You are probably in shock. You might feel as if the floor has opened up under you. Suddenly, there is an emergency and a strong need to take some action right away; you may have already left or thrown your partner out, or you may feel on the verge of doing so. But this may not bring you any real relief.
Your sense of safety, of trusting your own experience, of your place in the world, has suddenly been shaken to the core and the person you usually turn to for help is the very person who is the cause! You may swing from one extreme to the other; wanting to pull that person back in, very close to you, on the one hand, or get rid of him/her as fast as you can on the other. You want to be alone; you can’t bear to be alone. You want to confide in others; you want to hide what feels like a shameful secret. You just want to sleep, you can’t sit still. This is all normal.
You have experienced a psychological trauma. Chemical processes are occurring in your nervous system that leave you in a state of chronic hyperarrousal which can leave you feeling agitated, anxious, panicked, and sleep deprived. Your rage may feel uncontrollable. You may feel sick, be unable to eat, or stop eating. Your world is suddenly upside down, and narrowed, nothing else seems to exist except the affair. Your body eventually needs a respite from this state and you go numb, nothing seems real, you can’t feel anything and feel isolated and strangely disconnected from others. Then there is a reminder of what happend and you are plunged into the turmoil all over again. This is all normal.
Was I a Fool?
Finding a partner in life who you make yourself vulnerable to and develop a deep level of trust with; who allows you to feel safe in the world because you know they will be there for you and value you above all others, and who is working with you to honor the commitment you have made to each other is a developmental achievement. This achievement involves the ability to trust, and to allow yourself to depend on someone emotionally in some ways like children depend on adults. Current research into successful couples therapy demonstrates that when a couple can learn to be vulnerable with each other and seek each other out during times of emotional distress for comfort, the relationship becomes successful. In other words, your belief that your partner valued you above all others, just as children have that belief of their parents, was an important part of what allowed you to be who you were out in the world. You were not a fool to invest this energy into your partner, even if there were signs that he or she was not as trustworthy or present as you wished. Acknoweldging this reality is terrifying and it is natural to try to preserve a sense of safety in the world by dismissing evidence to the contrary.
At some point however, the evidence may have become too strong. At that point you may have tried to confront your partner. If they denied the affair, that did not put you at rest. As I have mentioned before, you started to have the sense that the relationship had a potentially life-threatening illness and became obsessed with getting an accurate diagnosis. Going through emails, cell phones, pockets, desk drawers to find confirming evidence of the affair is a natural response. It reminds me of the scene in the movie, Lorenzo’s Oil where Susan Sarandon, playing the mother of a boy who had an illness that no doctor could diagnose spent endless hours on the internet poring through myriads of medical journals until she found the diagnosis and cure herself. You were determined to prove you weren’t crazy, and perhaps save your relationship, or at least, yourself.
No matter what the outcome of this discovery, you will only find peace one way, and that way is not easy. The most important thing to do is to allow yourself to experience and name your inner responses as they occur and work with making sense of them over a period of time. staying close to your own needs and feelings and expecting an emotional roller coaster for a while. You need a physical, psychological and possibly a spiritual space in which to do this. This might mean living separately or refraining from physical intimacy for a while. (Read “Sex After the Affair,” for more on this.) It might also mean meeting with a therapist, meditating, journaling, going on a retreat, etc. After your initial outrage, you will naturally have many questions. Most of these will be for your partner, but there is one that is important for you to ask yourself, and that is, “besides the affair, is this a relationship that I, deep down, want?” Do you sense that you want him or her back out of desperation, or a genuine belief that you could have a fulfilling future together? If the relationship that you had before you discovered the affair feels truly worth saving, then there are questions that you will want to be asking your partner. If not, then you have the painful task of facing the reality that the affair was probably what is referred to as an “exit” affair, reflecting a truth for both of you.
If you are someone who has experienced one or more traumatic abandonments in the past that have not been worked through, whether from other partners, parents or siblings, this step is very difficult. Being abandoned again, even by someone you know isn’t right for you, will bring up those past experiences of trauma and make you feel like it is happening all over again. You will experience strong urges to avoid this at all costs. If you find yourself in this position, it is best to seek professional help.
If you have any sense that the relationship might be worth saving and want to start working things out, you will need information. To start to deal with what has happened, you will need to know what happened. Your natural urge will be to want to grill your partner about the affair. This is the first step in working things out for yourself, during which you will continue to decide if you want to work things out with your partner. There is information that you need to know that will help you and there is information you might feel you need to know that will simply be torturous and not assist you in regaining your sense of security. Initially, the most important things to find out are
- Is the affair still going on? If not, when did it end? Are they still in touch?
- Is your partner willing to end it? Does this seem believable and realistic to you?
- How and when did it start?
- Is your partner in love with with him/her?
- What does the affair mean to your partner?
- Was protection used during sex? Have you been expose to STDs?
- What means did your partner use to deceive you?
- Is the lover someone you know?
Although I list them as simple questions, each one represents discussions that need space to occur over a period of time.. There are other questions you will undoubtedly have, and there are some that will not help you heal, such as:
- Questions about explicit sexual details
- Repeating questions that your partner cannot or will not answer
The first is obvious. Filling your mind with sexual images of your partner and lover will not help you at all. You will struggle with this without getting explicit details, getting the details will just make it worse.
The second type of question is problematic because you may get an “I don’t know” or “I don’t remember” that doesn’t feel authentic and you want to pursue until you get the truth. The deception that you realize you have suffered is so painful, you don’t want another minute of it; you feel deserving of complete honesty now. And you are, it’s just that every time your partner reveals more of what has happened they are giving up more control, and this control is what they have been basing their own sense of security on. You can get caught in a cycle in which your partner feels more and more threatened and therefore less forthcoming if you keep hammering away at questions they can’t readily answer. So give it a rest and come back to it later. On the other hand, if your partner really doesn’t remember or know and you keep asking, they may make up an answer to placate you and end the agony for the moment, and that leaves you being lied to again.
With the information you have gained, you are in a position to reflect on what your course of action should be. It is very important that you find support for this from someone other than your partner. Your partner is in no position to help you in this process beyond answering your questions, because they are experiencing the enormous and sudden loss of control that comes with disclosure and may promise things that they can’t deliver in order to restore this sense. Although you are furious, you might feel compelled to protect your partner from the judgment of friends, family and even clergy. It also might be difficult to reveal the fact that you have been cheated on to those close to you, as if it is a bad reflection on you. It is important to think about who you can trust; who will listen to you without judgment and not assume they know what is best for you. Is there someone who can just help you sort it all out? If not, a therapist could be of help.
As I mentioned earlier, it is important to have a space to do this in. If you feel you need space, but don’t take it because you are afraid this will take away your control over your partner’s comings and goings, you will feel better in the short run, but maybe not in the long run.
Is There Hope?
Many couples heal from affairs and find their relationship is better than ever. New channels of communication can open in unexpected ways, and a new closeness and intimacy can develop. A study by Peggy Vaughn found that when the secret comes out, and the infidel reveals everything and takes responsibility for the behavior, 88% of the marriages were healed. However, when the infidel clams up, blames the affair on the marriage or lover and does not take responsibility or answer questions there is only a 55% success rate. You might be thinking this is easier said then done. Therapy can make a tremendous difference in the ability to process, repair, heal and eventually move on from this most difficult experience.