It can be useful to think about trauma as something that actually wants to heal. If provided with the appropriate conditions, it frequently does. Your partner probably feel that his or her world, life, identity, and marriage has been shattered. Natural reactions include feeling betrayed, panicked, rageful and vengeful, and ultimately very deep, and previously unimaginable pain. I frequently hear “the ground opened up under me,” or “everything is gone, there is nothing left.” Since these reactions are so intense and draining they alternate w/ experiences of numbness, or “just going through the motions of life.” It is this swing back and forth; from intensity to deadness, as well as from the desire to end the relationship to clinging to it no matter what, that can make your partner feel crazy.
This intensity, these swings, can be frightening for both of you. You might sincerely want to do whatever it takes to repair the damage but are afraid that nothing will be enough. It might be helpful to think of your part in the healing as providing as much consistent emotional safety as you can. How can you do this?
1) Come clean. Admit and disclose everything about the affair. You are not protecting your partner by continuing to lie. Lying is like gasoline on the fire.
2) Take responsibility. It almost always feels like “the affair just happened. I didn’t intend for it to happen.” Even so, on some level this is the choice you made. It can drive your partner crazier when you won’t take responsibility
3) Avoid defensiveness. Your partner is actually testing to see how safe it is for his or her feelings about what has happened to emerge. The more they emerge, the more healing can progress. Try to be as welcoming of the hurt and anger as possible.
4) Express remorse, frequently.
5) Avoid pressuring. Taking an attitude that your partner should be progressing faster, or over it by now will make it worse.
6) Hold on to your self-respect. It does not help, and can hurt, to allow yourself to be abused, verbally, or otherwise. Set limits that enable you to stay emotionally present with your partner.
7) Take care of yourself. Make sure you get enough sleep, food and exercise. This will increase your emotional capacity to remain present through the storm.
And finally; set aside your own issues about the relationship for now. Once your partner feels assured of your love and commitment by experiencing you as understanding, empathetic and remorseful may times over, the effects of trauma can be worked through. Then, the two of you will be more equipped to explore improvements you would like to make in your relationship. For a more in-depth discussion of healing, read “Why Being Good Won’t Heal Your Affair.”
I don’t mean to imply that any of this is easy. Staying with the emotional reality of the affair from your partner’s perspective when it is perhaps long over for you can evoke intense anger and a sense of hopelessness. If it feels impossible, yet you still want to save your marriage, my final piece of advice is to seek marriage counseling. Though you may never have thought of this before, the alternative is to settle for a partial resolution. The feelings are never fully processed. Everything can look okay on the surface. But the relationship will lack a feeling of aliveness and more serious problems may emerge down the road.