by Peggy Vaughan
Why it's important to get answers to questions about the affair
When someone learns of their partner's affair, there's usually an intense "need to know" - getting answers to questions to try to make some kind of sense out of what has happened.
Here's an excerpt about this from my book, The Monogamy Myth
"When a person discovers their mate is having an affair, their world suddenly turns upside down. In order to recover any sense of balance, they need to get more information and understanding of the situation. Without answers to their questions, they convince themselves that the answers must all be bad; otherwise why wouldn't they be told what they want to know. They feel they're being treated like a child, and they resent it.
"If the information didn't exist, it wouldn't be so frustrating and demeaning. But they know their partner has it, and simply refuses to give it to them. This makes a balance of power in the relationship impossible... It's doubtful if trust can ever be restored in a relationship where this persists.
"I remember how tough it was on my husband when I continually asked more and more questions. Intellectually, I wanted to move on and get over it, but emotionally I needed the ongoing support and understanding he gave me. It was extremely important that he never said, "enough is enough, let's get on with our lives." Of course, nobody would choose to go through the thousands of hours of talking about this if there were some other way. In my own case, I think it was an essential part of overcoming my feelings and finding peace of mind."
(end of excerpt from "The Monogamy Myth")
While I have consistently heard this same thing from thousands of people during the past 20 years, there's still a great reluctance on the part of those who have had affairs to answer questions and to continue talking about the whole situation. Unfortunately, there has also been a large segment of the therapeutic community that has reinforced the idea that too many questions and too much talking is not for the best.
I now have statistical data that demonstrates the connection between honest communication and both staying married and recovering. I have posted some results from my Research Questionnaire that may help people see the importance of respecting this "need to know." (Note the link on this page where you can download a FREE PDF of the full 147-page report titled Help for Therapists and their Clients in dealing with affairs.)
While it's important to get answers to your questions IF you ask questions, this does NOT mean you "should" ask questions unless/until you really want to know. It's just that it's essential to get answers if you DO ask.
While for most people, "getting answers to your questions" is a key ingredient in rebuilding the trust and building a strong marriage, no one should be forced to hear things they don't want to hear. But if they DO want to hear details, they deserve to have their questions answered. It's the WILLINGNESS of the partner to answer questions that is so critical, not whether or not you ASK for the answers.
So each person needs to decide for themselves the timing of when/what/how much they want to know. (It's important to determine that you really want the truth, and are not just hoping for some kind of reassurance or disclaimers.) For most people, "not knowing" is worst of all - because their imagination fills in the blanks and the wondering never ceases.
I want to share a beautiful example of a letter one man wrote in his effort to get his wife to answer his questions. This was originally posted on my BAN Message Board before it was closed. While I didn't keep any of the messages posted on that board, this was so exceptional that I got Joseph's permission to include it in "Peggy's Forum" so it could continue to be accessed by people who didn't read his original posting.
So I'm including it here as a clear statement of the "need to know," as well as a clear explanation of why you ask the questions:
"I know you are feeling the pain of guilt and confusion. I understand that you wish all this never happened and that you wish it would just go away. I can even believe that you truly love me and that your indiscretion hurts you emotionally much the same way it hurts me. I understand your apprehension to me discovering little by little, everything that led up to your indiscretion, everything that happened that night, and everything that happened afterwards. I understand. No one wants to have a mistake or misjudgment thrown in his or her face repeatedly. No one wants to be forced to "look" at the thing that caused all their pain over and over again. I can actually see, that through your eyes, you are viewing this whole thing as something that just needs to go away, something that is over, that he/she doesn't mean anything to you, so why is it such a big issue? I can understand you wondering why I torture myself with this continuously, and thinking, doesn't he/she know by now that I love him/her? I can see how you can feel this way and how frustrating it must be. But for the remainder of this letter I'm going to ask you to view my reality through my eyes.
"You were there. There is no detail left out from your point of view. Like a puzzle, you have all the pieces and you are able to reconstruct them and be able to understand the whole picture, the whole message, or the whole meaning. You know exactly what that picture is and what it means to you and if it can effect your life and whether or not it continues to stir your feelings. You have the pieces, the tools, and the knowledge. You can move through your life with 100% of the picture you compiled. If you have any doubts, then at least you're carrying all the information in your mind and you can use it to derive conclusions or answers to your doubts or question. You carry all the "STUFF" to figure out OUR reality. There isn't really any information, or pieces to the puzzle that you don't have.
