Q: A few years ago, I had an affair with a work colleague. It was brief, lasting just over a month. I confessed to my husband, and I changed my job so that I did not work with the guy anymore. My husband and I talked a lot, and we went to couples’ counselling for two years. He was very understanding, and every day I thank my lucky stars that he stayed with me and forgave me. We worked really hard to get back on track, and I actually think that we are stronger now because we did all that work together. I felt guilty for so long, but things are good now. However, he recently told his parents what happened, and then they told his siblings, and they told his friends. Most of them now hate me. I have been uninvited to family events and a couple of friends’ birthdays, and his friends tell him he should have divorced me. I worry that he will start to listen to them all, and it’s causing a lot of stress. I don’t want us to split up, but I feel so guilty for causing all this hurt. I’m also really worried that he will start listening to them and start believing them and end our marriage.
Dr West replies: Your husband probably feels under siege as he has so many people in his ear telling him what he should do. But these people don’t know what has gone on between you, and they were not there during the past few years of hard work to get back to a good place. They are most likely reacting out of protection as they love your husband too and want to protect him.
Our society very often believes that cheating is the worst thing that a person can ever do, and they should never be forgiven for it. It is, of course, an immensely hurtful thing to do, but if there is genuine remorse and effort put in place, there is hope for a relationship to recover and even become stronger, as you have found. We are bombarded with slogans such as ‘leopards don’t change their spots’, and ‘once a cheater, always a cheater’, but human behaviour is often not as black and white as a catchphrase. People can and do change, and others refuse to change and leave a trail of heartache in their wake. It all comes down to empathy, a desire to change, and hard work. You have shown that you are willing to do that, and your husband has also done the hard work of forgiving you. He did not have to, but he made the choice to do this work.
You didn’t force his parents to tell everyone. They are responsible for starting the chain reaction by passing on this information. It was not their business to tell, and they should have been aware of the ripple effect of their actions. He has to stand up and take your side, as your marriage will suffer if he allows you to be ridiculed or excluded from social events. It’s not up to them to punish you, but you will have to give them time to come around too. You’ve had years to process this together, with the support of a counsellor. They have only just found out and mostly through second- or third-hand sources, and the truth might have become murky.
This is ultimately no one else’s business but yours. You both will know your relationship more than any outsider ever could. You do not have to prove yourself to anyone but yourself and your husband here. However, it is up to your husband to talk to his family and friends and draw some boundaries. It’s going to be impossible for them to have any kind of relationship with you if they are simultaneously telling your husband to leave you. Your husband needs to make it clear to them that you have both processed the affair and overcome it and made the decision to stay in the marriage. While it’s okay that they are having initial reactions of hurt and anger, they need to draw a line and accept his decision. He has made his choice, and they will need to respect it.
In relation to your relationship, you can’t keep someone in a marriage, regardless of how much you want them to stay. If he is more swayed by an outsider’s view of your marriage than the reality that he lives daily, then the marriage may not have been as secure as you had thought. If he does express that he is listening to them, you can ask him why he feels the need to take their opinions on board. Perhaps he has not really forgiven you, and if that is the case, it is better to have this out in the open than festering away under the surface for years. Your marriage won’t work if he still feels resentment and is clinging on to those feelings, so whether it is now or in future, it is better to speak openly about this. I do wonder why he chose to tell his parents now, and if that points to any underlying issues. He must have known that it would open a huge can of worms but yet still did it. Alcohol is often used as an excuse for loose lips, but it must have been simmering under the surface already.
It’s time to talk to each other and see if you are strong enough to keep going. Go back to your counsellor if needed, but checking in with each other is going to decide what direction your marriage will go in. Having a good relationship with your in-laws and his friends is good for an easier life, although not essential. Healing isn’t linear, and it is perfectly normal to have ups and downs as you move forward, but if there is an underlying issue lurking in the background, it may end in heartache.
Dr West is a sex educator and host of the Glow West podcast, which focuses on sex. Send your questions to email@example.com. Dr West regrets she cannot answer questions privately