Adultery in Divorce

We want an explanation for what causes divorce. When one of the spouses in a divorce has an affair — has been unfaithful — we long to point to that as the reason. More often than not, adultery isn’t the cause of divorce; it’s just one of the symptoms.

Signs Your Spouse May Be Having an Affair

Sherry couldn’t figure out what had come over John. Not long ago, he had been so gentle, so supportive, so loving. Over the last few months, however, he had become cold, distant, and strangely negative toward everything about her. She first thought he was right, that she really was an ineffective mother,  a lousy lover, and a sloppy housekeeper. Then she thought John was going through depression. When she described his behavior, however, both her therapist and I had a strong suspicion John was having an affair.

Where did we get the idea that spouses guilty of having affairs come home with a bleary-eyed apology and a dozen roses? Not the ones I see. They get mean.

Why? The nearest I can tell is that when I know I’m unfaithful to my spouse, I’m doing what I’ve learned all my life is against the rules. I have to justify it somehow. The easiest way I know to do that is to dwell on all the things that are wrong with my spouse. “I’ve put up with this *$#^@ for all these years. Of course I’ve eventually strayed. Anybody would under these circumstances.”

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Beyond that, of course, there are the traditional signs that your spouse is straying:

  • Like long hours of time unaccounted for, explained by increasingly flimsy excuses.
  • Like strange smells.
  • Like coldness during sex.
  • Like frequent silence when you pick up the phone.
  • Like unexplained expenses.
  • Like a sudden and unexplained series of changes in your spouse’s appearance and/or behavior.
  • Like those hints you’re getting from your friends that you may be discounting.

Here’s a more comprehensive list of 46 Clues Your Spouse is Having an Affair from Dr. Robert Huizenga.

What To Do About It

You can start with what most people do when they begin to suspect — and then conclude — that their husband or wife is having an affair.

Go berserk.
It’s okay. That’s sort of what you’re supposed to do. It is quite literally maddening to discover that your spouse is being unfaithful. You hate your spouse. You hate the other person. You hate yourself. You question your own worth and value.

You are consumed with curiosity. You want to know where they went and what they did. How big is his penis? How do her breasts and her rear end compare with mine? She’s prettier than me. He’s richer than me. What does she see in him? She doesn’t seem like his type at all. What did she do with him? What positions do they use? You want to drive by when you suspect they’re together and see whose car is parked outside.

You also want to know who else knows. Do his co-workers know? Do my friends know? How about his family? What are they saying about me? What do my spouse and the other person say about me?

Eventually, though, you can begin fashioning a more thoughtful response. It’s time to rethink your marriage, of course. Are you still committed to it? Is there any hope for restoring your marriage? Should you confront your spouse with what you know?

It’s crucial that you understand the difference between the angry feelings you have and the self-destructive behaviors that might grow out of those feelings if you don’t find a way to deal with them. It is at this stage that you really need counseling. Or a helping friend. Read about the three divorces.

Should you hire a private investigator? That’s a complicated question. First read Does it Matter? Then think strategically. If you’re still convinced you need to hire a private investigator, do so. But when you do, make sure you’re using the investigator as efficiently as possible. Gather photographs, models and tag numbers of cars, addresses, and phone numbers that might be helpful. Most importantly, gather and write down all the information you can about where your spouse might be at what hours, so you won’t have to pay the investigator to spend hours at the time just watching and waiting.

Also, lower your expectations. It’s a rare case indeed where a private investigator will actually be able to produce those proverbial 8 x 10 glossies of your spouse and his or her lover in the act of intercourse. More likely, you will end up with a succession of photographs showing your spouse and the other person together at bars or restaurants, perhaps kissing, dancing, or hugging, or perhaps going in and out of a hotel room or apartment.

There’s another, more pungent phenomenon that adultery causes. Almost always, the spouse whose spouse is unfaithful experiences a sudden, dizzying loss of self-confidence. What’s wrong with me? Why would my spouse do this? I’m getting old! Now no one will ever love me!

Perhaps the most important task you have in the wake of your spouse’s affair is to convince yourself, first in your head and later even in your gut, that this is not about you. It’s about your spouse. It’s your spouse who has made the decision to commit adultery. It’s not a problem you can, should, or will solve.

Does It Matter?

Whether your spouse’s affair matters in your divorce settlement varies from state to state. Judges in some states pay no attention to the conduct of the parties. In others, adultery can have a significant impact on property settlement and on spousal support. It rarely affects decisions about custody unless the adultery has had some direct impact on the children. It almost never affects the amount of child support.

Check with your own lawyer or coach about the impact in your state of your spouse’s adultery. Then you can decide with full knowledge how aggressively you want to gather information about the affair. There’s a separate page on how to prove adultery.

When You’ve Been Unfaithful

So now you’ve already had an affair. Do you regret it? Do you wish it hadn’t happened? Do you want to restore your marriage? Then read I’ve Screwed Up; Now What? and get ready do some major apologizing. Don’t skip one element of that apology process. Follow every step. And when you’re finished, resign yourself to months, perhaps years, of rebuilding your credibility.

On the other hand, do you intend to continue this extra-marital relationship? If so, have you decided you’re going to divorce? If not, how on earth do you justify your behavior?

Let’s assume you’re moving toward divorce. Now your challenge is to manage your divorce in a way that allows you and your spouse both to stay in control. It still might be a really good idea to read I’ve Screwed Up; Now What? and do some apologizing. Beyond that, read What to Do About It and be prepared to tolerate some really bizarre behaviors from your spouse for awhile.

Is This “The Real Love I Always Needed”?

Unlikely. Start with the principle that marriages that occur within two years of divorce have an 85% failure rate. If anything, your relationship is even more likely to be fundamentally flawed, growing as it does out of betrayal, secrecy, and pain.

I know your relationship is different. I know you’re experiencing a tenderness, an excitement, a joy that you’ve never felt before, not with anyone. I know you’re convinced this new partner is the one with whom you were always destined to be happy. It hurts me to say this, and I know it hurts you even more to read it, but you’re probably wrong.

I can’t quote you statistics on the success rate of relationships that began with adultery. Anecdotally, though, they rarely last.

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