Sometimes ‘tough love’ is the better option when dealing with an unfaithful spouse.

tough loveBy Linda

I’ve been reading the book “Love Must be Tough” by James C. Dobson primarily because I’ve been noticing many comments where our readers are frustrated by the actions of their cheating spouse. 

Not just with their actions of having an emotional affair or physical affair itself, but with their actions after the affair.  The denials, the lying, the not giving up the other person, etc.

I happen to agree with Dobson and his idea of “tough love” and wish I would have used it with Doug from the onset.

One of the themes I hear regularly is the victim becomes clingy and tries to do everything in their power to make their cheating spouse stay, or give up their affair, but to no avail.  According to Dobson, the opposite response towards the cheater tends to be the most effective.

Dobson says that interesting changes begin to occur in the relationship if the victimized spouse convinces the partner that his freedom is secure. Obviously, every situation is unique, but there are typical and common reactions.

Tough Love and the “Clingy Spouse”

According to Dobson, three distinct consequences can be anticipated when a previously “clingy” spouse begins to let go of the cheating spouse:

1.  The cheating partner no longer feels it necessary to fight off the clingy spouse, and their relationship improves. It is not that the love affair is rekindled, necessarily, but the strain between the two partners is often eased.

See also  Obstacles to Affair Recovery

2.  As the cheating spouse begins to feel free again, the question he has been asking himself changes. After wondering for weeks or months, “How can I get out of this marriage?” he now asks, “Do I really want to go?” Just knowing that he can have his way often makes him less anxious to achieve it. Sometimes it turns him around 180 degrees and brings him back home!

3.  The third change occurs not in the mind of the cheating spouse but in the mind of the vulnerable one. Incredibly, he or she feels better — somehow more in control of the situation. There is no greater agony than journeying through a vale of tears, waiting in vain for the spouse to come back, the affair to end or for a miracle to occur. Instead, the person has begun to respect himself or herself and to receive small evidences of respect in return.

Even though it is difficult to let go once and for all after the affair, there are ample rewards for doing so.

One of those advantages involves the feeling that he or she has a plan — a program — a definite course of action to follow. That is infinitely more comfortable than experiencing the utter despair of powerlessness that the victim felt before. And little by little, the healing process begins.

Looking back, I can see how I actually did offer Doug tough love, but took way too long to do so.  Once I told Doug that he was free to go, I noticed that his apparent desire to be in his emotional affair with Tanya started to reverse.

See also  Discussion: Once a Cheater Always a Cheater?

Click the following link to get more information about “Love Must be Tough” or to purchase it from Amazon.

    32 replies to "After the Affair: Tough Love Brings Subtle Changes"

    • Jeffrey Murrah


      You are not alone in this. There is that fantasy that “If I love them enough, they will come back to me”. This often leads to the clingy behavior. The more more you cling, the further away they run. There is a distance there that nothing seems to be able to bridge.

      Tough love often means separating the cheating from the cheater. You have no tolerance for the behavior, yet love the cheater enough to set firm limits and do what is needed. Dobson is absolutely right when he talks about giving them the opposite response. It is counter-intuitive, yet it works, when done in love. The attitude behind which you do things is critical. “tough love” has both the toughness and the love. It seeks what is best for the person and the relationship rather than being some new form of punishment.

    • Jenn

      Another book that helped me tremendously (and I’ve read too many to count) was Boundaries by Henry Cloud, and I was recommended Hedges by Jerry Jenkins: . I had a wonderful meeting with a woman I sought out through my church last night who has been through this and came out wonderfully–she said her husband is completely different than the man he was 5 years ago. She gave me hope, encouragement, and specific things to pray for my husband about. I felt so encouraged after meeting with her, much more than any counseling session I’ve had. My husband and I are in different places spiritually, and I am hopeful that he will recognize this enough to change soon. This has been a spiritual and emotional maturity issue with him. Comingf from me, it’s criticism, no matter the tone, but he seems to listen to our counselor. Hopefully one day his actions will completely match his words–I have my work cut out for me, but after meeting with someone who fought for her husband and their marriage, to have him come out and thank her for making him the man he is today, I have hope. God can do anything and we don’t have to assume all control of the situation–only obedience.

