What to do if your partner denies their affair

Psychologist Joshua Coleman, PhD offers ways to handle it when a spouse denies an affair
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What to do if your partner denies their affair

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So sometimes people say, “Look, I know my spouse is cheating or that they cheated and he or she isn’t admitting to it. What do I do about it?” I think you have to make a very important decision at that point. You have to decide how much it affects your trust. Is there some reason that they were having an affair? I mean, in the situation of affair, sometimes it’s useful to speak to some way that you maybe have contributed to it. If you shut down the sex life in marriage for example or you’ve been so rejecting. If you can lead with any kind culpability that you have, that can be useful. Again, I’m not saying that people only have affairs because of the other spouse; sometimes people have affairs in good marriages. But if you’re trying to get your spouse to be open, then you’re going to have to kind of, ideally, take some responsibility for that possibility. Now, if they’re not and it’s affecting your feelings of trust too much, then you have to be very direct about that. If you don’t think it’s going to end the marriage if they confess, then you should tell them that. You can say, “Look, it may end the marriage or it may forever hurt our ability to recover from this if you don’t actually be honest about this. I know that you have. I know you and I know that you did.” Now, having said that, how do you know? I mean people sometimes say, “Oh, I know my spouse is cheating,” and they’re wrong. So I think if you know that you should actually have some pretty good evidence. You should have text or emails or lipstick on a collar or that kind of thing, otherwise what’s your basis for saying you know that they are? People can have all kinds of strong hunches in marriage that are actually quite wrong. So I don’t necessarily assume that because you think that your spouse is having an affair or had an affair and you have a lot of certainty to it, that you’re necessarily correct because people are often wrong about their spouses. But if you really have great certainty about it and feel like you really know it, then you can tell your spouse, “Look, if you tell me, I feel like I can recover from it. I feel like I’ll be able to forgive you. Of course, I’m going to be hurt and mad and want to understand it.” If you feel like you have some culpability you can see, “I can see how you could have had it because of how I’ve been. I do feel like if you don’t tell me and I really think you did, it may end the marriage so I just want you to think about that.”

Psychologist Joshua Coleman, PhD offers ways to handle it when a spouse denies an affair

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Expert Bio

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Joshua Coleman, PhD

Author & Psychologist

Dr. Coleman is a psychologist in private practice in the San Francisco Bay Area and Co-Chair of the Council on Contemporary Families, a non-partisan organization composed of leading sociologists, historians, psychologists and demographers dedicated to providing the press and public with the latest research and best-practice findings about American families. He has lectured at Harvard University and The University of California at Berkeley and blogs on parent-adult child relationships for the U.C. Berkeley publication, Greater Good Magazine, the Huffington Post and Psychology Today.

Dr. Coleman is frequently contacted by the media for opinions and commentary about changes in the American family. He has been a frequent guest on the Today Show, NPR, and The BBC, and has also been featured on Sesame Street, 20/20, Good Morning America, PBS, AARP,  America Online Coaches,  and numerous news programs for FOX, ABC, CNN, and NBC television. His advice appears often in The New York Times, The Times of London, Fortune, Newsweek, The Chicago Tribune, Slate, Psychology Today, U.S. World and News Report, Parenting Magazine, The Baltimore Sun and many others.

He has served on the clinical faculties of The University of California at San Francisco, The Wright Institute Graduate School of Psychology, and the San Francisco Psychotherapy Research Group. He is the author of numerous articles and chapters and has written four books:  When Parents Hurt: Compassionate Strategies When You and Your Grown Child Don't Get Along (HarperCollins) The Marriage Makeover: Finding Happiness in Imperfect Harmony (St. Martin's Press); The Lazy Husband: How to Get Men to Do More Parenting and Housework (St. Martin's Press); and Married with Twins: Life, Love and the Pursuit of Marital Harmony. His books have been translated into Chinese, Croatian, and Korean, and are also available in the U.K., Canada, and Australia. He is formerly a contributing editor to Twins Magazine.

 Dr. Coleman is a sought-after public speaker on topics related to the family. He is also co-editor, along with historian Stephanie Coontz of the yearly online volume, Unconventional Wisdom: News You Can Use, a compendium of noteworthy research on the contemporary family, gender, sexuality, poverty, and work-family issues.  He runs a popular webinar series for estranged parents and a free newsletter for parents, The Coleman Report.

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