More on Affair Recovery…
Content Warning: The following discusses in-depth scenarios and topics that may be upsetting to individuals suffering from infidelity-related trauma and associated mental disorders.
In the aftermath of an affair, you feel a lot of emotions and have a lot of questions. You likely find yourself feeling overwhelmingly sad, angry, helpless, or confused. While it might seem hard to believe, there are reasons for you to also feel hopeful. Despite the damage an affair causes, the fact of the matter is many couples are able to come out the other side with a stronger, more fulfilling relationship. Even if it’s hard to believe in the immediate aftermath while you ask yourself things like “How and why did this happen?” or “What do we do now?,” it’s important to know there is hope. We understand what you are going through, and want you to know you don’t have to go it alone.
What you are feeling right now is completely valid and natural. Affairs are often shocking moments in a relationship. Major life events, the complex pasts of individual partners, balancing life and work, and unforeseen twists and turns can impact even the most solid relationships. The unfortunate truth is that affairs can and do happen, and for many different reasons. Whether it’s a physical or emotional affair, a one-night stand, or an ongoing meet-up, unfaithfulness is a traumatizing experience that creates baggage we have to carry and unpack in the future. Many couples worry that their relationship or marriage will never be the same after infidelity and the truth is that as each person changes, so does the relationship between them.
Here’s the good news: there are lots of relationships and marriages that have survived infidelity. Choosing to unpack the trauma of an affair with a professional is beneficial to both partners, even if you decide to go your separate ways after. However, if you do choose to stay and evolve as a couple, counseling can help with understanding, forgiveness, setting new boundaries, and dealing with the many complex symptoms of post-infidelity stress disorder (PISD.)
When an affair occurs, both partners feel a rollercoaster of emotions, from humiliation and shame to anger, confusion, and hopelessness. Whether you were cheated on or the one who was unfaithful, it’s important to acknowledge (in your own time) that you can’t change the past. However, with affair recovery and professional counseling, you can take control of your future. Since your goal is healing, you will have to address the unfortunate truths about your situation to move forward after infidelity.
Here , we outline a few of the ways infidelity can impact both you as an individual and your relationship as a whole. In addition, we take a look at the infidelity recovery timeline, the stages of infidelity and affair recovery, and some tips for moving forward with your relationship.
Effects of Betrayal on the Brain
First things first, it’s important to understand the impact of infidelity before figuring out how to recover from it. So, why does infidelity hurt so much? One of the reasons it can be so harmful and difficult to work through is that it can have major effects on the brain. At its core, infidelity is an act of betrayal or intentional harm at the hands of a trusted individual. According to one study, acts of infidelity can be traumatic and cause severe mental and physical distress. In fact, that same study suggests that betrayal effects can include:
- Shock – Shock is a physical reaction to a traumatic event. Some symptoms of shock include increased adrenaline, nausea or physical illness, chest tightness, an out-of-body experience, or an inability to think clearly. Generally speaking, shock tends to be a relatively short experience, lasting a few minutes to a few hours.
- Loss and Grief – Loss is generally characterized as a long-term negative change to one’s relationships or social situation. Grief, which often accompanies loss, is the anguish experienced after a significant loss most commonly associated with death. It is not uncommon to feel grief for symbolic deaths, i.e. the death of a romantic relationship or a friendship. Grief often includes things like confusion, yearning, separation anxiety, dwelling on the past, and apprehension about the future.
- Morbid Preoccupation – Preoccupation tends to include excessive worry, rumination (the inability to stop thinking about something), and recurrent thoughts about the stressor and its implications. In other words, it involves excessive distressing thoughts about the act of infidelity that simply will not go away and the perceived implications or consequences associated with it.
- Damaged Self-Esteem – Self-esteem essentially boils down to one’s confidence in themselves and their own abilities. It combines a person’s physical self-image as well as their capabilities, values, and the way they think others see them. Damaged self-esteem is exactly what it sounds like—diminished confidence in oneself. In cases of infidelity, it can cause both partners to experience damaged self-esteem. The cheating partner may feel bad about their character and values, leading them to feel like a bad person. The victim of infidelity may feel a sudden drop in self-confidence, not to mention concern over how others may view them.
- Self-Doubt – Self-doubt is characterized by an uncertainty or unsureness in one’s own competence, worth, and value. While self-doubt and damaged self-esteem are very similar, self-doubt tends to manifest itself in different ways. Often, individuals experiencing self doubt deal with it in a handful of ways. These include self-sabotage, overachieving, imposter syndrome, and other-enhancement (listing made up reasons why someone else is “better” or “better off” than you).
