I sometimes hear from people who want their cheating spouse to feel some consequences for their actions. They want their spouse to feel guilt, shame, remorse, and sorrow. But, for whatever reason, they have been unable to elicit these responses. Their spouse continues to act defensive or indignant or attempts to shift the blame. As a result, they look for ways to entice their spouse to feel the emotions of guilt that they should just naturally feel.
Someone might say, “honestly, my husband says that he is sorry for the affair, but his actions and behavior just don’t show this. Sometimes, when we are discussing how the affair has affected our family, I will start to cry because I am so upset at what he has done. When I cry, he doesn’t attempt to comfort me. He just gets really uncomfortable and occasionally he will say that he wishes that he could take it back. When I ask him for reassurance that he’s no longer seeing the other person, he replies that he isn’t sure what I want from him, since we are together for most of the day. I want sincerity from him, but it doesn’t appear that I am going to get it. When I talk to my mother about this, she says that the best thing that I can do is be indifferent about him. She says that I should busy myself with the kids and other things and then when I ignore him, he will fall all over himself to apologize and offer me reassurance. Is she right?”
I have seen this strategy work temporarily. But I have also seen it backfire in a big way. Why? Because when you pretend that you don’t care, you’re just playing the same games that your husband is playing and he might respond by shutting down. Or, he might take your indifference as neglect, which in some husband’s minds, is justification to cheat again. Whether this strategy works for you really does depend on if you want to save your marriage. If you don’t, then I see no harm in being indifferent. It won’t matter if he withdraws or retaliates or decides that he doesn’t want to play games. It also won’t matter if he’s sincere but he retreats because he thinks that you don’t care.
But if you do want to save your marriage, the goal is to rebuild a healthy marriage built on honesty. I know that honesty is probably the single most important factor in recovery. I couldn’t bear for my husband to even tell me the tiniest of white lies. I wanted to know the truth about everything. So when you pretend to be indifferent, that’s really not being truthful at a time where you should expect the absolute truth and when it’s important to be transparent.
I know that all of this is asking you to take the high road. But in my experience, the best way to get the behavior that you want from him is to model it yourself. If you act indifferent, sometimes he will mirror your behavior and you’ll get two people who are pretending not to care when in fact they both care very much. This is all a big waste of time and it can cause misunderstandings, which can make things even worse.
I think that it’s possible to turn down the high emotion of the situation without pretending that you just don’t care. For example, the next time you ask him for reassurance and he tells you that he’s with you for most of the day, you might try, “and yet, somehow that is not enough. I really need for you to reassure me that you don’t intend to see her, even if you had the time and ability. I want to know that you are making the choices that are going to strengthen our family. Perhaps you are not ready to give me that, but until I get it, I’m not sure that we’re going to be able to heal. I’m looking for reassurance that I can trust you.”
Then, let it drop. See what he will do. I know that it feels awkward to have to spell it out. But once you do, it’s on him. You’re no longer tap dancing around it and hoping that he will rise to the occasion. You’re telling him what you want and need and giving him the choice as to whether or not he will meet that.
If you are not in counseling or using very good self-help, I’d highly recommend that. Your plan to be indifferent is based on the fact that you aren’t getting what you want and need from him. A counselor or good step-by-step guide would help you to get that much more easily and efficiently than pretending or playing games. Since honesty is such an important part of recovery and restoring the trust, I just can’t advocate pretending. You don’t always have to show all of your emotion. But I don’t think that you want to lie and pretend not to care when you do. Otherwise, you’re just inviting him to do the same and recovery will be very difficult with two people who are pretending.