Twice in the last year, I have been asked by someone how to overcome the recent disclosure that their spouse had an affair many years ago. In one case, about 20 years ago. In another case, 30 years ago (yes, during the first Reagan Administration!). I guess I was initially puzzled as what to advise. So I throw this one out to my readers as well.
This was a hard question to answer. The passage of time doesn’t make an affair less wrong or irrelevant, but how does one “heal” from something that occurred decades earlier? How does one ask forgiveness for something that occurred a half a lifetime ago when you, your partner were much younger and likely different? How does one “make amends” for something so long ago? How does one restore a trust that was breached so long ago? To me, the time factor made it really different.
In the 30 year case, she was putting her husband in a position where he can’t really explain why he did it, and really restore trust. I told her simply: You have to let it go. You really should consider how your marriage has been SINCE that time. Have you been happy? Are you connected? Do you have a happy, content marriage? Isn’t that what’s important? I also told her that while they should discuss it openly as adults (and maybe with a counselor), that she would be foolish to push it too far because she could lose her marriage over it. A marriage otherwise fine and solid for 30 years. Over this. Over a mistake in the deep, deep past. Did she want to do that?
I never got a response on that part. I guess I was too blunt, but blunt is my nature. I don’t mean to be unkind, but I try to cut to the heart of the matter. When people write me, I’m not trying to be their BFF. I’m answering the question as logically as I can with the information they give me and based on my experiences. I don’t seek them out. They seek ME out. I do the best I can for everyone that writes me.
Because she never responded to my followup message, I gave it more thought. I don’t think I gave the wrong advice, but I have additional thoughts now:
1. It’s still a hurt. It’s still infidelity, even if it happened 20-30 years ago. They just learned of it. To them, it’s ALMOST like it just happened. Even though these infidelities were 20 and 30 years ago, they were a “blow” to the wives who recently found it. It would be to anyone. I would never suggest otherwise.
2. To respond as if it were an affair that was still going on, or recently happened, would be inappropriate. It didn’t. It is different because of the passage of so much time. I think it’s a mistake to respond to it in the same way you would if you found out they were currently having an affair.
3. To the husbands, this is ancient history. A lot of change since them in them and their lives. A lot of water under the bridge. I’m nothing like I was in 1984. Are any of you? I can’t even REMEMBER what it was like to be me back then and what the times were like. So much has changed in my life. Like them, I would struggle to even explain my thought processes back then. It would be an unfair fight. It would be like me defending a semi-stranger. I hardly remember “1984 me”. The husbands yes they were and are responsible for what they did. No doubt. But how on earth does one explain it now?? It’s almost impossible. It’s frankly irrelevant.
4. Unlike where infidelity just occurred, you don’t have to worry about the Other Woman/Other Man any longer (assuming that it never happened again. In these cases, it was claimed it had not). They aren’t an issue. Current behavior is not an issue. Technology is not an issue (there was no internet back then and cell phones really didn’t yet exist either).
5. I did not and will not every tell someone they “must” forgive an infidelity. Ever. Even if it happened 30 years ago. That decision is up to them as it is to anyone who is betrayed. I merely said, if your marriage has been solid and largely great since then, why would you throw it away over something that happened so long ago? You CAN if you choose, but why WOULD you? Nevertheless, if the marriage is to be saved, you must forgive. Otherwise, this ancient piece of history will undo your present. Resentment is a cancer. If you cannot forgive and move past it, your marriage will likely collapse anyway.
6. The distance between the cheating and the disclosure didn’t mean that there shouldn’t be repercussions. The fall out from infidelity doesn’t lessen just because it isn’t discovered right away. Time doesn’t erase or excuse what happened. But a person’s behavior in a marriage over time says a lot about that person also. And the wife was probably going to have to weigh all of these concerns before she could make a decision. So to answer the question posed, a wife certainly can chose to forgive an affair – no matter when the affair happened. But whether she should or not is her own decision and this decision usually depends upon the husband’s track record as a husband, how the infidelity comes to light, and how much rehabilitation occurs.
7. So to me, there’s something to be discussed here. Something to be forgiven. But it’s a long, long time ago. I think there is a danger of putting too much emphasis on it. You have to think of yourselves as two different people then and now. And you likely are. Are you going to hold him responsible for actions he took when was in his 20s now that he’s probably in his mid to late 50’s? Context to me is everything. I did stupid stuff when I was younger too. I would have no idea how to make amends for it now to people like my parents. Or friends. Or some previous GF. It just doesn’t make any sense. Nor would I expect it from others who wronged me in my life back then. Life is short. Sometimes you just gotta let stuff go.
Keep in mind that for him, the affair is ancient history. For you, however, it just happened, and you are re-evaluating your married life as if it contains false memories. It likely does not. Your husband valued his wife and marriage more than the transient thrill of an affair. It is natural for you to need some time to forgive him and let it go. Get started on it before it undoes everything unnecessarily. If you want your marriage, you must put down your ego and hurt feelings aside and give this betrayal it’s proper context. You can divorce if you wish over it, but why would you?
The older I get, the more I realize how short life is. And how we must let a LOT of things go. That we waste so much of our lives and mental energy worrying about a lot of shit. To me, to waste too much time on some ancient wrong would be a mistake. Let it go!! Forgive! And go forward. I would!
Oh and to those of you who DID cheat many years ago and never again? Don’t confess to it. There is no point. You are doing it merely to relieve your own guilt. Well that’s part of your punishment. You should be taking this secret to your graves. You should have been doing all you can to make your spouse feel happy, safe and loved. But don’t blurt this out 30 years later to relieve your own guilt, or worse, to try and hurt your spouse with this ancient information during a fight. It’s stupid. You can cause a lot of unnecessary upset.