do things at my job that I don't particularly want to do because I "should" do it. If I didn't do them, the business would suffer. I do many things with and for my kids because I "should" do them. If I didn't, then my kids would miss out on experiences that make them happy. If all of us just stopped doing things we only did because we "should" do them or were obligated to, then society would fall apart pretty quickly. If staying in a marriage keeps a spouse and children happy, why isn't it enough to simply say "I need to stay because I should stay?"

Okay.  These kinds of questions about “shoulds” come up in my sessions with clients all the time, and I understand where people are coming from when they say that we have to do some things purely out of obligation, and when folks say that society would fall apart if we didn’t do this.

Here’s my multi-part response to this listener’s question.  Yes, in answer to this person’s question, when I say that should feels like shit, I do mean that we usually don’t feel great when we think we should do something.  Or when we think we have to do something.  Or when we think we don’t have a choice about whether we do something or not.  Simply thinking we should do something is enough to make us feel like shit.  We don’t have to actually DO the thing in order to feel like shit, but, if we do do the thing, we may feel like shit then, too.  Very possibly, in fact.  

Now, my answer to the question “don’t all of us have to do things based purely out of obligation?” is no.  We don’t HAVE to do anything, for any reason.  We don’t have to go to work.  We don’t have to make money.  We don’t have to do things for our kids.  Or our spouses.  Or our parents.  Or anyone else for that matter.  We don’t have to pay our taxes.  We don’t have to drive the speed limit.  We don’t have to observe the law.  We don’t even have to stay alive.  If we don’t want to keep on living, we can take our own lives if we want to, and have the capacity to.  

And it might sound like that’s an extreme point to make, but I think it’s really important for us to recognize the degree of choice we have in any situation.  We usually have more choices than we recognize, or a greater degree of choice than we recognize.  

So, for example, you COULD quite literally choose to not do the things at your job that you don’t want to do.  There might be consequences to not doing them, that’s for sure.  If you don’t do the things in your job description, the business or the organization might not meet certain objectives, and you might get reprimanded or fired, or any number of other things might happen.  But that doesn’t mean that you HAVE to do the things in your job description.  You could not do them and see what happens.  That is totally an option.

Which brings me to the first thing I want you to consider when you think you have to do something, or you think you should do something, or you’re obligated to do something.

A lot of the time, when we think we SHOULD do something, or when we think we HAVE to do something, what we really mean is that we don’t like the idea of the potential consequences of not doing the something.  And that’s fair enough, but that’s different from believing that you don’t have a choice about whether you do the thing or not.  You probably do have a choice.  You probably have multiple choices in relation to the thing you think you have to do, in fact.  

Recognizing the choices we have and the options we have tends to help us feel empowered – or at least relatively empowered - rather than constrained, or powerless.  And we’re able to get a lot more done in life when we’re feeling empowered, rather than constrained.  We tend to take more responsibility for our choices when we feel empowered, rather than constrained. 

Furthermore, when we remove obligation and replace it with choice, we often choose to do things that we don’t 100% love the idea of doing.  Not because we believe we have to do them, but because we like the results we imagine we’ll get from doing them better than we like the results we imagine we’ll get from NOT doing them.  We choose to do things we don’t have to do all the time.  And I bet if you think about it, you can think of examples of this in your own life.  Here’s a really minor yet not-so-minor example from my own life.  I really hate washing my face at night.  That might sound ridiculous, but it is something that I truly dislike doing, and truly don’t want to do.  It may be a small thing, but it’s a daily thing.  And every day, or pretty close to it, I get to a point in the evening where I say to myself, “I don’t want to wash my face.  I don’t FEEL like it.”  And then I remind myself that I have the option to not wash my face, and I choose to do it even though I don’t really want to, because I DO really want what I get out of going to the trouble to wash my face.  

And that’s just a little example, of course.  There are a lot of other examples of things that I choose to do in my life even though I don’t especially WANT to do them.  And I see other people doing this all of the time, too.  Most of choose to do things that we don’t really want to do because we believe it’s better, on the whole, to do those things than not do them.

And this is one of the reasons why I don’t think society would fall apart if we stopped doing things out of a sense of obligation, or from a position of not having a choice.  And moreover, plenty of people do not do the things that they are supposed to do, or that they are legally obligated to do, or that we as a society have decided that they should do.  And we might not LIKE that, but somehow or another, humans keep collectively stumbling forward.  Society hasn’t collapsed quite yet.  Recognizing the agency that we already have isn’t likely to hasten our demise.  In fact, it might even help avert it.  That’s my guess, anyway.

The other thing to consider is that when we believe we should do something, there may be a genuine desire within that should, or within that sense of obligation.  There may be an element of what we think we’re obligated to do that we truly WANT to do.  But we may not want to do it in the way we think we have to, or the way we think we should.  We might not have yet imagined that there could be a way to do it other than the way we think we should. 


So with all of that said, let me return to the last part of this listener’s question, which was, “If staying in a marriage keeps a spouse and children happy, why isn't it enough to simply say ‘I need to stay because I should stay?’”

Technically, it might be “enough” to tell yourself that you need to stay because you should stay, insofar as this thought might drive you to take the action of staying married.  And if that’s the point, if simply staying married is the point, then maybe that’s enough.  

But if you stay married without wanting to, is that a win?  You get to decide.  It could be a win, for you.  But it’s possible that your goal isn’t to stay married by any means necessary.  It’s possible that what you really want is to be a caring, involved parent, and a supportive, friendly ex-spouse.  It’s possible that you want to be a good family member to your current spouse and kids – you might want that very much.  But it’s possible for you to find a way to do that without staying married to your current spouse.  It’s possible that you want to be a good family member, AND be free to explore relationships with people other than your current spouse.  And if those are your desires, you can take action in the service of them.  You can create a reality that honors your values and priorities by honoring your desires, rather than believing you have to do certain things.  

There many ways to “do right by” people we love and care about, without sacrificing what’s most important to us.  There is more than one means to any end.

All right, everyone, that is it for today.  I’m going to keep on answering listeners’ questions in future episodes, but for now, I’ve got more questions on hand than I’ll be able to answer anytime soon, so I’m actively soliciting any more questions.  If you send me one, nothing bad will happen – but I might not get to it.  However, if you want to talk to me about your infidelity situation, you can get yourself an appointment for an introductory coaching session by going to my website, mariemurphyphd.com.  When we work together we take a close look at the specifics of what you’ve got going on, and come up with answers to your questions that help you move forward in ways you feel great about.

Have a good week everyone, bye for now.


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