Who Had an Affair or Who Files For Divorce Reveals Nothing.

Becky Whetstone, Ph.D.
10 min readJul 28, 2023


Placing fault in marriage and divorce is a fool’s game.

Blaming people in divorce is a fool’s game. No one knows what really happened but the couple themselves.

Years ago, I became friends with a woman who was divorcing a famous movie star. Her divorce was covered in the local paper gossip column, and the question came up as to why she would ever leave such a successful and wealthy man, someone she had two children with and had been married to a long time. Finally, her dad, also a prominent man in our town, shut down the talk by telling the gossip columnist:

“Just because someone files for divorce doesn’t mean they want a divorce.”

That got my attention. It was the first time I had ever thought of that …

Meanwhile, my new friend was so livid about what she was going through that she found perverse enjoyment in telling anyone who would listen about the icon’s bedroom foibles, the fact that her best friend became his lover, and how she found them in bed together in their weekend home. Indeed, hearing her story firsthand, it wasn’t my friend who wanted the divorce, but she was the one who filed.

Since then, I have become a marriage & family therapist and marriage crisis specialist, and work with couples on the verge of divorce all the time, and the assumption that the person who files for divorce is the one who wants out, or the one who had an affair is always the villain, simply is not true.

People making assumptions about what is going on in any marital home is playing a fool’s game. The couples I admired as perfect when young are all divorced now. Even if you had two blabber-mouth spouses who told every detail of their lives together you would still have to question the accuracy of what you’ve heard, as hearsay has proven to be inaccurate in study after study. When one person tells me a blistering account of how their former spouse conducted themselves during their marriage, it’s a good practice to be sympathetic, but keep in mind that I just heard the prosecution’s case, and the defense will never be presented.

I have worked with many individuals who have had hundreds of indicators that they are not married to someone who takes marriage vows seriously. On a regular basis they catch their spouse sending inappropriate text messages, having emotional affairs, hiding booze bottles, lying about where they were and who they were with, making important decisions without discussing them first, running up debt, and/or having an extramarital affair. In all my days as a therapist, I have seen numerous people like that suddenly claim to have had an epiphany and declare that now things will be different, but never have I seen any succeed. It takes months and years of intentional work to achieve that kind of change. I wish it wasn’t so, but sometimes divorce is appropriate and in the best interests of all. But getting a downtrodden spouse to be the one to file papers is often a line they refuse to cross. “If he wants a divorce, he can go get himself one,” they’ll say. To them, if they file, it means they want the divorce, and people with strong views about marriage being a lifelong proposition often will not file divorce papers. The result is unhappy marriage limbo, when going their separate ways would have been in the best interest of all involved. One of the questions I like to ask when this happens is, “What is it he’d have to do for you to finally pull the plug?”

Perhaps if more people realized that which spouse files divorce papers tells you nothing, more people would do it when it’s the only healthy option left. Unfortunately, an astonishing number of people live their lives paralyzed in fear of what people will think, say, or do should they be the one to file. To them I say, fear is not your friend. In all the years I’ve worked with people who went through a divorce, five years later, the bottom line feeling was that who initiated the divorce proceedings eventually became a forgotten issue, and although the divorce process was a terrible experience they wouldn’t wish on anyone, they’ll tell you it was probably for the best. Often, what seems like the biggest deal in the moment won’t be the biggest deal later.


Affairs usually happen for one of two reasons. One cheating partner has a sexual addiction and feels a compulsion to pursue others sexually, or they became so miserable and hopeless in their marriage that they become vulnerable to having an affair. There’s something about being thirsty for kindness and affection that causes these love drought-victims, who normally would never cheat, to become a magnet for a tall glass of cool water. As I tell couples in my office, there’s no excuse or justification for having an affair, but I understand why you did it. The problem also is, if it isn’t commonly known among family and friends that you needed a drink, and the people who know you have a perception that all was well in your marriage and suddenly you lost it and had an affair, you will most likely be cast as a villain and will receive harsh judgment. Had you dropped hints along the way that there was trouble in paradise, the judgment is often less harsh. Human beings are prone to pigeon-holing people, while making meanings from worn out stereotypes. Almost nothing is more rage-provoking than being cast as someone or something that you are not. That’s one reason people love therapists — we are trained not to do that. Jumping to conclusions and making up meanings is verboten in our profession. We must approach each situation as not-knowing. To me, the only way to process that someone filed for divorce or had an affair is, “I have no idea what these actions tell me or what they mean.”

It is true that a good person may become a cheating spouse. All we can know about any person who had an extra-marital affair is that they had sexual intercourse outside their marriage. The only people who will ever know all the reasons is the couple themselves. We all know there are people out there who are angels in public, and demons behind closed doors. When someone cheats, I like to think that it’s a sign and symptom, and not an indictment of character. In couple’s therapy we will figure out the reasons it happened, and whether a couple recovers from it often depends on if the betrayed spouse can view their partner as the flawed, struggling human being they’d become in the troubled marriage, rather than the evil-wrong-doer from a horror film. We really need the faithful spouse, in this instance, to widen their perspective and understand the context of how and why it happened, and not just finger point and try to extract a pound of flesh. It’d be nice if outside observers could do the same.

