152: Seeing Your Ex-Affair Partner in Social Settings

Aug 01, 2023

Today, Dr. Marie Murphy is doing something new. She’s explicitly calling someone else out for their perspective on an infidelity-related topic in an otherwise generally entertaining newspaper column. In this case, it was an opinion about what to do if you see your ex-affair partner out in a social setting.

Someone had written in, saying they’d had an extramarital affair, which ended abruptly and unpleasantly. Both partners are otherwise happily married, and they socialize together as couples. The writer is now apprehensive about future social encounters that are already planned. The response from the columnist was less than helpful and bursting with judgment, so Dr. Marie Murphy is taking it upon herself to give a more useful perspective on today’s episode.

Tune in this week to discover how to deal with seeing your ex-affair partner in a social setting. You’ll learn about the importance of dropping judgment when it comes to making decisions around your infidelity, as well as how to deal with the worry that you’ll lose it when you see your former affair partner.

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!

What You’ll Learn from this Episode:

  • The unhelpful perspective offered to someone who is worried about seeing their ex-affair partner in a social setting.

  • Why Dr. Marie Murphy decided to publicly critique this response, instead of just dismissing it.

  • The problem of meeting someone with judgment when they’re contending with the challenges of infidelity.

  • Dr. Marie Murphy’s advice for anyone worried about seeing their affair partner in a social setting.

  • What you can do to deal with your emotions about your former affair partner.

  • How to bring a sense of neutrality to any decision you have to make around your past or present infidelity.

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 provide shame-free, blame-free, non-judgmental support to people who are cheating on their partners or engaging in anything they think counts as infidelity.  If you are in the midst of an infidelity situation and you want to begin the process of resolving your situation in a way that’s truly right for you, I can help you do it.  I offer confidential, compassionate coaching via Zoom, which means we can work together no matter where you’re located.  When you’re ready to talk, you can schedule an introductory coaching session with me through my website, mariemurphyphd.com.  You can also learn about the packages I offer new clients after that first session as well as my current pricing on the services page of my website.  I can’t wait to meet you.

Okay folks.  Today, I’m going to do something that I almost never do, which is explicitly call someone else out for their perspectives on an infidelity-related topic.  And I don’t do this very often because for the most part, I don’t think it’s a very classy thing to do, but today I’m making an exception to my policy, and I’ll tell you why momentarily.

You may be aware of a column called “Social Q’s” in the New York Times, in which Philip Galanes responds to readers’ questions about various social quandaries.  And I apologize profusely for not knowing if I’m pronouncing Mr. Galanes’s name correctly.  In general, I like the Social Q’s column a lot, and I often think that Mr. Galanes provides some pretty darn good guidance.  In fact, he recently published advice about how to respond to a mother-in-law’s questions about spouses sleeping in separate bedrooms that I thought was great.  But in another recent column, he offered a reader some guidance that I take issue with.  I’ll read you the reader’s query, and his response.  


The reader writes:

I had an extramarital affair for several years. It ended recently — abruptly and unpleasantly — and I blocked all digital and telephonic communication with my ex to ensure that I don’t weaken and get involved again. The affair was fulfilling sexually and emotionally, but it was also taboo: We are both otherwise happily married and socialize together as couples. Now, I am apprehensive about future encounters. Recently, we all juggled our calendars to attend a small, upcoming dinner party at a third couple’s home. How should I handle this? I don’t want to reach out and ask for a truce; my emotions are still too raw — with hurt and anger not far from the surface. I don’t know how to justify canceling the dinner to my spouse, but I’m afraid I may lose it if I go.

And Philip Galanes responds:

It is not my place to judge you, but it’s not my job to drive your getaway car, either. (I would see this differently if you had an open marriage.) I get the awkwardness of the upcoming dinner. Still, after years of lying to your spouse about this affair — by omission or commission — you would seem to be well equipped to extricate yourself from dinner on your own.

I agree with you about cutting off contact with your ex — less to spare you discomfort or temptation than to avoid continued disrespect of your spouse, who is apparently unaware of your yearslong betrayal. Practically, you and your ex have formed a mutual-destruction alliance: Neither of you can unmask the other without unmasking yourself. There is a kind of safety in that.