      • surprised

        Hi Jenn – what a wonderful, encouraging story. I’m now listening to the Love Must Be Tough audiobook & realizing all the mistakes I’ve made. My H also takes anything I say as criticism even when it’s just a simple question & is very negative to spiritual guidance from anyone & doesn’t have any Godly men in his life. Thanks to the woman at your church who has given us all hope that marriages can change sometimes.

    • ruth

      I do believe if I did tough love my husbands affair wouldn’t have lasted as long as it did. Instead of 2 years it might have been 1 year but I was that clingy wife. It was only until I had enough that he ended it. Live and learn hopefully I wont have to make a decision like that again. As I look back I think I just wanted to survive and just went with my gut feeling. Its always hard to look back. Right now things a going wonderful for us so maybe I did do the right thing. Who knows what the right answers are its different for eveyone. When I am having a trigger I get mad at myself when I think what a coward I was.

      • Doug

        Tough love can be a hard thing to try. It can be like calling a bluff in a high stakes poker game. Don’t beat yourself up over it.

    • Michael

      I’m going to try and let it go. I feel bad asking her time and time again. So ill try not to. Ill keep my comments and suggestions to myself.
      I hope that my new exploration of myself will help me understand why I’m still married.

    • Jennifer

      I’m with you Linda. This is the one course of action that seems to be yielding results – with my husband and MY feelings. I do feel in control. It’s very liberating. I too wish I had realized it sooner. I already feel like my husband is more open to me. He isn’t affectionate (which is what I want most), but he does little favors for me here and there and has agreed to a family trip to a local corn maze next weekend. I don’t feel like I am struggling so much anymore and I am definitely giving and receiving more smiles.

      • Doug

        Sounds as though there is progress being made, Jennifer.

    • ppl

      off topic but all you amateur detectives watch out for internet explorer “inprivate” session. leaves no cookies, no history easy to start. my wife, totally clueless when it comes to technology has discovered it (or was told about it). the only trace is if they are careless enough not to close it out at the end of the session. found out the hard way. all the internet programs have the equivalent it.

    • Michael

      I don’t think its going to work. I think my marriage is in trouble. What am I going to do.

      • Doug

        Care to share any recent developments?

        • Michael

          No to the contrary, I think its the lack of her development that has put me where I am today. I think its unrealistic to expect the same progress I’ve seen in others. I’m learning that my marriage has been in trouble a long time and its not in the right direction yet. She is far off coarse with no compass or learned direction to follow.

    • stupidandtrusting

      Michael – I always read your posts because they, like Linda’s, reflect our pain so well.

      I am wishing well for you.

      • Michael

        Thank you,
        I think a lot has to do with the time of year. Its almost d-day. It’s that time. My wife said she understands. She’s a little upset with my new stance. But what am I left with?
        I will continue to explore myself with or without her. I have to leave her to find herself. In the end, maybe we will find each other. Maybe we won’t. I’m willing to find out. I’m willing to hang in there and hold my ground. Its worth it. Its what I have.

        • Joe

          @Michael – Tough love is not about leaving her. Its about letting go of your expectations of what you want your spouse to do. Show them that you can go on without them. That is the compass. Keep them informed. You are telling them you won’t be a doormat for their behavior anymore. GET ON BOARD! The train is leaving the station.

          Not once have you mentioned your feelings. You’ve only mentioned the actions of others and yourself. What is your plan?

          • Michael

            The Comment “leave her to find herself” was misunderstood. It was meant that I will not continue to try to understand her feelings, ask for her to talk, give suggestions on what I think she should do. Etc….
            I will leave her to her thoughts…kinda thing.
            And the comment about me not mentioning my feeling and my plans, Anyone who has read this blog all the way back to JAN knows I have let my feelings show, talked about what I’ve tried, talked about what has failed.
            I understand the kick in the ass when I’m sounding low. But the truth of the matter is I’m at a pretty good high. I’m in a lot more control of my direction than I have been since DEC-5-2009. But unfortunately my wife is still off the tracks, so that train isn’t leaving anytime soon…. 🙂

            WHAT would you like to know??

