Visit Peggy Vaughan’s website Extramarital Affairs Resource Center at www.dearpeggy.com or check out her book The Monogamy Myth and To Have and To Hold: A Personal Handbook for Building a Strong Marriage and Preventing Affairs, which will be published in February 2010.
By Peggy Vaughan
This can be a crazy-making situation as you try to comprehend why your husband would have an affair with his ex-wife? Maybe you could comprehend an attraction/temptation to someone ‘new-and-exciting.’ But what in the world would make him turn to the woman he divorced – when there must have been problems and/or hard feelings toward her at that point. What changed?
Well, there’s no ‘rational’ explanation – because this is not a rational action. But there are ways to gain some understanding of how/why it may have happened. While this naturally feels very ‘personal,’ his actions do not necessarily have anything to do with you or the state of your marriage. So the first step is to avoid ‘comparing’ yourself to the ‘ex.’
One way to think about this is to realize that what happened is based more on the difference between the role of being the ex-wife and the role of being the spouse – not about the particular people who fill those roles. For instance, if you had been the ex-wife and she had been the current spouse, he would likely have wanted to have an affair with you.
Understanding some of the factors that may contribute to this happening.
Their shared history:
Regardless of the feelings between your husband and his ex-wife at the time of their divorce, there was once a time when they loved each other. And as time passes, the ‘bad times’ may begin to recede, leaving them to recall the ‘good times’ when they were in love. (This is somewhat like the way we revise our thinking about a person who dies. Even though we may have become quite removed or even bitter about them when they were alive, after they die we’re more likely to recall the ‘good things’ about them.)
Also, most of us tend to always think ‘the grass may be greener’ in whatever alternative scenario might be in our heads. For instance, when you make a certain choice (like marrying the first time), you’re likely to gradually become more focused on the problems in the relationship and see some alternative as more desirable. Then if/when you make a different choice (like getting a divorce), you’re likely to gradually become focused on the loss you feel about being alone, leading you to fall in love with someone new and get married again.
As this pattern continues, the next step is that after some period of time in the new marriage, you again begin to be more focused on the (natural, inevitable) problems that develop in marriages over time – leading you to consider alternatives (one of which is recalling the ‘good times’ in the first marriage and feeling more open to the first wife. And for the ex-wife, it can be heady to see your ex-husband seeing you in this new, more favorable light. So (without rational considerations) both people can get caught up in the relationship that once was.
Having children from the earlier marriage automatically means he will have a life-long relationship of some sort with his ex-wife. While that can be a difficult fact to swallow, it IS a fact. So the challenge is not how to avoid the contact, but how to manage it.
This means avoiding a situation where he ‘lives in two worlds,’ functioning as a father to his children from the earlier marriage completely on his own (as a separate world) from the one with you. Regardless of your feelings about his ongoing relationship with the children, they are the innocent victims of this situation. So it calls for treating them with kindness and compassion – both to their face and behind their back when talking to your husband about them. (As you know, all children can be ‘difficult’ at times, but the normal issues with children become greater when they’re dealing with the fallout from their parents’ divorce.)
But more directly to the point of not leaving your husband to lead two separate lives… the degree of ‘closeness’ between your husband and his ex-wife is affected by how much of their joint parenting is done separately from you. For instance, discussions about the children’s activities or issues involves all three of you, so (for the sake of the children as well as for maintaining the integrity of your marriage), you need to be involved in all of it. Granted, dealing with his ex-wife can be problematic under any circumstances, but especially once there has been an affair. But being ‘civil’ and ‘adult’ in dealing with her is still your best path to maintaining and rebuilding your marriage.
While in most instances, an important part of recovering is severing all contact with the third party, this is not a reasonable option when children are involved. This continuing contact does create a greater challenge for rebuilding the marriage; however it CAN be done. I’ve seen it happen many times – even when the child/children are conceived during the current marriage. I’ve been greatly impressed and inspired by the women who have successfully managed this kind of difficult situation.
As strange as it may seem, this focus on the child and the situation as a whole can sometimes lift people out of a very narrow focus only on their own personal pain. Also, perhaps surprisingly, it can become the “glue” that holds the couple together in their effort to recover and rebuild. This effort by both the husband and the wife in trying to deal with this enormous challenge can serve to draw them together. In fact, the most critical element in the recovery may be the degree to which the husband and wife can make a joint effort to face this challenge together and shift their focus to the future rather than dwelling on the past.
This doesn’t mean ignoring or denying the reality of what has happened. It just means following the guidelines that are generally helpful in recovery from affairs.
Here are some Key Steps Involved in Recovering:
(Each of these points is discussed at length in my book, The Monogamy Myth.)
—Accepting the fact that it happened (no more “if only…” or “why me?”)
—Understanding the complex reasons for affairs (not just “personal failure”).
—Deliberately focusing on dealing with it and talking openly about what happened.
—Allowing time to heal.
—Believing it’s possible to recover.
What about the Future?
A good marriage is a great blessing, not to be taken lightly or put at risk without a lot of patience and commitment to working through problems as they arise – even problems as difficult as this one. Life has many twists and turns, and the older we get, the more we realize that it’s more important to protect and preserve what’s good about the present.
It’s always a little dangerous to suggest that a marriage can actually become stronger after an affair—because some people will use this as a way of “justifying” an affair, saying that it “helped” the marriage. I have NEVER seen an affair “help” a marriage. What does sometimes happen (as happened with us) is that the work we did together—and the rock-bottom commitment to honesty that we made together—did force a stronger bond than we had had before. It wasn’t the affairs that helped our marriage—(they could just as easily have destroyed it)—it was the way we dealt with this crisis that made it possible for us to grow stronger as a couple.
This is true of any life crisis. It can destroy you or it can strengthen you. (Christopher Reeves, just one of many examples, comes to mind.) So it is with a marital crisis like affairs. It, too, can destroy your relationship—or it can lead to actions that wind up strengthening it.
When someone is in the early stages of dealing with the devastating emotional impact of a partner’s affair, it’s difficult to hear that it’s possible (with lots of time and effort by both people) to eventually come through this with a stronger marriage. On the other hand, it can be helpful to understand that it’s possible for this to happen. Recovery doesn’t have to mean simply “surviving;” it can actually mean “thriving.”
Once we worked through my husband’s affairs (a process that took 2 to 3 years), we developed a relationship that was stronger than it had ever been before the affairs—and probably stronger than it ever would been without having faced this and dealing with it together. This is NOT to say I would have voluntarily gone through this experience in order to have the relationship that we developed, but it certainly helps to put the whole experience in perspective.