But I urge you to reckon with the deeper issues here: You have broken faith with your spouse. For years, you have misled your partner about your sexual and emotional fidelity. (Indeed, you still seem profoundly involved with your ex.) If monogamy does not suit you, tell your spouse. This dinner is a mere footnote compared with your dishonesty in your marriage. I suggest working with a therapist to decide if — and how — you can repair the damage.

That’s the end of his comment.

Here's my primary beef with this response, and the reason why I have decided to publicly critique it instead of simply shaking my head in the privacy of my office, as I so often do when I encounter published opinions about all things related to infidelity that I consider inadequate, completely unhelpful, or even worse.  This reader wrote in asking for help with a specific matter, and the columnist didn’t really answer their question, in my opinion, AND took it upon himself to scold the reader for their behavior.  My guess is that bit of “guidance” isn’t going to help the reader much at all here.  And I could say a whole lot more about what I think about the columnist’s response to this reader’s question – I was quivering with anger when I first read it, and there’s a part of me that would love to tell you every single detail as to why.  But instead, I’m just going to say that this is an example of what I see as a very widespread problem.  A lot of the “advice” out there related to infidelity is little more than thinly veiled judgement, or not-so-thinly veiled judgement, and in addition to that, it doesn’t offer anyone anything to help them actually address the challenges they’re contending with.

And now, I’m going to provide my own answer to the question that the reader sent into the Social Q’s column, because it’s such an important one, and it isn’t a topic that I’ve addressed on this podcast at all.

How do you deal with seeing a former affair partner in public, or in a social setting, especially when you’re with your spouse or partner who doesn’t know about the affair?  For the sake of today’s episode, I’m going to focus on dealing with a situation like the one the person who wrote into Social Q’s asked about.  This person wanted to know about how to deal with seeing their former affair partner, who they’d been involved with for several years, at a small dinner party at a friend’s home, at which his wife would be also be present.

First and foremost, if you’re in a situation like this, I encourage you to consider that you really DO have the option of not going to the dinner.  Mr. Galanes said this too, of course, but in my opinion, he threw a little too much judgement in with it.  So I’ll say it in far more neutral terms: you really do have the power and the right to opt out.  

Yes, it might seem like it would be weird or inconsiderate or even suspicious to not go to the dinner.  Yes, you might think that others won’t like it if you find a way to extricate yourself from this event.  And maybe they won’t!  But that doesn’t mean that you CANNOT opt out of going.  You can.  

And if you are so concerned that you will lose it if you see your former affair partner, it might be worth it to you to extricate yourself from this social engagement, no matter what other people might think if you do that.  So before I say anything else, I want you to consider that this is an option that really is available to you.  And you might come to decide that it’s best option, even if you don’t think it’s a great option.

But of course, you also might WANT to attend the dinner, and you might want to take a hold of your raw emotions in a new way so that you feel pretty confident that you can attend the dinner without losing it.  That might be your longer-term goal here.  So let’s talk about how you can do that.

First and foremost, it’s important to remember that when a relationship that we’ve cared about comes to an end, we’re pretty much guaranteed to feel some pretty big feelings.  Even if we were more or less okay with the relationship ending, it’s still totally normal to feel a lot of intense emotion.

If you’re concerned about losing it when you see your former affair partner, I want you to ask yourself if you’ve given yourself any time to feel your intense, raw emotions in all of their glory.  The question-asker wrote that their hurt and anger wasn’t far from the surface.  When I hear people say things like that, my guess is that they haven’t allowed themselves to fully feel their emotions about the affair ending.  If you feel like at any moment, a bunch of your emotions could just boil over, you may want to consider giving yourself some dedicated time and space to actually FEEL those emotions.  They are not going to just go away on their own.  You have to allow them to be there before they will go away.  Avoiding them or trying not to feel them isn’t going to help you get through them.  So if you are planning on going to a social event and you’re going to see someone who you have a lot of feelings about, you may want to give yourself protected time and space to start experiencing those emotions.  

