Non-judgmental advice for people having an affair, part I
Updated: Apr 12, 2021
Infidelity is incredibly common, and incredibly stigmatized. There are plenty of people out there who will tell you that if you’re cheating, you’re doing something Bad, and moreover, that YOU are Bad.
Maybe you’ve absorbed that idea, too.
If you have, let me tell you otherwise: you are not bad. And moreover, telling yourself this simply isn’t HELPFUL!
You can’t shame yourself or “should” yourself into making sustainable, positive changes. Self-acceptance and self-love are far better motivators of change than self-reproach.
So if you’ve been beating yourself up about what you’re doing, my first piece of advice is this: stop.
Easier said than done, I know.
But here’s the thing. It will actually be easier to address your situation if you can allow yourself to look at it in more neutral terms.
What if you could see your affair as a puzzle in your life that you want to solve… rather than a big, bad problem that you have to fix?
What if your affair isn’t an indication that there is something wrong with you? What if it’s not a sign that you’re a terrible person? What if, instead, it’s a sign that you’ve got a huge opportunity in front of you to reevaluate what you really want in your love life – and perhaps what you want out of your life as a whole?
Now, I completely understand that the prospect of doing this may seem slightly terrifying. If you believe that evaluating your life might lead to big changes in your life, you may be quite inclined to sweep the whole matter under the rug for as long as possible.
If that’s where you’re at, I have good news: you have more choices than you think you do, change is possible, and although you may be in a bit of a pickle right now, sorting your life out might be easier than you’re imagining. (And no matter what, you can do it. One step at a time. And I can help you.)
It might sound strange, but if you’re having an affair and you’re kind of stressed out about the whole thing, the best thing you can do for yourself right now is to slow down, take a step back, and look at your situation from a fresh perspective.
Here are three simple steps you can take right now to begin to do this.
Articulate your worries, concerns, fears, etc. Get it all out. Write it down if you can! There is so much value in getting your thoughts out of your mind, and onto some external medium. You can always burn the paper or delete the document later. What do you think is problematic about your situation? What are you worried might happen? What are you afraid the whole thing means about YOU?
For example, maybe you’re worried that cheating on your spouse/partner means you’re a selfish person who is incapable of living by their values. It probably feels TERRIBLE to think that thought, but write it down. Get as honest with yourself as you can about what’s on your mind.
It may be EXCRUCIATINGLY uncomfortable to write all of this stuff down, but facing our worst fears is the first step in defusing them. Strange as it might sound, we have to confront our anxieties before we can start feeling less anxious.
Now see if you can get clear on the FACTS of the situation. How would a neutral, non-judgmental observer describe your circumstances? What is OBJECTIVELY true about your situation?
Write this down, too!
Here’s why it’s important to do this: humans are meaning-making creatures, and our minds are constantly creating a narrative about ourselves and everything that’s going on in our lives. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but we tend to believe that our incessant internal dialog is simply a neutral reflection of reality. But it isn’t. Our PERCEPTIONS of our circumstances are rarely the same as the FACTS of our circumstances.
So, for example, “I’m married, and I’m currently having a sexual/romantic relationship with someone other than my spouse” could be a fact for you right now. “My spouse is going to kill me if they find out about my affair” is NOT a fact. For one thing, none of this has happened yet, and speculations are not facts.
Finally, what’s good about your situation?
Something must be good about it, right? Otherwise, why would you even bother?! Affairs can be a whole lot of TROUBLE! So... why is it worth it?
I talk to a lot of people who try to minimize the wonderful aspects of their affair, because they believe the very fact of its existence renders the whole thing Bad and Wrong; that the immorality of it all should cancel out the joy.
But recognizing what you appreciate and enjoy about your affair is essential to figuring out what to do with your situation. Joy and connection and love and happiness are your birthrights. Yes, your current circumstances may be complicated. Yes, you may have some things to sort out. Yes, that might mean you have some uncomfortable moments ahead as you get your life’s business in order. Even if all of those things are true, that need not render the positive aspects of your situation null and void.
Furthermore, the point of answering these questions is to help you get a comprehensive picture of what’s going on with you right now. And the things you enjoy about your affair are an important part of that. Denying ourselves the experience of pleasure, or denying that we’re experiencing pleasure when we are doesn’t make us better people. It just distorts our understanding of our own experiences, and makes it hard to see the whole picture.
Last but not least: I believe we're all entitled to guidance and support that respects the fullness of our humanity, and the complexity of our situations... even if we're doing something that other people think is wrong (or we ourselves feel a little dubious about). If you're engaging in anything you think counts as infidelity, you're worthy of compassion and respect. No matter what anybody else says.