          • Michael

            Sorry you read some posts where im venting.. It’s just that sort of week….

    • Rushan

      The story of tough love helped me a lot. I told my husband after he said he is sorry and wants to carry on with out marriage that I am not evensure how I still feel about him, I don’t know if Istill love him and he is free to go to her and try living with her, maybe if he fins it doesn’t work and wants to come back

      • Rushan

        sorry i’VE NOT FINISHED writing my comment. I told him that maybe he does want to come back and I wil indeed be happy to take him back or maybe I won’t be here anymore, but feel free to go to her, I’m not sure about my feelings anymore. from then on he always told me how much he loves me he wanted always to be near me. So maybe it helpede a bit

    • Toni

      My H told me that today we will have a talk to clear things up. He said it’s not ‘the talk’ and it’s not bad or horrible but I’m a nervous wreck. We’ve spent a lot of time together this last week and even went away for the weekend. It seemed like we were getting closer and he wanted to come back. But then he left last night to be with ow but texted me off and on. I told him he’s going to have to start making a choice and he was speechless. So I’m not sure what will be said today and I sort of regret telling him he has to make a choice. What if I just signed my own death warrant?

    • gdb

      I have been doing the tough love and back off approaches and I think my husband is feeling the pain of being alone. He’s been staying with his younger sister and more than half of the time he is doing traveling for his work. I told him it was going to be a lonely life and I am guessing that is what he is starting to experience. Last Friday, he asked me out for a drink which made me nervous. I know I should of been excited, but I don’t know what to think. I went and we hung out for about 2 hours. I talked more, of course, he listened and contributed when he felt comfortable. We don’t talk about the issue (s) at all. I have started individual counseling sessions. We won’t have another couple’s session for about another two weeks. He is defensive about me asking simple questions not about the affair but just about his travel trip details, but is being more forthcoming as time goes on. He still doesn’t know what he wants- the marriage or single life. I have really focused on myself and stopped the investigating into what he’s doing…its not healthy for me. I am really thinking of and loving myself first. I have made that very clear to him and he is kind of speechless! This past Sunday, he spent the entire day with me…we even ran errands together like we used to do before all this craziness. It made me feel really uncertain because he hasn’t verbally told me that he’s come back to the marriage, but I guess his actions, though small baby steps, are telling me. I just don’t know what to trust and I am not ready to ask him because he hasn’t really opened up to me yet and like I said is extremely defensive. He now calls me when he is in town and in the past did not. I just take it day by day and continue to do what I need to do for myself. He has his space and he can figure out what he wants to do, the one thing I will no longer allow is for him to continue hurting or disrespecting me. Good luck to everyone and I appreciate all your words and shared experiences.

      Take care!

    • Last2know

      Tough love works, one night H and I were in bed cuddling as we have since we started recovery (over 1) and told
      Me how much he loved me and he couldn’t live without me, I stayed quiet and he said ” what about you?” and I said “oh you could live without me” and asked “what about you”? “yes, I can live without you

    • Last2know

      Sorry lost my fingers on the iPhone, he couldn’t believe that I would say that much less mean it.but I can say it and I do mean it. And he knows it. The old me wouldn’t have even joked that way. Yes it feels good, because as much as I want to be with him forever, I know I can be without him if he ever so much as gives me any reason to believe he’s cheated again.

      • Doug

        I believe that kind of tough love makes the other person think and realize that you can indeed survive with or without them.

