Q. I had an affair that lasted for two years which I confessed to my wife. I thought we'd resolved it but she keeps it alive. I feel guilt and shame for what I did but I can no longer tolerate the past being injected into every dispute we have now. She blames the affair for all our difficulties. How can we get past this problem?
A. Betrayal is the atomic bomb of relationships and it's not just something you resolve easily. The most powerful of feelings get stirred up and the effects from the fallout often show for years afterward.
Let's look at some possible reasons she is keeping this event in the forefront. By sneaking off with another woman for two years, you delivered a heavy blow to her most essential feminine nature. She feels rage, sorrow, disgust, hurt, abiding mistrust and possibly even desires for revenge. When you broke your vow, her whole world was turned upside down and likely she feels very shaky underneath whatever cover she presents to the world. And there is a lot more than this. One thing you can be sure of: her not letting this go is a sign she has not yet sufficiently worked through her feelings.
We can also predict with some reliability that things are not going all that well between you right now -at least from her point of view. A partner who insists on bringing up past grievances is not feeling nourished by the relationship as it is. As you try to ignore all this and pretend that everything is ok (except for her whining about the past), it is highly unlikely your relationship will improve. If you can accept this reasoning, where can you go from here?
In our experience, couples who are able to regain an alive and trusting relationship after a betrayal go through a number of steps. In the first stage, many partners who have been betrayed often need to know details: why, where, when, how many times, how many people, etc. The betraying partner often wants to avoid this because he or she knows that intense feelings are going to get stirred up in the process. Rather hiding from feelings (a strategy which will only lead to numbness over the long run), it is important to express and receive everything that comes up. Whether details are needed or not, the feelings must be worked through. This process might take longer than you think (or would prefer) and a therapist or trusted facilitator can be of great assistance. You might prefer to avoid these powerful feelings but you need to be aware that feelings which are not dealt with don't just go away; they only go underneath the surface, fester, and emerge out of proportion to the events at hand (the process that is happening right now).
When the details are sufficiently covered and at least some of the major feelings have been expressed, there has to be an apology. Once again, that apology has to be delivered with a lot of feeling behind it. And not just once -you will need to apologize many times. She needs you to really see how much you have hurt her. She also needs a clear message from you that you are willing to take responsibility for getting to some of the root causes of this crisis.
For example, betrayers are usually acting out of a very young, emotionally immature place. Underneath it all, they are often seeking to bolster feelings of self-efficacy by proving they are attractive to the opposite sex. It is a small person's way to build feelings of self worth. Underneath even their own awareness, betrayers often feel powerless relative to their partner (the opposite sex in general!) and betrayal is a perfect way to render their partner powerless. People who seek other lovers and, at the same time, try to hold onto the one they have, have very high security needs, which also speaks of a young mentality. In the act of betraying, partners are not usually attending to consequences, often believing they are above needing to account to ordinary standards (another example of a child's self centerness and naivete). Betrayers can be freer with their feelings in the affair and tend to become cold with the committed spouse (who from their young viewpoint is seen as parent). Betrayers are often out of touch with their feelings (anger in particular) and are afraid to articulate their needs in a direct way. There is a lot more than this but if you are honest, you will see some parts of yourself in this and begin the work of growing up in an authentic way.
As you begin this process of going more deeply into yourself, and sharing what you are learning, perhaps your wife will be inspired to take more responsibility for the difficulties you are in. Instead of wallowing in victim, she needs to begin to realize betrayal isn't usually a random event. Chances are you both had been feeling undernourished in your marriage a long time before the betrayal happened and she had a fifty percent role in that part of it. The partner who has been betrayed often has been withholding and controlling, with strong tendencies to live in a fantasy world (that everything is ok when it isn't). Whatever has been going on, your wife needs to take a serious look inward for her contribution to the crisis. She also needs to be looking at her urges to continue punishing you, an act that will ultimately destroy what she does have.
If you are looking for a fast acting, patch-up solution, we're sorry. You dropped the bomb and before new life can begin, you have to work through the fallout. It can be done but it won't be easy. Good luck.