My Spouse is Looking up Old Flames.  Is my Marriage in Trouble?

westonadminMarriage Counseling

Marriage and Facebook/ Happier Marriage in Towson Maryland

Marriage and Facebook / Happier Marriage in Towson Maryland

As a marriage and couples therapist, I’ve had countless clients tell me they have “caught” their spouse looking up an old flame, and they want to know if their marriage is in trouble. The short answer is yes—but probably not for the reasons you’re thinking.

In the age of social media, it’s much easier to reconnect with past acquaintances—romantic or otherwise—than it was in the days of the Little Black Book. But it’s also easier for others (including spouses) to notice those reconnections. Maybe your spouse left the browser open on an old flame’s Facebook page, or maybe you just happened to notice that your spouse has been “friending” lots of ex-paramours lately. Maybe you’ve even found out they’ve been messaging an ex-boyfriend or girlfriend they hadn’t seen in years.

Whether you discovered this behavior accidentally or by snooping, the effect is the same: you’re suddenly feeling very insecure about your relationship. Does your spouse still have feelings for their old flame? Are they thinking about cheating—or worse—already having an affair? Is your spouse unhappy or unsatisfied with you for some reason? Are they looking elsewhere for love or romance?

Clients often want me to reassure them that their spouse’s behavior is perfectly harmless and meaningless—that it doesn’t mean what they think it means. But I can’t tell them that because I don’t know.

What I do tell them is that the real problem has very little to do with whether their spouse is actually, physically cheating. The real problem—the one that is putting their relationship in jeopardy—is that their trust has been broken.

In his new book The Science of Trust, John Gottman describes trust as a product of our partner’s actions. In other words, we trust our partners to the extent that their actions reinforce that trust. This also means that certain actions can undermine that trust, causing us to question whether our partner has been honest and faithful. This is exactly what happens when a spouse reconnects with an old flame on social media. Once the other spouse discovers this secretive behavior, it breeds suspicion and mistrust.

When your partner’s behavior is damaging to your trust, you can react in one of three ways:

  1. Avoid confrontation. Pretend the behavior didn’t happen or doesn’t bother you. Tell yourself that you don’t really question your spouse’s fidelity and that you don’t really feel miserable and insecure. In other words, live in denial. Good luck!
  2. Go on the offensive. Instead of avoiding confrontation, initiate it. Pick a fight with your spouse—perhaps over something totally unrelated—and then escalate the conflict by revealing that you know all about their tawdry Facebook flirtations with their exes. Your spouse will angrily deny everything before launching a counterattack, accusing you of snooping. This won’t end well either.
  3. Confront the problem (not your spouse). Your spouse’s actions are damaging your trust. To resolve that problem, you need to find a way to express your concerns to your spouse without unleashing a barrage of accusations that will lead to a fight. Think about this as an opportunity to repair trust by talking honestly with your spouse about problems in your relationship.

Option 3 is the clear winner, but it’s easier said than done. Even if you avoid making direct accusations, it can be tricky to discuss trust issues without implicitly casting blame—which can just as easily lead to the kind of conflict described in Option 2.  In light of this challenge, I coach my clients to use two Gottman Method techniques that help minimize the risks of tough conversations.

  1. Soften Startup (or Complain Without Blame). This technique helps you confront your partner in a way that is brave yet vulnerable. Essentially, you bring up a concern gently and respectfully, making it clear that although you feel wronged, your intention is not to criticize your partner but to work on the relationship.

Example: “I’ve been worried about us lately, and I really need to talk to you about something that’s been on my mind. A few days ago, I picked up the iPad and was surprised to see that you’d been messaging with your ex on Facebook. I tried to tell myself that everything is fine and that it meant nothing, but ever since then it’s been bothering me, and to tell you the truth I’m really having a hard time with it. I’m worried about us, and I wonder if we are having problems. I’m worried about whether you still love me. I need for us to talk about this.”

  1. Ask open-ended questions. Once you’ve managed to start the conversation, don’t settle for the likely response that everything is okay and you have nothing to worry about. This might be what you want to hear, but it won’t repair your trust or change your spouse’s future behavior. Sustain the conversation by asking open-ended questions that encourage your spouse to explain their behavior and motives. This technique will give you the answers you need to understand your spouse’s side of the story so that you can begin to trust him or her again.

Example: “What made you think of your ex? Why didn’t you feel like you should tell me that you’ve been back in touch with your old flame?”

Soften Startup and Open Ended Questioning can help you avoid conflict. But what if the warships have already sailed? What if you’ve already had a nasty fight? Is your relationship doomed?

Not necessarily. If things have already gotten ugly, you simply have a little more work to do to repair the broken trust in your relationship.  At this point, both you and your spouse are on the defensive, and you’ve both said some things you wish you could take back. You’ll need to offer an olive branch before your spouse is ready to talk again. Here’s what to do:

  1. Acknowledge that your emotions got out of control. Say, “I’ve really been on edge lately,” or “I admit I overreacted.”
  2. Apologize. Take responsibility and acknowledge your contribution to this argument. Say the words “I’m sorry.” Really.
  3. Validate your partner’s perspective. Ask your partner to share their side of the story. Acknowledge their feelings and express regret for any role you had in causing anger or frustration.
  4. Explain your perspective. You still need your partner to understand how their behavior is causing trust issues. This time, find a less critical way to express your complaints. (See “Confront the problem, not your spouse” above.)

If you can relate to any of the scenarios above, I strongly encourage you to confront the problem of broken trust in your relationship. Yes, your marriage is in trouble, but it is far from beyond repair.


About the Author

Darina Alban is a licensed marriage therapist in Towson, Maryland. She specializes in helping couples reconnect.