- Anger – Many people already understand anger as the feeling of intense antagonism towards someone or something. However, an important characterization of anger when it comes to infidelity is the feeling of being done wrong by someone deliberately or at the very least, with a lack of regard for another’s feelings. While anger can be a healthy emotion and can help one express negative feelings, excessive anger can be dangerous. It can lead to increased blood pressure as well as other physical and psychological issues.
In addition to these effects, infidelity and betrayal can be associated with longer term clinical disorders such as varying forms of anxiety, obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD), and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). The encompassing harm experienced by this trauma has lasting effects that we carry with us and that color our future.
How to Get Past Infidelity Triggers?
Affairs can be traumatic and therefore can cause PTSD amongst other concerns. PTSD is a mental health condition that is triggered by certain events. General symptoms include flashbacks, nightmares, severe anxiety, and uncontrollable thoughts about the event. While many people who experience trauma deal with temporary difficulties, with adequate time, self-care, counseling, and coping, they learn to get better. PTSD occurs when the symptoms of trauma get worse and last for months or even years and interfere with your day-to-day functioning.
With that being said, just because you might not meet the threshold for PTSD does not mean you aren’t dealing with longer term effects of infidelity. Post-traumatic infidelity syndrome, more typically referred to as post-infidelity stress disorder (PISD), is a shared experience of many individuals who have an unfaithful partner.
Technically, PISD is not a mental condition recognized by the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders. However, in many circles it is acknowledged as a response to infidelity that can share similarities with both anxiety disorders and PTSD. Individuals that were betrayed or cheated on can experience several trauma-related symptoms as well as relationship-specific effects, like:
- intrusive images and thoughts
- emotional numbing
- erratic moods and behaviors
- difficulty sleeping
- isolation and withdrawal
- trust issues
- relationship difficulties
What Are Triggers After Infidelity?
It’s important to note that victims of unfaithfulness are likely to have infidelity or PTSD triggers. At the very least these can be reminders of their betrayal. There are many kinds of triggers after an affair. In more severe cases, they can be things that can cause them to relive and re-experience the indiscretion. We will break down a few of these triggers.
Your home, which should be a safe place, often becomes a trigger or battleground in the fallout of infidelity. Home might seem like “enemy territory” as opposed to a place of comfort. Photographs and memories can compound the negative emotions you are already feeling as a result of the affair: was anything true? The home can become especially triggering if any of the unfaithful acts occurred inside of it.
People Who Knew
Affairs are guaranteed to impact at least three people–you, your partner, and the other person. The sad reality is that they rarely only involve three people. Typically there are others who were aware of what was happening. These can include friends, family members, or even coworkers.
The burden of knowledge for these people can be a tricky thing to navigate. While some may suggest that if you know something you need to say something, others believe in a more hands off approach to other people’s relationships. Not to mention, getting involved can jeopardize their relationship with you.
Regardless, anyone you believe to be complicit in your partner’s affair can stir up negative emotions. Their presence and actions can cause physical, psychological and emotional reactions. Fallout from infidelity can ultimately impact more than just your romantic relationship, but also friendships, family relations, and even working relationships.
Distance can be literal and metaphorical. Since an affair can shatter any trust you have with your partner, physical distance between the two of you can be triggering. For example, if your partner has to spend time away from you for work or travel, it can induce anxiety and intrusive thoughts. Questions like “who are they with right now?” or “I wonder what they are doing by themselves” can disturb your peace and ultimately impede your ability to make progress.
Metaphorically speaking, emotional distance can be triggering because it may evoke similar feelings to what occurred during the affair itself. If you feel like your partner is emotionally distant from you, it can cause you to worry about who they are becoming emotionally close with and if they are opening up with someone else, and if so why.
Admittedly, the word “suspicious” inherently carries with it a certain connotation. That being said, specific actions can be off-putting, anxiety inducing, and even triggering. Such actions include hiding their phone, locking their computer, discussing people without naming them, taking phone calls in private, staying out late, flirting, and more.
What Are the Stages of Healing After an Affair?
There are several stages of healing after an affair and they don’t all happen quickly. Frankly, healing after cheating takes a lot of effort and time. There can still be successful marriages after infidelity if the steps are taken with healing as a focus. The main affair recovery stages include: discovery, reaction, beginning to forgive, and recommitment and reconciliation.
The discovery stage is often referred to as ground zero. Essentially it entails one partner learning of the other partner’s infidelity. The goal here is to learn what has happened. This is not always immediately after the unfaithful act has occurred. It could be days, months, or even confessing infidelity years later. Generally, this stage includes the onset of shock and emotional volatility.
