Should I give my partner an ultimatum…the other person or me?” This is a question I hear frequently.

Discovering your partner’s affair can be traumatic enough. The best chance for healing the marriage is if the affair is relinquished and all of your partner’s energy turns to you and your relationship. But this doesn’t always happen. Some people in affairs are up front about not being willing to end some kind of involvement with the affair partner. Some do end it and then
secretly start it up again some time later. Some say they are ending it, but never do, they just find new ways to cover it up. If your spouse assures you they have ended the affair and you begin to trust again, and then down the road discover the affair is still going on, it can feel devastating beyond words.

At this point, you may realize the ball’s in your court. It seems to you that your spouse does not care about the effect the affair is having on you and this can be devastating and even shocking. “Who is this person?” you may ask yourself. They suddenly seem fundamentally different than the person you thought they were.

That’s because many affairs involve a change in consciousness that is frequently referred to as “affair trance.” In this altered state, which is similar to being highly intoxicated, one’s brain is functioning in a fundamentally different way than normal. The pre-frontal cortex, which is involved in rational thought, is compromised. Therefore the connection between cause and effect is not able to be processed. “If I continue this affair I am destroying my family,” does not compute.

Dopamine levels are very high, which elevates pleasure seeking and in fact makes it the highest priority. That’s why you may hear things like, “it feels so good it can’t be wrong,” or “it’s making me feel so good, so it will be good for our relationship, I’ll be happier.” Empathy goes out the window.

An ultimatum is a powerful response to such a situation. It can be enough of a shock to break the spell and force your spouse to begin to think rationally again, and to weigh the real price he or she is paying for continuing with the other person.

However, the ultimatum only works if you are completely ready to follow through. It is something that needs to be well thought out and not rushed into. It is important to understand where it is coming from. Are you making a serious statement about your limits? Are you ready to back this statement up? If you say you are going to move out, or get a divorce, or otherwise limit your involvement with your spouse, are you really ready to do that?

Or are you giving the ultimatum in the hopes that it will give you control over the situation, not really intending to follow through? If so, it is important to understand that in the trance, your partner may not take the threat seriously. Action is the only thing that they might be able to understand.

Once you give your ultimatum, you need to be prepared for possible painful revelations. For example, you may find out that this is an exit affair. In this case your spouse really does want to leave the relationship and hasn’t had the courage to do so without having someone else waiting in the wings. Or you may find out that your spouse really believes that he or she loves both of you. There could be a pregnancy or even a child involved that you knew nothing about. They may be involved with someone who they believe could become dangerous if the affair is terminated.

An ultimatum is, in the end, at it’s best when it is something you do for yourself, rather than as an attempt to control the situation. Knowing your limits and following through, even though it might be excruciating, can be a part of restoring self-confidence and self worth. “This is the line I draw and you may not cross it” means you are someone to be reckoned with.

This is in no way meant to suggest that an ultimatum is the only response to an ongoing affair. Every situation is different and the more you are able to understand about what is going on, the clearer the course of action you will want to take will be.