Simply doing this, simply giving yourself time and space to feel your feelings without having to hide what your feeling may be a tremendous relief, and may quickly help you get to a place of feeling very ready to see your former affair partner without losing it.  If you let the emotion run through you, instead of trying to avoid them or hold them in, you will feel better – and you might feel a lot better, and pretty quickly.  And if you have no idea what it would mean to actually allow yourself to feel your emotions, you might want to listen to episode 125, which is called “Privately grieving the end of an affair.”  And of course, if you want help as you grieve the end of your affair, book yourself a session with me and I will teach you how to systematically deal with your grief.  Systematically dealing with our grief doesn’t mean we make it go away on demand, but it does mean we can develop an intentional relationship with it, which is incredibly helpful.

Now, it’s also really important to check in with what you are currently THINKING about your former affair partner, and your relationship with them.  

If we’re going to relate more effectively to our emotions, we need to be able to allow ourselves to feel them when they arise, but we also want to take a look at the thoughts that are generating the emotions.  If we’re continuously thinking things like, “Oh my god, I can’t believe this ended, I miss this person so much, my life just isn’t right anymore,” we are going to continue to create emotions for ourselves that may feel pretty intense.  And then, if we aren’t able to ALLOW ourselves to feel emotions, and let our emotions move though us when they arise, we may find ourselves acting from our emotion in ways that we don’t really like.  For instance, if we are awash in sadness and longing and anger hurt, and we aren’t able to digest those feelings, that could translate into us having some sort of a meltdown at a dinner party.

So what are you currently thinking about the end of your affair?  Are you, on the whole, okay that it’s over?  Are you, on the whole, NOT okay with it being over?  If you are not okay with it being over, do you WANT to be okay with it being over… or not?  There aren’t any right or wrong answers here, but it’s really important for you to be honest with yourself about what your answers are.  Sometimes an affair ends and we’re very upset about that, and we don’t WANT to not be upset about that!  Sometimes what we really want is to resume our relationship with our affair partner – maybe by continuing the affair, or maybe by making changes in our life so that the relationship doesn’t stay an affair.  And, sometimes an affair ends, and although we’re sad, we are also OKAY with the relationship being over.  And of course, there are also many other ways you could be thinking about the situation too, but the question it boils down to is, where do you stand in regards to the end of your affair?  Is it okay with you, on the whole, that it’s over?  Or do you not want it to be over?  Or what???

If you are ready to, you can intentionally and deliberately begin the process of putting your affair behind you in such a way that you’ll be more likely to be to “act normal” around your former affair partner in social situations.  But if you are NOT ready to do this, if you aren’t really sure if you’re ready for your affair to be part of the past, or not, or what, it will behoove you to be honest with yourself about this.  If you WANT to move on, you can do this deliberately, and I’ll tell you how.  But if you DON’T want to move on, I don’t recommend you try to.  You may need to let yourself be where you are for a while longer, feeling the feelings you’re currently feeling – or you may want to make some different relationship decisions.

If you have decided that you are ready to move on, or you’re ready to intentionally begin to get over the affair, or intentionally put the whole thing behind you, you can deliberately begin to do this.  And this requires you to intentionally start to think of your former affair partner in a different way, and thinking about the end of your affair in a different way.

It may take some EFFORT to do this.  If you’ve been thinking about your former affair partner in a particular way for any length of time, thinking about them differently on purpose will take some work.  And, it may be a little sad to start thinking differently about them.  If you’re kind of enamored with your narrative about them and how your relationship ended and how tragic or awful the whole thing was, it may be weird to start telling yourself a different story.  If you’ve been half-heartedly entertaining fantasies that the two of you will get back together again someday, it may be kind of a bummer to break up with those kinds of thoughts.  But if you want to move forward, if you want to put the whole thing behind you, and you want to be able to be around them in public without melting down, you’ve gotta be willing to manage your mind.

So here’s the main question that I want you to ask yourself: how do you WANT to think about your former affair partner NOW?

What thoughts about them do you want to actively entertain when you see them?