Once you discover what’s happened, it’s only natural to need some time and space to react to the rollercoaster of emotions. One of the main objectives during this stage is to grieve. Generally speaking, the 5 stages of grief after infidelity reflect the same five stages of grief for anything else. These are:
- Denial – In this first stage of grief, things can be difficult to comprehend and might lead to feelings of meaninglessness or overwhelmingness. To allow individuals to cope with infidelity, denial makes them go numb to the emotional pain and carry on. It works as a survival mechanism. Basically, your brain only allows you to deal with as much grief as you can handle. While this can be helpful for the immediate aftermath of an affair, it’s important to start coming to terms with what has happened.
- Anger – Once the reality begins to set in, feeling angry is actually a sign of healing. Feeling this way, or even being hurt, upset, or even sad are completely natural, and it’s important to allow yourself to feel these emotions as a part of moving forward. After an affair it might seem like the hurt and the anger will last forever, but the more you allow yourself to feel it, the more it will dissipate. Of course, in this phase of grief you may feel anger towards more than just your partner. You might be angry with yourself, the other person involved, or individuals who you feel enabled the affair to continue.
- Bargaining – After acknowledging the infidelity and getting more comfortable with the way it makes you feel, the next step in the grieving process is to want your old life back. In this phase, you might come up with several “what if” or “if only” scenarios. “If only I’d been more attentive.” “What if I’d been a better partner?” The list of statements and questions you can use to torment yourself goes on and on. In this phase, you will search for any answer, deal, or way to return to life before the affair.
- Depression – This is the phase of grief where the impact of losing trust in a relationship can really set in. The affair will make you feel like everything you know or believed about your partner is a lie. You can feel isolated, lonely, and even abandoned in this fourth stage of grief. With the loss, you may also feel an emptiness in day-to-day life and activities. This is completely natural and again is part of the healing process.
- Acceptance – All of the other stages ultimately lead to this one. Acceptance is not to be confused with the idea of being “OK” or everything being “alright.” Instead, acceptance is exactly that, coming to terms with the new reality. It may not feel like closure and most likely does not result in a perfect resolution. Instead, acceptance is figuring out how to survive in the present and understanding what it might take to thrive in the future.
Aside from grieving, the other critical component to the reaction stage is to work with your partner to understand why the affair happened. Establishing “why” is a crucial piece of the puzzle moving forward.
It’s important to note that in grief and infidelity recovery in general, progress is not necessarily linear. You may move in and out of stages in any order, at any time.
Beginning to Forgive
Sometimes referred to simply as forgiveness, by the time this stage occurs, both partners will have made progress along their individual healing journey. That, in addition to understanding why the affair happened can open the door to forgiveness and reconciliation. Neither of these processes happen all at once, however. The process of forgiveness can come in small steps and at different times as partners navigate their own healing processes.
Recommitment and Reconciliation
In this stage, you and your partner make the conscious decision to move past the affair. While the infidelity becomes another layer of meaning in the relationship, it no longer defines it. This can happen in several ways, whether that is continuing to stay together or redefining your relationship. In some cases, unfortunately, the best course of reconciliation is to move forward with your separate lives. Please know that therapy can help in both situations, as the effects (as shown above) can have lingering, damaging affects on both partners.
10 Common Marriage Reconciliation Mistakes to Avoid After Infidelity
More than likely, you aren’t an expert in reconciling your marriage after infidelity. Aside from getting professional help, it’s important to keep these tips in mind as you try and avoid common mistakes.
- Don’t minimize the pain or impacts you or your partner are feeling as a result of infidelity.
- Don’t rush into decisions about your future.
- Don’t go through it alone–seek help from licensed professionals.
- Don’t try to avoid difficult conversations.
- Don’t recklessly share intimate details of the affair–only share things that will help your partner heal.
- Prioritize your mental, emotional, and physical health throughout the process.
- Don’t forget your children or other family members that may be directly impacted.
- Address factors that can help explain why your partner was unfaithful.
- Focus on creating something new as opposed to ruminating on what was broken or lost.
- Nurture the relationship you already have–there is a reason you are together in the first place.
Well Marriage…Counselors for Relationships
At Well Marriage, our team of counselors are professionally licensed and have years of experience helping couples overcome all sorts of obstacles. Our expert team is what we like to call “relationship friendly” meaning that their number one objective is to help you recommit and reestablish the trusting, loving relationship you had. They can help you navigate through the unfamiliar, and frankly painful, waters of infidelity. Our clients often want to discuss topics like:
- falling out of love after infidelity
- reasons not to divorce after infidelity
- when to walk away after infidelity
- signs your marriage will survive infidelity
The fact of the matter is no one should have to experience infidelity, but it happens. With Well Marriage, we can make sure no one experiences it alone. Schedule your appointment today.