    • Tiffany

      Just found out last night that the emotional affair I thought was over was now a physical affair that is still ongoing. The fascinating thing is that he told me that he never thought he would get caught. He simply thought he would get this out of his system, then go on with me as if nothing had happened. Today I told him that he needed to go. I have spent the last four or five months crying everyday, bending over backward and almost begging him to come back. Today I said I didn’t know what would happen to our marraige but that he had to go. He could not continue to live with me and our children while he was having another relationship. This really seemed to shock the heck out of him. He kept hesitating like I was going to change my mind all of a sudden and beg him to stay. He was shocked till the minute he walked out the door. Now of course he wants to continue counseling and asked me not to go to the appointment with an attorney I had set up. I told him I would have to think about it. How can I possibly forget the words I saw in the emails that he sent to her? How can I possibly believe that he is willing to give up someone he referred to as a “soulmate” when he has done this to me. I will probably cancel the appointment with the attorney. Simply because I don’t know that it is necessary to move this fast. But suddenly I”m not so scared about it ending. Of course, I had thought things were getting better all the while he was meeting his girlfriend behind my back since August. So I don’t know what exactly I’m going to do. Any advice would be much appreciated. I am trying the tough love but don’t know that even if it works I will be able to forgive and trust ever again.

      • Doug

        Tiffany, For what it’s worth, I think you handled the situation the right way. Maybe this is the shock he needed to get his act together. I also think that canceling the attorney appointment is a good idea for now. Wait until the anger and all the other emotions subside before you make that sort of decision. I’m sure that it’s hard to believe it now, but things will get better – with or without your husband. If you choose to stay in your marriage, it will be a long haul, but you can eventually get to the point where you can forgive and trust again.

    • Norwegian woman

      I have had a period when I am very angry at him. It feels like, now when the panic have settled, I have gotten a crazy anger. Anger for what he did to me, the way he treated me, resentment for all the times I have cried and so on. I have withdrawn from the relationship and it feels like I don`t want him near. I don`t want to talk anymore, because I have said everything before. The last times we have talked, he just wants to move foreward, accuse me of wanting him to crawl and so on, so I really feel that i dont want to anymore. I feel like I am living in a screenplay.” Let`s pretend everything is ok, and be gentle towards each other”.
      I really just wish he was miles away from me….
      What shall I do?

      • Doug

        Norwegian, You have to do what you need to do to heal. Whether it’s talking, not talking, counseling, or even leaving the marriage. Somehow he needs to understand that it’s difficult for one to just move on from this and he needs to cooperate and also do what is necessary for you to heal.

    • Mark in Idaho

      I’ve been reading posts here for several days now. This is such a helpful place.

      My W is in her 4th EA in the last 10 years. Each one has blown me out of the water, having me run to her, beg her to stay, blame myself for everything. It is only now, with this latest one, that I have realized it’s not me – it’s her. I believe she has some sort of personality disorder. She is the victim of sexual abuse when she was a teen by two different men. She many times acts like a teenager. Each time I’ve discovered the emotional affair, common themes come up from her – “I need to be needed” is a big one. I have made so many changes for her over the years out of blaming myself. That isn’t to say I didn’t need to make SOME changes. And I’ve worked at forgiveness; gone to individual counseling and couples counseling. Finally learning to dump my own co-dependent behaviors, as well, which do nothing but enable.

      This time – I can forgive, but I’m not so sure I can keep doing this with her. With this guy, he’s troubled to say the least. He was a drug user, relapsed last Summer and Fall when I thought they were “just friends” (hoping it wouldn’t happen again) In and out of his own relationships. A “bad boy” that is exciting to her. Now, he’s in JAIL awaiting trial for what I have to admit are some semi bogus charges… but he’s done enough other things that he was never caught for, karma has finally caught up. Anyway, she writes him every day; puts money on his books so he can call or do a video chat.

      I discovered the letters a few days back. They are love letters in every definition. And she goes on quite a bit about how she still loves me, but I’m not enough. I don’t satisfy her in the right ways. I’m not exciting enough, dangerous enough, spontaneous enough. She hints about a possible physical contact that may have already occured… as well as with a possible additional person. She talks about how sexy he is. How she is suprised someone his age could be into her (he’s 26, she’s 42… as am I), how they have so much in common and are both so fun loving. Barf!