"Now let's enter my reality. Let's both agree that this affects our lives equally. The outcome no matter what it is well affect us both. Our future and our present circumstances are every bit as important to me as it is to you. So, why then is it okay for me to be left in the dark? Do I not deserve to know as much about the night that nearly destroyed our relationship as you do? Just like you, I am also able to discern the meaning of certain particulars and innuendoes of that night and just like you, I deserve to be given the opportunity to understand what nearly brought our relationship down. To assume that I can move forward and accept everything at face value is unrealistic and unless we stop thinking unrealistically I doubt our lives well ever "feel" complete. You have given me a puzzle. It is a 1000 piece puzzle and 400 random pieces are missing. You expect me to assemble the puzzle without the benefit of looking at the picture on the box. You expect me to be able to discern what I am looking at and to appreciate it in the same context as you. You want me to be as comfortable with what I see in the picture as you are. When I ask if there was a tree in such and such area of the picture you tell me don't worry about it, it's not important. When I ask whether there were any animals in my puzzle you say don't worry about it, it's not important. When I ask if there was a lake in that big empty spot in my puzzle you say, what's the difference, it's not important. Then later when I'm expected to "understand" the picture in my puzzle you fail to understand my disorientation and confusion. You expect me to feel the same way about the picture as you do but deny me the same view as you. When I express this problem you feel compelled to admonish me for not understanding it, for not seeing it the way you see it. You wonder why I can't just accept whatever you chose to describe to me about the picture and then be able to feel the same way you feel about it.
"So, you want me to be okay with everything. You think you deserve to know and I deserve to wonder. You may honestly feel that the whole picture, everything that happened is insignificant because in your heart you know it was a mistake and wish it never happened. But how can I know that? Faith? Because you told me so? Would you have faith if the tables were turned? Don't you understand that I want to believe you completely? But how can I? I can never know what is truly in your mind and heart. I can only observe you actions, and what information I have acquired and slowly, over time rebuild my faith in your feelings. I truly wish it were easier.
"So, there it is, as best as I can put it. That is why I ask questions. That is where my need to know is derived from. And that is why it is unfair for you to think that we can effectively move forward and unfair for you to accuse me of dwelling on the past. My need to know stems from my desire to hold our world together. It doesn't come from jealousy, it doesn't come from spitefulness, and it doesn't come from a desire to make you suffer. It comes from the fact that I love you. Why else would I put myself through this? Wouldn't it be easier for me to walk away? Wouldn't it be easier to consider our relationship a bad mistake in my life and to move on to better horizons? Of course it would, but I can't and the reason I can't is because I love you and that reason in itself makes all the difference in the world."
(end of Joseph's Letter)
The Importance of Reinforcing the Honesty
While it's understandable that the focus is almost exclusively on "getting answers," the key to whether or not there is a continuation of getting answers depends in large part on how you react to hearing the answers you do get. While it may not seem "fair," one who asks for details has a responsibility to hear them in a way that doesn't punish the partner for doing what they've asked them to do. (This is not a matter of it being "wrong" to punish the partner; it's simply not "smart" to immediately punish someone for being honest, despite the potential pain from the honesty, because it means the honesty will be unlikely to continue.)
Here's another excerpt from the "The Monogamy Myth" that points out how important it is for the person who asks for answers to react in a way that Reinforces the Honesty:
"The ability to succeed in dealing honestly with an affair does not depend solely on the attitude and behavior of the one who had the affair. Their partner's reaction is critical because it serves either to reinforce honesty or to discourage it. Honesty about affairs comes in stages. First, there is the admission that it happened, then the many details that contribute to seeing the whole picture. A partner's reaction to the initial fact of the affair has a lot to do with the willingness of the person who had an affair to share any of the details.
"A person who discovers their mate's affair usually feels justified in venting their feelings of hurt and anger. While they certainly have a right to those feelings, they need to recognize that punishing their mate for telling the truth will almost surely put an end to any further honesty. So while it may seem unfair, it's in their own best interest to try to reinforce whatever honesty is received if there is to be much hope for the honesty continuing.
"Supporting a partner's honesty often takes enormous patience. One man said he felt his effort to get his wife to open up and talk was like peeling an onion, with each skin coming off very hard. He continued to encourage her and to show his appreciation for her efforts to be honest, so she finally became convinced it was safe to tell him the truth. It took a long time, but they were able to stay together and develop a relationship that was closer than it had been prior to the affair.
"In another case, a man told of the terrible price his wife paid for being honest with him about her affair. By his own admission, he lashed out at her to try to hurt her back. She decided she had made a mistake by being honest about her affair and became afraid to tell him anything else. But she hung in without trying to defend herself against his constant barrage of criticism. Finally, he came to realize that she must love him very much to tolerate all he had put her through. He felt thankful she hadn't left, and began trying to make up for the damage that had been done.
"This can be quite a challenge for the person who asks for honesty--to avoid punishing their partner for telling them what they want to know. It's understandable that a person feels badly about some of the information they receive, but this can be balanced by feeling good about their partner's honesty. This was my experience, feeling so positive about James' honesty in answering everything I asked him that it diminished the pain of what he had to say. This kind of honest communication is important, not only in dealing with what has happened, but in determining the nature of the relationship in the future."
(end of excerpt from The Monogamy Myth)