Don’t get me wrong, some people who cheat are self-focused and should probably never be married. I still shudder thinking about the time a husband told his wife in a session that he cheated because, “You deserved it.” With one cold-hearted sentence he left no doubt that he felt no compassion for his deeply injured wife, who was, by my perspective, a good, caring woman. Sure, she had dropped the ball in being attentive in the marriage, but his comment was, to me, like giving someone a death penalty for a speeding ticket infraction. He meant to cruelly wound and showed he had no regret for his actions and wasn’t about to give his wife what she needed to heal. Knowing the outcome of such words wasn’t going to lead to a positive outcome, I’m pretty sure I was stunned into speechlessness. If they got divorced, who would be the villain here? The woman who was busy with kids, a lucrative career, and neglected her marriage, or the man who bitterly resented her and sought comfort elsewhere? It’s complicated, certainly he was in anger overdrive and was unnecessarily vicious, which is never acceptable, but it is just impossible to hang the letter A of shame on someone without all the details of the backstory.

Repeated affairs.

Someone who cheats repeatedly has a problem, but you and I don’t know what it is. As Dr. Phil used to say, “The best predictor of future behavior is past behavior.” That’s all there is to say about that.

Flipping the tables.

Years ago, I had a client who had been cheated on repeatedly and had to endure her husband’s alcoholism and false promises to get better. She contacted me to muster up the courage to leave. They had young children, and she wanted to leave in a way that caused the least amount of damage to them. In almost any divorce story, she had good reason to throw in the towel and would be the sympathetic character in this story — the long-suffering wife with the bad-boy husband. Ugh. Then, she cheated with a close friend. It is quite common for a person who plans to divorce their spouse to have an affair as a stepping stone out of the marriage. The friend, who was also married with young children, was a shoulder to cry on, and you know the rest. I told her that if you ended the affair and went through the divorce without it ever becoming known, you stood a chance at not being raked over the coals and being burned at a stake. If you continue, and it becomes known, the tables will flip; you will lose all sympathy except with your closest friends and family, and you will be shunned and become Cruella de Vil to those who aren’t so loyal. Her entire life had been upstanding — a great career, friends, and beloved by her in-laws. One terrible error in judgment, and it would all be thrown away and disregarded. Unfortunately, that’s how humans are, and that is what happened. Divorce is hell on everyone, but this time, a truly decent person made one ugly choice and lost most of her previous life in return. Her errant husband became the sympathetic person in their split, and their friends ran to support him in droves. Her in-laws, whom she cherished, never spoke to her again. Divorce is complicated and don’t forget it. The ones who process these situations with love, generosity, and compassion probably realize almost everyone makes huge mistakes in their lives, and “There but for the grace of God go I.”

Nothing means anything.

I once spent a weekend in an intense self-help workshop. We shared, went through exercises, and were forced to face ourselves, fears, emotional wounds, and decisions, but the bottom-line message of all of it was that nothing meant anything. This had a huge impact on me. Therapy training reiterated this. Human beings are meaning-making animals, but the problem is we make up meanings that often are inaccurate and not true, and sometimes make huge life decisions based on what we conclude. If someone says or does something, we, as the listener or observer can only guess what they really meant. Our conjecture and assumptions are meaningless. If my husband says X and I don’t clearly understand it, I need to ask for clarity so I can. Who had an affair or who filed for divorce tells us next to nothing about the marriage or circumstances of the divorce. Anything we make up about it is just that, made up. It’d be a better world if people were aware of this, and just went with the idea of not knowing. I tell people all the time, “I do not know.” Ask me why your aunt left you out of her will, “I do not know, only she knows.” The best way to find out what something means is to ask the person you’re wondering about. If they choose to tell you, then you might have valuable information. If it involves a married couple and you only hear from one person, then you have one perspective. I promise you there is another.

We can be of support to our fellow human beings by refusing to judge, and to just be present for them when going through a marital upheaval, no matter who left who, no matter who filed the divorce case, who had an affair, or what gossips say. I have been judged harshly in divorce, so this subject hits home especially hard. My spouse was a powerful politician and had carefully managed his reputation in town, another case of wonderful in public, not so nice behind closed doors. When he told everyone he could think of that he was divorcing me because I and my two children were crazy, they believed him. My friends ran for the hills and everyone I can think of sided with him. I had a crisis of, “Who can I count on in this world? Who is the real deal? Why don’t people process what he is saying with a grain of salt?” Of course, as time passed, we learned the real reason my husband left, he had found a new partner, a secret girlfriend he’d been having an affair with during our marriage, who was readily accepted into our group. I still recall the emotional pain when I found out. His real reason for divorce was replacement, but he created a story that made him look sympathetic. That’s what people who divorce do. We tell our 45 second divorce story, but the bottom line is, in that story, we are the hero, our ex is the villain.

It’s why to this day I don’t just accept anyone’s version of why they left their partner as the Absolute Truth, and when any friend is separating or divorcing, no matter what the story is, I reach out and offer caring support.

Becky Whetstone, Ph.D. is a licensed Marriage & Family Therapist in Arkansas and Texas*, and is known as America’s Marriage Crisis Manager® . She has worked with thousands of couples to save their marriages. She is also co-host of the Call Your Mother relationship show on You Tube, and has a private practice in Little Rock, Arkansas, and as a life coach via teletherapy. To contact her check out www.DoctorBecky.com and www.MarriageCrisisManager.com. Don’t forget to follow her on Medium so you don’t miss a thing!

*For licensure verification find Becky Whetstone Cheairs.



Becky Whetstone, Ph.D.

Marriage & Family Therapist & relationship guru. Huffington Post & Medium contributor, former columnist, San Antonio Express-News. Motto: You have to be nice.