If you’ve been listening to this podcast for a while, you’ve heard me talk about the think-feel-act cycle before, or the relationship between our thoughts, and our feelings, and our actions.  Your thinking gives rise to your emotions, or generates your emotions.  And your emotional state, or what you are feeling, gives you the capacity and the propensity to act in particular ways, or refrain from acting in particular ways.

So if you see your former affair partner and you’re thinking, “God, I still love them so much, and I can’t believe fate tore us apart,” you may be feeling some love and longing and maybe some frustration or sadness or something along those lines.  If that’s how you’re feeling, and you aren’t well practiced in digesting your emotions without acting on them, you may behave in ways that could provide clues to what you are feeling.  Let’s say you’re feeling longing for your former affair partner.  You might gaze at them across the dinner table with a certain look on your face.  Tears might leak out of your eyes every time they speak.  You might take every opportunity to be close to them, even when it doesn’t really make sense within the context of the social setting for you to be close to them.  You might get a little too close to them.  And it’s possible that you might do these things in a pretty subtle way, and it’s possible that nobody at the dinner party will notice your subtle behaviors that come from your feeling of longing for your former affair partner.  But it’s also possible that your behaviors won’t be terribly subtle, and subtle or not, it’s possible that someone will notice the way you’re acting.  And even if they do notice your behaviors, they might not think that anything seems weird.  But it’s also possible that the way you behave from the emotional state of longing for your former affair partner registers, to some observers, as very strange behavior indeed.  And you might not want anyone to think that you are behaving strangely around your former affair partner.

That’s why it’s important to intentionally manage your THINKING.  Your thinking will generate your emotions, and your emotional state will inform your actions.  If you take it upon yourself to manage your thinking, behaving in way that “seems normal” will come naturally, or at least, a lot more naturally than it will if you do NOT manage your thinking.

So what do you want to think about your former affair partner now?

If your former affair partner – outside of the context of your affair – has the status of a friend in your life, you might want to start actively thinking of them as a friend of yours.  You can think about all of the friendly aspects of your relationship.  You can think about the history you’re shared as friends, and the future you imagine you’ll share as friends.  If you think of them as an interesting acquaintance who you sometimes see at dinner parties, you can start thinking about them in that manner.  You could also think of them primarily in terms of the work they do, or some hobby they have, or an interesting conversation you had with them a long time ago about an unusual topic.  You might think of them as the person who always tells bad jokes at dinner parties, or as someone who always wears great shoes, but has questionable table manners.  In other words, there are lots of things that are true about this person, aside from the fact of your erstwhile secret relationship with them.

And while you’re at dinner with them, you can choose to focus on thinking about them in ways that you would probably be thinking about them in that situation if your affair had never occurred.  This may take effort, of course, because your affair did occur, and that may be on your mind.  But you can PRACTICE asking yourself the question, “What would I be thinking about this person at this dinner if the affair had never happened?” and you can commit to actually ANSWERING that question for yourself.  You can do this before the dinner party, and during the dinner party.

Let me reiterate that doing this will probably take some effort, and may take a LOT of effort.  You may still feel desire for this person!  You may feel hurt by this person!  You may be mad at this person!  All of that may still be true for you, but that doesn’t mean you have to let those thoughts run the show.  You can allow all of your thinking about your affair, and the emotions that thinking generates, to be background noise.  More than one thing can be true for you at once, and you get to decide which thoughts you want to focus on, and which thoughts you want to give less attention to.  It can be true that you had a really passionate affair with someone.  And it can also be true that you want to focus on engaging with them at the dinner party as if that passionate affair never happened.

If you’re willing to focus on thinking, “Oh yeah, there’s that interesting architect person who’s married to so and so” you’re going to have a very different emotional experience than if you’re thinking, “Oh my god, there’s that cruel person who played games with me and broke my heart.”  It may be the case that you still believe that your affair partner is a cruel person who played games with you and broke your heart, but you have the power to take your attention away from that thought if you’re willing to.  You don’t have to actively indulge that thought at all times, even if you sort of believe it. 

