I’ve just read your column ‘I had an affair and now I’m stuck with the other woman’. I also had an affair but I ended it and managed – with therapy and support from my spouse to save my marriage (I hope). While I wanted to stay married and the affair most definitely was a mistake, I don’t regret all of it and desperately miss the person I was seeing. We’re not in touch now and never will be again. That makes me terribly sad. Does it make sense that I still miss them although I do not want to be with them? Surely I cannot be the only person who ends an affair, stays married, but still feels sad sometimes? I have nobody to talk to about this.
You aren’t the only person in this situation. Since that problem was published I have had lots of emails from people in situations like yours.
Many, like the person in the original problem, had been caught cheating and were upset about how things had turned out. Or they were like you: people who had chosen to end an affair but still had feelings of sadness about it.
In some cases, the affair had been discovered and they were working through this with their partner with the aim of staying together – so felt they couldn’t let on they missed the person they had been cheating with. In others, they had managed to keep the affair well hidden, so their spouse had no idea what had gone on and they had to mask their distress.
Over the past 50 years we have become far more tolerant about all kinds of things. However, infidelity remains taboo.
Anyone who cheats is still cast as a ‘baddie’, and as such must be punished. There is no scope for them to have regrets; to have complex reactions to their affair, and little sympathy if they feel upset after one ends.
Which brings us back to you.
When a relationship ends there is often grief, sadness and regret. Feelings can be complex, so while you appreciate it was right to end the relationship, you may still be sad it is over, or miss the person you were seeing. That can apply whether or not it was an affair or not.
Because of the stigma attached to infidelity, those that have cheated may feel they don’t deserve help, or discover friends and family, who ordinarily might be supportive, are more likely to take sides or scold them.
Some therapists are excellent at supporting people to heal after infidelity, but many still operate on a model where there is a wronged spouse – and a ‘bad’ cheater. The person who has cheated therefore only gets one narrative – that of regret and apology.
Doubtless people reading this who have been cheated on will be furious at me for suggesting this. I understand. If you’ve been betrayed and lied to then you are not going to feel sympathetic to someone who’s hurt you. You want them to be sorry.
For this reason you can’t expect your spouse to listen or support you in your sadness. They are unlikely to appreciate you have willingly ended the affair but still have complex feelings about it – and that you miss the person you were cheating with.
But that doesn’t mean you can’t seek help elsewhere.
Some people find writing about how they feel helps. That might be documenting the whole timeline of the affair to work out what happened and what they might do differently if temptation arose in future. Or it might be letters that you never send. Here, you can share emotions you don’t feel able to express elsewhere.
If you have a sympathetic friend you can talk to that might help. Or it could be anonymous; online forums are places you can find other people like you – working on their marriages but with regrets about the past that aren’t simplified into ‘I’m sorry I cheated’ or ‘I’m sorry I got caught’.
Because affairs are taboo, you don’t hear that people may have loved the person they were cheating with. That they grieve for what didn’t happen, even if they are pleased to have the chance to work on their marriage. It can feel like a bereavement. They may miss the excitement. Or maybe they just miss the other person.
You are entitled to these feelings, even if they are not ones you can easily express. Indeed, if this is how you feel, pretending otherwise can be counterproductive. Healing isn’t just about approaching your marriage in new and honest ways. It is also about feeling stronger and better yourself, which isn’t going to come if you are unable to admit to being sad or missing someone.
I don’t know if you are still seeing a therapist, but it may be appropriate for you to see someone by yourself, to work through these hidden residues of your affair. The fact you can’t be in touch with the person you were seeing, the regrets and the sadness could all be explored with an understanding therapist without placing additional burdens upon your spouse.
Alternatively, you may recognise, as with any breakup, that over time things can feel easier. That may work if you allow yourself to accept that the way you feel isn’t unusual and to recognise there are going to be times when you experience remorse and regret; where you wonder what they are doing; when music or a movie makes you think of them; or dates that might have been significant to you. Planning for this could reduce any anxiety you feel that your spouse will notice any odd behaviour that might lead to tensions in your marriage.
Some people take a different approach and raise this either with their spouse in conversation, or in mediation via a therapist. They explain how they are happy to still be married, but still have feelings for the person they cheated with.
This can work if you have a competent therapist, but brings the risk that even the most understanding spouse is probably not going to find it easy to hear and it could cause further rifts. It does, however, provide complete honesty, which some people find essential in relationship recovery.
You say that you are glad to still be married and that the affair is over, but it may be worth double-checking this is true. When an affair is discovered, one reaction may be to double-down on the marriage and try and save it. Considerable pressure can come from a spouse, wider family and society to do this. And efforts put into salvaging things can be a distraction from the other painful feelings associated with an affair ending.
But not all marriages do work out, even if you try and fix them. It doesn’t mean you’ve failed. Or that you can go back to the person you were cheating with (although some do). It might be that, despite trying, your marriage isn’t working. Or that you need some space to work out what you want. Or your spouse does.
This is why noting complicated feelings that arise after cheating is important. Giving yourself time to focus on all of this is not self-indulgent (unless you make it so). It is fair to you – and your spouse.