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There may be nothing more devastating to a marriage or long-term relationship than an affair. But if you and your partner are one of the many couples that decide to try to heal from an affair, there is hope.
Affair recovery can be a long, gradual process, sometimes circuitous, and sometimes fraught with frustrating backsliding into fresh waves of anger and despair on the part of the betrayed partner just when it seems the worst is over. And for many of the couples who come to see me, just knowing that can be helpful.
Before they sought professional help for healing from an affair, many couples mistakenly believed that if the affair recovery process felt rocky and unpredictable (as one husband said, “It felt like we weren’t any closer to resolution six months out than we were at six weeks”) that it meant they were “doing it wrong,” or that their marriage wasn’t savable. Because that assumption shuts down further attempts to heal the marriage/relationship, it’s a dangerous assumption to cling to.
And of course the first step in undoing any assumption is looking at it, gently and without judgment…but with understanding.
Affair recovery: Understanding emotional triggers
One of the facets of affair recovery most important to understand (for both partners) is the issue of emotional triggers. Triggers are events/experiences that remind you of the affair; sometimes they feel unbidden and out of the blue.
You may feel powerless to the waves of fresh pain that hit you. And you may think the sudden rawness of the feelings means that you haven’t progressed in your healing journey—but that is not true. The feelings of grief, shock, and betrayal that make up the aftermath of an affair are huge…any emotional upheaval on that scale is not dealt with simply or linearly (despite humans’ desire to tuck everything into neat “stages”), but rather, occurs in a spiral. That is normal.
Understanding why certain things may trigger your pain is an important means of empowering yourself as you journey toward wholeness.
Types of triggers experienced while healing from an affair
Perhaps you found out that your wife met her affair partner at the gym. Or maybe you learned that your husband met his affair partner at the hospital where he works. So now when you drive past the gym—or the hospital, or any place that your mind associates, directly or indirectly, with the pain of the affair—you feel hurled back to the moment when you first found out about your partner’s betrayal.
And perhaps your thoughts don’t only revisit that initial moment of shock and betrayal, but go even further in trying to fill in details about the affair itself. (“Where exactly did they meet inside the building?”) You might feel like your partner ruined something else for you, beyond the obvious and immediate pain of the affair. (“You took her to the beach? How could you? I used to love the beach, but now I’ll always hate it.”)
You may be watching the calendar, hoping for a turning point past the pain, waiting to feel “normal” again and not filled with anxiety or mistrust or anger.
It’s true that time can ultimately give you much-needed distance from the moment you discovered the infidelity and therefore can give you a more balanced way to cope with your feelings, but the time it takes to achieve that balance will differ from person to person.
And of course a trigger can make time seem to collapse and put you right back at the beginning. You won’t actually be at the beginning, of course, but you may feel like it.
Time itself can serve as a trigger. For instance, you might be aware of markers (“It’s been exactly four months since I found out about it,”; “This is the day one year ago that she met him”; “It was six months ago today that he said he broke it off with her.”)
You might feel like certain behaviors trigger your raw emotions. Perhaps she gets home late from work and you convince yourself that means she’s cheating again. Or perhaps he takes his phone with him when he takes the dog out before bed and you worry he’s back in contact with her.
Communication is a huge part of healing from infidelity. And with all communication, it goes two ways: the betrayed partner needs to feel safe in asking the other about behaviors that might be worrisome, and the partner who was unfaithful needs to address those questions with openness, understanding and patience—not defensiveness or annoyance.
You might feel like you’ll be okay if you can monitor the people in your partner’s life. Maybe you become extremely upset when you hear s/he is being assigned an assistant of the opposite sex. Perhaps you find out that your mate’s best friend knew about the affair for months and now you can’t bear to see or hear about him/her.
Beyond what can feel like the excruciating possibility of running into the person with whom your partner had an affair, other situations involving other people can serve as triggers.
A wife I once worked with talked about how after she discovered her husband’s affair and learned that his affair partner drove a blue Honda Civic, she suddenly started seeing those cars everywhere. That awareness turned a simple drive into an emotional landmine for her.
The things we never noticed before can take on new meaning.
As with all aspects of recovering from an affair, you don’t need to argue with yourself or berate yourself (“Don’t be stupid, a car is just a car, stop noticing them all!”), but rather, try to watch yourself seeing the cars, and try to resist judging yourself or telling yourself you “should be” a certain way.
Sometimes, the subtle inner act of stepping back and watching yourself is enough to give you some much-needed breathing room.
Recovering from infidelity calls for understanding, not acrobatics
Please remember that the purpose of understanding triggers is to light your own path toward healing—the purpose is not to go out of your way to avoid triggers.
Life is messy, constantly-moving, and therefore unpredictable, so you can’t ever completely shape the world around you to guarantee something won’t trigger you.
Obviously, though, if your mate had an affair with someone you know and you are able to stop seeing that person (for instance, you don’t work with him/her), then you should take that step. But in the sense of triggers you can’t predict (like seeing blue Honda Civics everywhere), the key is treating yourself with kindness when you feel triggered, not trying to make a world where triggers don’t exist.
Until next time,
Richard Nicastro, Ph.D.
(If you and your spouse/partner are struggling to rebuild after an affair and are in need of individual or couples counseling, contact Dr. Nicastro for a consultation appointment).
Featured image courtesy of David Castillo Dominic at FreeDigitalPhotos.net