And if you can get into THINKING about someone in a way that fits with the relationship you are supposed to have with someone, or fits with the relationship you are pretending to have with someone, or fits with the relationship you have decided to have with someone, your emotions will cooperate, so to speak.  Your emotions will follow the lead of your thinking.  If you are really on board with thinking, “Oh yeah, there’s that interesting architect person who’s married to so-and-so” and letting that thought be your focus, you can stay on track, emotionally.  And then you can behave as if you’re just interacting with that interesting architect person who’s married to so-and-so.  No big deal.

Again, this may take effort and willingness.  It may not seem EASY.  But if you really want to put the affair behind you, it may be worth it to do this bit of intentional management of your thinking, and thus your emotions and your actions. 

On the other hand, if you can’t even IMAGINE doing this, or if you try doing this and find you JUST CAN’T think about your former affair partner as anyone other than that cruel person who played games with you and broke your heart, you might want to consider skipping the dinner party.  If you just aren’t ready to change your thinking about your former affair partner, you just aren’t ready.  And that’s okay.  As I said earlier, even if you don’t love the option of skipping the party, you might decide it’s your best option.    

However, I want to stress that you can intentionally manage your thinking about your former affair partner even if you still long for them to some extent.  It’s entirely possible that you will always love your former affair partner, at least a little bit.  It’s entirely possible that you will always feel a spark of desire for them.  It’s entirely possible that there will always be a tiny part of you that wants to indulge in fantasies about what it might be like if things turned out differently.  You don’t have to completely rid your mind of these kinds of thoughts in order to move forward.  You can keep a few treasured memories and enjoy them every now and then without it being that big of a deal.  And you don’t have to think about these cherished memories while you’re at a dinner in which you’re trying to play it cool.  You can revisit the memories later.  If you’re at the dinner party and your mind starts wandering off to places it shouldn’t go, you get to step in and be the manager of your mind and intentionally focus on the thoughts you want to think on purpose.  Just because a thought pops into your head does not mean you have to give it your full attention the moment it arises.

So if you’re at the dinner party and you’re like, “Oh my god, there’s my former affair partner who I had the best sex of my life with” or “Oh my god, there’s my former affair partner and we have unfinished business!” you get to decide what you’re going to do with these thoughts.  I realize that in the moment, it may seem TRUE to you that you and your affair partner have “unfinished business.”  It may seem TRUE to you that the sex with your affair partner was so much better than the sex with your spouse.  And sometimes when we really believe that something is true, we think we have to keep thinking about it.  We think we have to keep replaying the same thought, over and over again in our mind.  But we really don’t.  

If thoughts like those come up, we can simply say, “Thanks, brain, I know you’ve got that thought in there, but we’re going to intentionally think other thoughts right now.  We’re going to focus on other things.  We’re going to intentionally think about this person as an acquaintance who brings interesting wine to dinner parties.  We’re going to focus on that, and we’re going to let all of the other stuff be background noise.”

And when you focus on the thoughts that don’t stir up a whole bunch of intense emotions for you, guess what.  You won’t feel a whole bunch of intense emotions.  And from a more neutral emotional state, it’s a lot easier to act neutral.  If you’re at the dinner party and you’re thinking about other people, not just your former affair partner, and thinking about what you’re eating for dinner, and you’re thinking about your former affair partner as someone other than your former affair partner, you’ve got a good chance of being able to play it cool, and act “normally,” so to speak.  More specifically, you’ve got a good chance of being able to act as if your former affair partner is just another dinner party guest, not someone you had a passionate affair with.  

Similarly, you get to start taking charge of what the end of your affair means to you.  If you want to put the affair in the past, it will not help you to think things like, “Oh my god, I’ll never love someone like I loved them.”  It will not help you to think things like, “I can’t believe it’s over.”  Or, “Oh my god, the way it ended was just terrible.”  Sure, it’s reasonable to think these kinds of things for a little while, but if you are at the point where you consciously want to move on, you need to intentionally think about the relationship’s end in a way that enables you to do that.  You may want to start thinking things like, “That was really amazing in some ways, but I’m letting that relationship be part of the past for reasons that I like.”  Or perhaps, “I can miss that relationship, or some aspects of that relationship, AND I can also keep my focus on why I chose to stay in my marriage.”  You can acknowledge your sadness, or you can acknowledge what was great about the relationship without fixating on what was great about it, or FIXATING on how sad you are.  You can keep your thinking focused on the present and the future, instead of indulging in a lot of thinking about the past.

