In desperate times, people do desperate things. Following the discovery of an affair, couples do things in an attempt to limit damage, make things better or to understand the events of the affair. The partner who had the affair may try to limit the ensuing damage that may occur by disclosing partial information about an affair. The hurt partner may seek support or understanding from friends in family. In doing so, the couple can inadvertently continue to damage the relationship and limit the process of repair.
Boundaries with the Affair Partner
I read another clinicians blogpost some time ago (by Brad Hambrick-2012) who was offering strategies for how to end an extramarital affair. Here is an excerpt of his blogpost arguing that the affair relationship is a very dangerous relationship:
This relationship should be treated like a poisonous snake in the house with your children. Even if the snake is in another room, you would take every measure possible to destroy the snake because you know the snake is a predator and its presence, even in another room, puts them in mortal danger.
In that vein, most clinicians have an expectation that the partner who had the affair will cut off all contact with the affair partner. This is best to be done quickly with no tapering off. This should be done in the full view and awareness of their partner. No clandestine meetings to say goodbye to get closure and no phone calls in secret to apologize privately. There is no such thing as closure when it comes to infidelity, one relationship will end horribly, either the primary relationship or the affair relationship. Believing in closure and acting upon it will only make the recovery process more difficult.
Any contact that occurs following closure of the affair relationship should be disclosed to the other partner immediately, including accidental contact, attempted contact by the affair partner, or any probable contact (such as phone call hang ups).
Boundaries around Discussions with Family and Friends
The challenge with seeking support from family and friends is that these individuals tend to support just one person, not the relationship. Unfortunately, this type of support prolongs the personal turmoil the person is experiencing, not promoting stabilization and recovery. Support-seeking is an important feature in the early days following discovery or disclosure but each partner should consider carefully in selecting someone for support. Though friends and family may have good intentions they can cause considerable damage by taking sides and blaming one partner. Someone who is unbiased and is a support to the relationship can be a more effective and helpful support person.
Boundary with Leaking out Information Over Time
I tell couples in my practice that the person who had the affair needs to “tell it like it is” as soon as possible. Leaking information when questioned by your spouse (by telling only partial information) only makes it look like lying when questions are asked a second time and new information is shared. If the participating partner wants to save their primary relationship, they will need to be willing to offer the facts about the affair and offer a timeline of events, including thoughts and feeling around decision-making before, during and after the affair.
Boundary with Not Answering Questions
If you had the affair...when asked a question, answer; when asked the same question again, answer. The rule here would be to show your willingness to answer questions and answer them as best you can. Also, answer similar or redundant questions without irritation and to be expansive as possible in your responses. Make sure your responses include information about your behaviors, your thoughts and your feelings.
Boundaries around Self-care
Couples in crisis overlook the importance of taking care of their personal needs. The couple should monitor physical care, making sure to eat well, get enough sleep, and exercise, if their physical health supports it. Social support can be encouraged, with careful attention paid to what is appropriate to disclose to others and what is not. For couples that are spiritual; meditation, prayer, and talking with spiritual counselors can be extremely helpful.
For a more comprehensive list of boundaries, check out my article Calming the Storm or get a copy of my book Creating an Effective Couple Therapy Practice, there is an expansive chapter on infidelity treatment and boundaries for recovery.