What to Say to a Cheating Spouse?

This article was published in the Chicago Now section of the Chicago Tribune (circa 2011) as part of the Kulerski & Cornelison “The Way We War” series of articles.

What should you do if you learn that your spouse is having an affair?

If you hope to save the marriage, you should not react the way most of us would by saying whatever comes to mind. This is counterproductive and can easily drive the unfaithful spouse further away.

The typical behavior that most victim spouses are inclined to exhibit, and which should be avoided, includes:

  • Trying to make the unfaithful spouse feel shame or guilt;
  • Telling the children about the infidelity;
  • Using the children as reasons to work on the marriage;
  • Trashing the affair partner;
  • Telling the unfaithful spouses’ siblings or parents about the affair;
  • Involving mutual friends; and
  • Contacting the paramour.

There are certain things that pros recommend we say and do.  In his eye-opening book, How to Break Free from the Affair, author and infidelity expert, Robert Huizenga, CSW, LMFT, offers several strategies for winning back a spouse who is having (or did have) an affair.  Here are three of them:

Act happy.  Be as cheerful as possible.  Be positive, put on this behavior when you have contact with your spouse.  Prepare yourself to act this way and practice it.  Be an actor or actress, fake it, if necessary.  Fake it until you are positive.

Engage in to-the-point small talk.  Make conversations with your spouse brief and to the point.  Talk only about solutions to specific problems that need to be addressed.  Do not institute or get hooked into any melodramatic conversations.  Be polite, but be firm.

Tend to agree.  Try to find a kernel of truth in what your spouse is saying and agree with it.  If he/she says something like, “I love you, but I’m not in love with you,” you say, “It certainly seems that way. Thank you for your truthfulness.”

If he/she says, “I’m not sure what I want,” you say, “Yes, it must be confusing for you.” If he/she says, “I’m thinking of moving out,” you say, “Do you have an idea of when you plan on doing so? Knowing the approximate date would be date would help me plan my activities.”

Dr. Huizenga also advises us to avoid saying “I love you” to the cheating spouse, to refrain from suggesting counseling (the bible, or Oprah), and to not beg or appear needy.

He concedes that his recommendations run contrary to what we are naturally inclined to say and do, but he believes his ideas are the best strategies to employ.  He claims they work in most cases, but not in instances where the unfaithful spouse is a serial philanderer or sex addict.

Dr. Robert Huizenga, CSW, LMFT, is a Muskegon, MI online author with a private practice in Marriage and Family Therapy since 1981. He has served hundreds of couples, more recently specializing in the area of marital infidelity.  He is the author of “Break Free from The Affair.”