To reiterate, what I’ve said before, if you take care of managing your thinking, your emotions and actions will more or less take care of themselves.  Our thoughts are the drivers of our emotions, and our emotions are the drivers of our actions.  So there’s no need to obsess over how you’re going to ACT when you’re in the presence of your former affair partner.  Focus on intentionally deciding what you are going to think about them.  If you want to act neutral around them, practice thinking about them in a neutral way, and your emotions and your actions will flow from your thoughts.

All right.  There is another piece of this.  The person who wrote into the Social Q’s column said they didn’t want to contact their former affair partner and declare a truce because their emotions were still too raw.  On the one hand, if you don’t want to contact your former affair partner, you don’t have to.  But if your emotions are so raw that you don’t want to do that, how the heck do you plan to deal with your emotions during the dinner party itself, when you’re seeing this person in the presence of your spouse?  

Once you’ve made your way through the intensity of your emotions, you might want to consider the possibility that it might be worth it to check in with your affair partner.  You might want to declare a truce, using the question-asker’s language, or you might want to get on the same page about how you want to handle being in public together in the future.  You don’t have to do this, of course – but you might also decide that it could be helpful for you and that it’s something you want to try to do.  

Now, even more importantly.  Whether you have some kind of a check-in with your former affair partner or not, you still have the opportunity and the power to manage your own thinking, your own feelings, and your own actions when you are around them at the dinner party – no matter how they behave.  You don’t have to rely on them to behave in certain ways in order for you to take responsibility for your own thinking, and feelings, and behavior.  In other words, even if they act weird – to use the most highly specific language possible – you can still keep calm and carry on.    

However, if you are concerned that they might behave in ways that raise eyebrows, you taking responsibility for your own behavior might mean not going to the dinner party.  If you don’t want to check in with your former affair partner, and you don’t trust that they’ll be able to “act normal” at the dinner party, you might decide that you’re simply better off not going.  If you think you have good reason to be concerned that they’ll behave in ways that other people present will consider strange, you can exercise your right to avoid the situation entirely.  Yes, it might seem awkward to do that.  But you might prefer the awkwardness of not going to the social engagement to the awkwardness of your former affair partner casting angry – or longing – looks in your direction all night long.  If they throw a few longing looks in your direction, you might be able to successfully ignore that.  But if you’re genuinely concerned that they’re going to make a scene of some sort, your most pragmatic move might be to give them as wide of a berth as possible.  

Okay.  There are so many other things we could talk about in regards to dealing with an ongoing relationship with a former affair partner, but we’ll have to talk about those another time.

Before we wrap up today, I want to tell you that I’ve gotten a higher-than-usual number of questions from listeners about how they can support this podcast, or show their appreciation for this podcast.  And to all of you who have asked about this, I thank you for asking, and to everyone who is listening, I want to encourage you to rate and review this podcast on iTunes if you appreciate it.  You can do this anonymously, and it will take you a few minutes at most, and doing this actually helps the algorithm machine thing whatever, which means that your ratings and reviews help other people who would benefit from hearing what I have to say find this podcast.  So if you want to show your appreciation, I’d love it if you would rate and review the show on iTunes. 

And of course, if you are ready to talk about your infidelity situation and begin the process of resolving it in a way that is truly right for you, head on over to my website and schedule an introductory coaching session with me at mariemurphyphd.com.  If whatever you have been doing on your own in an attempt to address your infidelity situation hasn’t been working, maybe it’s time to get some help.  When we work together, we’re able to focus on the specific details of your unique situation, and deal with your needs in an in-depth way.  If you know that change is what you need, why wait any longer to get started?  Let’s get to work and help you start moving in a direction that you feel great about.

Okay everyone, that’s it for today.  Have a great week.  Bye for now.


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