The revelation of an affair is frequently a shocking experience.
In long-term relationships the fidelity of one’s partner is, more often than not, taken for granted, providing an emotional foundation for the couple. Trust and a sense of security rest on this foundation. Strength is derived from this secure bond. This strength enables each partner to function relatively smoothly in the world, and to be open to new and growthful experiences that life offers.
If either partner has a history of having been at the effect of infidelity, betrayal, deceit or abandonment, either by previous partners or during childhood, things can be more complicated. The sense of security with a partner takes longer to develop, or may only partially develop. For these individuals the revelation of an affair can be their worst nightmare come true. In order to protect themselves they might caution… “if you ever have an affair, it’s over.” In these cases,
when the affair is revealed, of course there is shock, but there can also be a deep sense that this was bound to happen.
Once it has actually happened, the view from the inside is more complicated. There is, on the one hand, the wish to be strong and keep to the vow and leave immediately. This can feel like “being strong” and be supported by well-meaning friends and family. However, this is not a time when one feels strong at all. Discovering a partner’s infidelity can be a shattering experience that leaves one unable to function at even a minimal level, much less make a major life change.
There are many things that are important to consider at the time. These considerations revolve around one question. Besides the affair, is this a marriage that you would want to continue? If the answer is no, then the affair may just be the catalyst to either get help or get out.
If the answer is yes, then it might be worth considering that it takes as much, or even more strength and courage to stay. Leaving doesn’t really prove strength. It is a way to escape feelings that are so intense that they seem unbearable.
The intensity is about being battered about by what can feel like a maddening paradox; the source of your pain, the partner who betrayed you, is also the person who you need to help you relieve the pain. This explains the sometimes chaotic feelings that ensue…some of the time you want to rage and push them away; shut them out completely and at other times you feel desperate for their love, reassurance and comfort…and for evidence of genuine remorse. One minute you want to be held and the next you might not be able to bear their touch.
The partner who had the affair can get confused at this time, believing that space is the best thing they have to give. So they can distance themselves, which feels like more rejection, leaving you feeling truly unwanted, confirming the meaning of the affair as a personal rejection.
Or, your partner can become alarmed at how upset you are and panic, saying all of the right things, maybe even lying more to protect you and try to make things better right away. This can leave you feeling more hopeless, and pressured to “get over it and leave the past behind.” It can also leave you with a sense of isolation because it feels impossible to get your partner to just take in what you have experienced and what the affair means to you when they are in panic, “fix it” mode.
For you, the emotional reality of the affair has just started. For your partner, it has (hopefully) already ended. There is a chasm here that needs to be bridged with understanding and empathy, which means to be able to see and appreciate things from the others perspective.
Couples know this instinctively, but unfortunately as each tries to move towards healing, painful and defensive reactions can get triggered in each other. The arguments repeat themselves; the gulf can widen. Discouragement and resignation can set in. You might still be physically together but there is a new “something is missing” sense to the relationship and this can be too bewildering to focus on. So it becomes un-nameable. The official story becomes, “we’re fine, I’m over it,” but if you pay close attention you may hear the sadness or resignation or, conversely, a voice that sounds too bright.
Marriage counseling can help. Sometimes there is reluctance because of an expectation of blame, of being called out. But good marriage counseling is not about finger pointing. It is about helping each partner build a bridge to the other that is eventually as durable as rock, a bridge forged through honesty, empathy and the know-how to sustain these newly formed capacities during the most difficult times.