Why do unfaithful men and women keep forgetting details of affairs?
If you’re going to cheat on your wife or husband, you’d think you’d remember important details – like how often, where you went, what you did, what you said? However, time after time, unfaithful partners say ‘I don’t know’ or come up with such general answers that their partner gets exasperated, angry and fear for the future of their relationship.
“If you can’t tell me that, what hope is there for our marriage?” That’s the cry that I hear time and time again in my counselling office. So in the first of my new style blogs, I’m going to look at why people keep forgetting details of affairs and whether it matters or not. Here’s a typical case….
My wife keeps asking me questions , she wants to see the whole picture so that she can understand what really happened. To me however, if feels as if someone took a scissor and cut parts of my memory away. Often there is only a “black hole” in my memory. I did things that are in total contrast to what I would have done normally, I lied to nearly everybody I love and value, acted completely against my own nature and values. Now more and more often , I just don’t remember doing these things I did. And it is getting worse.
Four reasons for forgetting
To be able to have an affair, unless you’re a complete bastard, you have to tell yourself that what happens over there (in affair land) has no impact on my life over here (with my partner and kids). In this way, it almost feels like you’re another person doing this things which normally you would condemn. (Sometimes people tell me of almost out of body experiences as they type how much they ‘love’ their affair partner and ‘I’ve never felt this way before’ because they knew at the time that they didn’t mean them but it was what was expected in an affair and went along – like someone in a play performing their role.) You can further dissociate and minimise your behaviour by downplaying details. You certainly don’t want to remember all the lies that you’ve had to tell or how much you’ve betrayed your partner.
What your partner thinks: In order to have risked so much, it must have been really important – i.e. you were in love! And if you’re in love, you remember and cherish every look gesture and memory.
This is most toxic of all feelings and we will do anything to avoid it – because shame is the opposite of love. It also makes us feel a bad person and from a very early age we’re told explicitly (or it is implied) by our parents: bad things happen to bad children. It is further reinforced by movies and popular culture where bad people are punished and good people live happily ever after. (I know real life is more complex and your partner is not a kid but we are dealing with early primitive feelings and the patterns are set young). So to avoid having to face our shameful behaviour, we simply block out all those terrible details of how much we paid for that candlelight dinner, what we ate and what we talked about.
What your partner thinks: I’m glad you feel shame perhaps you won’t do it again. Sometimes they use shame to punish their partner and make him or her feel as bad as they do. However, it can easily backfire because we’ll do anything to avoid shame and feel better again – and in many cases, this will include your partner contacting the affair partner again (as he or she is someone who will understand, confirm he or she is ‘not a bad person’ and give a feel good boost of more cheap sex)
People have affairs because they can’t communicate their unhappiness or a feeling of unfairness about their lot. They think there are only two options: put up and shut up or leave the relationship. So they opt for first and everything gets worse and worse until it comes to a head and they metaphorically leave the relationship by having an affair. Other self-medicating behaviours – which block out pain – include drinking too much, street drugs, immersing yourself in porn etc. These people literally go into a trance where nothing can touch them (at the time). Cheap sex and fantasy ‘love’ is just as powerful and like drinking too much, you certainly can’t remember all the details the next morning.
What your partner thinks: Our marriage can’t have been so bad that you needed to escape and if it is why are we still together?
4. Once bitten, twice shy
In other words, you can remember (at least at the beginning) but every detail gets such an explosion of anger, bitterness and betrayal, so you don’t want to go there again. So you tell yourself ‘more details will set us back’ and deliberately shut up – to ‘protect’ yourself and you tell yourself your marriage too. Alternatively, you will get confused about details – because like the police your partner goes over the story time after time and point up inconsistencies ‘but you said you met in the bar’.
After a while, you’re not sure what happened and what didn’t. Sometimes, out of desperation, you will agree to a detail suggested by their partner – ‘you must have fancied her for months before hand’ – because it sounds likely or may have happened and mostly to get your partner off your back. Not surprisingly, you become even more and more uncertain about the truth.
What your partner thinks: You are holding back details because the affair meant more than you’re letting on. And how can I know you’re telling the truth because you’ve lied so much already.
Does it matter?
Ultimately, I would say few people who’ve been unfaithful can bring back the level of detail to appease their partner or many keep forgetting details of affairs.
Four reasons why you shouldn’t be allowed to forget
- It builds up trust. The more open and honest you can be, the easier the recovery
- Penance. Facing up to the full enormity of your betrayal is the least that you can do.
- You can learn important lessons. For example, how to deal with unpleasant feelings – like happiness – rather than suppressing them or self-medicating. (I always stress the importance of assertiveness and good communication in rebuilding relationships after infidelity. If everything is too easy, you won’t have the impetus to change and learn these new skills)
- Danger of moving on too quickly. When we’re in pain, we want to feel better quickly but can include pushing everything under the carpet. I think it takes at least a year to recover from a serious case of infidelity (and I’m only concerned if people are still struggling two years after discovery). Otherwise, you risk getting stuck in attempted normality – where on the surface your relationship is OK but the pain and resentment remains under the surface.
Four reasons why you should be allowed to forget
- If it really was cheap sex and fantasy, you are probably not going to remember everything – rather like waking up after a dream or a nightmare!
- It’s been set as a secret test by your partner. Inside his or her head, he or she is thinking ‘if you loved me you would remember’. No wonder, he or she is plugging away for details and giving you chance after chance to pass (or fail). In counselling, I stress ‘accept the feelings and challenge the thoughts’. In other words, it’s fine to be angry, upset and betrayed but does the thought really stack up. Is this test fair? Does it ignore all the other things the discovered partner is doing to show his or her love? Is it possible to love your partner and still want to draw a line under the truth and reconciliation phase of recovery?
- The meanings put the details could easily be wrong. In the mind of the discoverer of infidelity, for example, their partner going to a favourite restaurant that they shared together is proof of ‘not caring about me’ or ‘you must have loved her to take her there!’ However, in the mind of the discovered it was convenient and he didn’t know other restaurants in the area. Who is right? Who is wrong? How much does it matter?
- Understanding why doesn’t take the pain away. Sometimes even when I have spent several sessions on why an affair happened, couples are no further forward. The discoverer says ‘yes but I wouldn’t have done that under these circumstances’ and they still can’t get their head round it. Perhaps it is that women can’t know what it is like to be a man and men can’t really understand the pressures on women. However, I think ‘why’ is NOT the key question. A much better one is ‘how can we make certain it doesn’t happen again?’ or ‘how do we move forward?’ or ‘what do we need to change?’
For more help see: How Can I Ever Trust You Again? and My Husband Doesn’t Love Me and He’s Texting Someone Else.
Please add your experiences to the debate by leaving a comment below.
- How important was doing the details to your recovery?
- Why do you think they matter?
- Are there better questions than ‘why did you cheat’? and if so what are they?
All comments will be moderated.