      I confronted her. she of course said I didn’t understand, took comments out of context, etc. I’m sorry – how do you take “I love you so much” out of context? Or, “I know you’ve suggested I just leave if I’m so unhappy, but I’m so afraid to be alone.” She told me that he needed her. That she couldn’t just “abandon” him because she was abandoned by her dad as a kid. So she can’t commit that same sin. All I have to say now is B.S.! Like I said, I can forgive, but I just don’t think I can do this emotional roller coaster anymore – waiting for another shoe to drop, again! Like I said – 4 times (that I know of) since 2001! She’s been in couseling for her own stuff for the last 3 years and I think the counselor is encouraging her to just do exactly what she wants so she can discover “who she is.” This is what my wife has told me.

      I’ve been working on a letter for several days – calling her out on her behavior and ultimately saying pick one – you can’t have us both… and if it’s him, then fine. At least she made a choice. She’s been shocked by my calm demeanor… that I haven’t gotten clingy like in the past. But she’s not budging. I’ve learned though counseling that I don’t have to take this… that I don’t have to give up myself here. That I really am a good person – and yah, even a good husband that does a lot more than most do in a relationship. Again, I’m far from perfect, but I’m not deserving of this either.

      So – I’m writing this letter so it can all be said without interruptions… and we’ll see how it goes. It is tough love time. I go through bouts of depression and panic, still… but when I sit and really think about it, I know just can’t keep this up. It is affecting my health – mental and physical. She’s acting now like nothing happened – that I didn’t discover the letters… and she still writes him every day and talks to him on the phone a couple of times a day. I saw the letter she wrote today – not as mushy as the past ones, but mushy none-the-less. Don’t even get me started on how much money she”s given him… including a previous jail bond that we’re still trying to pay off!! Sigh.

      I feel like I’m in a better place. Many of the things I’ve been thinking I see here on this website. I’m willing to work on it, but she’s gotta drop him… it won’t work otherwise. And if she won’t, well, we won’t be “we” any more. And I’m finally ok with that.

      Thanks for listening to my venting. I look forward to any insights you can offer – especially on her repeat emotional affairs.


      • Southern Man

        Idaho, you have finally gotten your hands on the combination that works, Do not ever become incapable if walking away from a cheater, Cheaters have convinced themselves that they are entitled people and the OP is justified. Don’t suffer that attitude any loner and never again. Congrats on your personal growth. Bravo!

    • Recovered

      I think the “tough love” stance is good for the victim more than it is for the straying spouse. A few months after the EA, I did everything to become more like the other woman – his ex. I went to the gym because EA was an athletic woman. I started being friendly to dogs because EA was crazy about dogs. And then one day I had an epiphany. I am a smart, beautiful, self-sufficient woman. I don’t need the man in my life and I don’t need to become someone else to keep him in the marriage.
      It was a liberating feeling. Right now, if the husband were to go away for whatever reason, I’d be sad, but not devastated. In a way, I have lost the innocence and recklessness of love – I don’t even know what love is anymore. But the self-confidence I have gained is tremendous.
      Of course, the EA ended much before my epiphany, but I can see that the husband treats me with more respect since my attitude change.

    • Southern Man

      As a man I always strive to be. It took about 2-3 days after D-day before I came to a decision. I told my wayward wife that out of economic necessity we would live together as a couple in a business relationship; I even let her continue with handling the money. She was always good with the dollar so why not. I then told her we would have no intimate touching, no intimate conversation, no intimate anything. I did not ask any questions or show any interest in the OM or in their affair. I did not state how long this would go on or what I planned for the future. I just let it twist in the wind. The unspoken part was that I would have no visible interest but would in fact be watching and waiting. I wanted to know what she would do. Why take back a woman who has blown your trust in her. She has to show me something but I never what it was she had to show. I had to have complete confidence that she had chosen the righteous and dependable path before I would show any interest in her. I steeled myself for the possibility we would separate and never see each other again. To make a long story, with many details not mentioned, short and to the point. The affair stopped but it took me some time to accept her back. Make a plan and stick to it. The winner is the strong one even if winning means losing your mate forever. Be prepared to live with it because you will be better off. Don’t yield control to someone not worthy of having control of the future. I could have written a short book about this but why bother. I just stated the core principles.

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