The trauma of infidelity is considerable. The psychological upheaval can result in symptoms like depression, insomnia, anger/rage, intrusive thoughts about the affair, emotional flooding, mistrust (bordering on paranoia), to name a few. You can feel like you are losing your mind.
And then at some point you are faced with an enormous decision. Do you stay and try to make your marriage or relationship work? Many people vacillate on this issue—either decision can feel like a prison sentence. Grief is inevitable — even for those who stay and begin to rebuild.
But many relationships do recover from an affair.
4 Affair Recovery Pitfalls
Post-affair self-and-relationship healing takes time and effort. The path to affair recovery can be fraught with the kind of stumbling blocks that can make even the most committed couples question why they are trying to save their marriage/relationship.
In my work with couples attempting to heal from an affair, I’ve observed certain places where couples get stuck. If these problem spots are not addressed, healing can grind to a halt and one or both partners can begin to feel hopeless. Let’s turn our attention to these pitfalls.
1) Minimizing the trauma of betrayal
The discovery that our loved one, the person who we trusted more than anyone, has given him/herself emotionally and/or physically to another, is exceptionally traumatic. As the concept of trauma enters into our everyday language, it’s become too easy to confuse being upset by an experience with being traumatized by it.
I want to stress that traumatic experiences are on an entirely different plane of suffering than dealing with the inherent frustrations of life.
The trauma of the betrayal needs to be recognized. The intensity and pervasiveness of the psychological pain needs ongoing attention. To say “I’m sorry, I really screwed up” a bunch of times and expect a pardon for what happened will sabotage the healing process.
Don’t tell your partner/spouse that you understand her/his pain. Show that you understand through consistent and reliable actions. Invite conversations that can be healing even if they cause you considerable discomfort. Make validating your partner’s feelings your daily mantra.
2) “Tell me, tell me, tell me…!”
A common and painful aftermath of an affair is the need to know what happened. The spouse/partner who was cheated on is assaulted by their own desire for information.
Some need to know about the extent of the affair because they are trying to assess the level of the betrayal in an effort to determine whether they should continue in the relationship. Others are trying to make sense of what happened, hoping that more information will settle their emotional upheaval. Others question out of mistrust, seeking any discrepancies that would point to continued deceit.
For many, the pain-helplessness is so unrelenting that questioning their partner again and again becomes a way of channelling their helplessness into action — here questions give direction even if the answers sought cause further pain.
While it is natural to want to know the details surrounding the betrayal, there is a danger of getting stuck in cycles of questioning that lead nowhere. To “let go” of the need to revisit the minutia of the affair isn’t easy, but it is a big step forward when you’re ready to do so.
3) “You should be over it by now”
No matter how horrible you feel about having an affair and hurting your spouse/partner, at some point, you likely will get frustrated with how long the healing process is taking.
When we’re in pain, time seems to slow to a crawl. For the couple having a good time on vacation, time feels like it’s flying by. But for the post-affair couple, the perception of time is distorted in the other direction—a week can feel like months. The subjective experience of time slowing down is important to be aware of because it’s easy to think that the pain within the marriage is “never going to end.”
If you rely solely on your distorted perception of time, it’s easy to begin to feel hopeless about the relationship improving.
It’s normal to become impatient with the pacing of the recovery process (of course you wish the relationship would improve much more quickly). But there is a big difference between periodic impatience and believing that your partner/spouse should have moved past his/her pain based on your timeframe.
Once you impose a timeline on healing from the trauma of betrayal, you’ll be inclined to shut down conversations and pull away from your partner whenever s/he needs to talk about the affair. Remember, healing from the trauma of a betrayal takes time.
4) The master-servant solution
The dynamics of a relationship shift dramatically after an affair. The spouse/partner who strayed may feel so terrible about the infidelity that s/he is willing to meet every whim of the hurt partner. And, of course, increased responsiveness is a good thing. Changes are needed: greater attentiveness, open communication, a new level of transparency to help rebuild trust.
But at some point (no matter how guilt-ridden s/he is) something may start to shift in the partner who had the affair. Responsiveness starts to feel like submission if his/her voice is continuously subsumed under the desires of the other.
In these instances, resentments can build that interfere with the affair recovery process (“How long do I have to be punished for what happened?”); this partner may start to pull away from the injured partner or use these feelings as justification for why the affair occurred (or for justification to go outside the marriage/relationship again).
It’s important to note that placating one’s guilt for a wrongdoing by becoming completely passive (continually ignoring one’s own needs) is never an effective long-term solution to the mutuality healthy relationships require.
At its essence, affair recovery is about the rebuilding of trust for both partners. At first, the wounded partner’s needs are going to be prioritized. Compromises are going to be made that will help with heightened insecurities. The rules that governed the relationship in the past will need to be updated. In areas of the relationship where silence was the norm, courageous conversations will now need to occur. Both partners will need to have a voice in shaping these changes.
Meaningful growth and real change arise out of discomfort — the discomfort of examining the parts of ourselves and the parts of our relationship that we wish didn’t exist. At some point in the healing process, each person will need to be challenged to move past the comfort zones that can lead to blind spots.
Understanding the ways in which healing can be stalled is an important step in undertaking this courageous healing journey together.
Richard Nicastro, Ph.D.