Infidelity First Aid

The revelation of an infidelity is an intense experience for both the offending and the hurt partner. The aftermath is a period of overwhelming shock, confusion, pain, and uncertainty. Partners have tremendous difficulty making sense of their own hurt, much less understanding one other’s.

Most of us simply do not have the life experience to navigate this storm alone, yet the pain can be so paralyzing that its difficult to know where to even begin getting help. If you or someone you know are in the midst of an infidelity, my hope is that this guide will serve as a starting point for your healing. Even if you have not experienced an infidelity directly, you may be able to gain some insights into safeguarding your relationship.

Here are 5 things to know as you look to rebuild your lives as individuals and/or partners.

Your Timelines for Repair are Different

Depending on whether you are the offending partner or the hurt partner, your timeline for repair will be quite different. The offending partner, finally caught or else having “come clean,” will naturally want to move on quickly. For him or her, there may even be a sense of relief after the discovery. The hiding and the sneaking are finally over and they can come back into authentic connection. This is not the case for the hurt partner. Their whirlwind of emotions, questions, and re-evaluations has just begun.

Part of the discrepancy is due to the fact that infidelity is by its very nature one-sided. Often what I hear in my sessions is that the act itself, while extraordinarily hurtful, is compounded by lying and secrecy. The offending partner frequently wonders why the deceit seems to be such a big deal relative to the cheating. What he or she fails to understand is that the betrayed partner has, unknowingly, been living by a set of assumptions that has just been proven to be false.

The partner that has been doing the concealing is a bit like the third-person omniscient narrator; he or she knows all the details of the story that is being told. In fact, they are controlling the narrative. The hurt partner is a secondary character in the truest sense, purposefully left in the dark for the purposes of drama.

While the knowledge-gap alone is enough to explain much of the differences in agendas, there is more work to be done than simply bringing the hurt partner “up to speed.” Infidelity is traumatic in that the implicit, inalienable rules of the relationship have been violated. The hurt partner may need a considerable amount of time and help to regain their sense of reality.

You’re Not Off Track, The Track is Broken

As mentioned above, the offending partner frequently prefers to view the affair as “temporary insanity” and get the relationship back on track as soon as possible. “Getting back on track” is a wonderful metaphor for ordinary, everyday corrections, but it doesn’t work so well for infidelity. I tell my clients that if their relationship is a train, not only has it jumped the rails, the track itself now needs considerable repair.

Ordinary repair — which occurs following the routine disharmony that is inevitable in all human relationships — is predicated upon trust. In my work, I define safety in relationships not as the impossible expectation that my partner will never hurt me again, but as the trust that they will stand by me through the dance of harmony, disharmony, and repair.

An infidelity violates this trust at the deepest level. The offending partner has stated through their actions that the basic tenets of the relationship are apparently meaningless to them. From the hurt partner’s perspective, even ordinary disharmony is now a reason to look outside the relationship. The mechanism of repair that allows for reconnection following routine rupture has itself been damaged. The hurt partner is left in a position of seeking accountability that, if present, would have prevented the affair from ever occurring.

If partners are able to navigate the initial phase of “I’m sorry, let’s give this another shot,” there is a considerable amount of work that needs to be done on the infrastructure of the relationship. Therapy can offer a place to re-examine not only the essential framework of the relationship, but the fundamental values that underpin each partner’s lives.

Both of You are Grieving

Infidelity is full of loss. There is the loss of trust experienced by the betrayed partner. There is the loss of the affair experienced by the offending partner. And there is the loss of the relationship-as-we-knew-it experienced by both.

Infidelity is also powered by loss. Often, an affair is an attempt to wake up some part of the self that has been denied, either in the relationship itself or as a result of formative experiences. Other times, the intensity of an extramarital experience can help push back against the reality of death; it is not uncommon for one partner to to be unfaithful following a big loss such as that of a parent or a child. An affair can be a coping tool for living with a disabled partner, or a response to continuous sexual frustration and longing.

One of the more confusingly painful aspects of an affair is that it frequently pits values against desire. When a partner chooses to walk away from an affair, they keep their values intact but may experience a heart-wrenching loss. This is not the kind of loss a betrayed partner is capable of holding, nor should they be expected to. Still, if the relationship is to be repaired and the affair transformed, the offending partner must be able to process their own guilt, hurt, and grief. They must also be able to reconcile the rapture of the experience with their sense that it is fundamentally wrong.

In some cases, the affair becomes symbolic of the relationship as a whole. To the partner who has been hurt, it emblematic of every offense. To the betrayer, an affair can represent the sum total of their own resentment. The revelation of an affair can throw partners into a crisis of identity, both as individuals and as a couple.

This is a recipe for two hurting, grieving, and disoriented partners, neither of whom are particularly interested in alleviating the suffering of the other. As a therapist, I am in a position to compassionately hold the loss and hurt of both partners where they are unable to do it for themselves. Part of the beauty of therapy is that we are able to suspend notions of who is “right” in order to help each partner process and move beyond the pain of both betraying and betrayal.  In support of this, I often see partners individually to help them metabolize their pain and recover their capacity for connection.

Not All Questions are Helpful

When an infidelity is discovered, the hurt partner often has a knee-jerk reaction to become an “amateur detective.” They want to know everything that has happen, the hows, the whens, the whats, the wheres, and, of course, the whos.

In some ways, this is to be expected; there is certainly an element of empowerment in forcibly exposing what has been concealed. Yet, not all questions are equally helpful, and oftentimes a hurt partner’s quest for insight can drive him or her to pursue information before they are able to understand the implications of such revelations.

There are few hard and fast rules, but questions about the sexual acts themselves tend not to produce the conversations that are growth-promoting for either partner. Inquiries into what happened, where the acts were performed, who did what to whom in what positions, and who climaxed rarely lead to the kind of answers that lead to an understanding of motives and meaning. Still, some partners feel as though they can’t live without knowing. Weighing the pain of uncertainty against the pain of revelation is something that can be done in therapy

It is also typical for the hurt partner to have a need to ask many, often repetitive, questions for clarification and reassurance. It is important to realize that the infidelity ruptures the narrative of the relationship leading to obsessive thinking as a way to restore meaning. There is a difference, however, in asking questions in order to reclaim a sense of reality versus relentlessly investigating. In therapy, we want to move hurt partners away from the establishment of a surveillance-state and towards the (re)establishment of intimacy. Part of this process is helping both partners to define their relationship by uniqueness, not exclusivity.

Healing and Growth are Possible

For some couples, an affair is a death warrant, but for others, it can rattle them into new possibilities. If partners decide to stay together, they must create a new vision for the relationship, complete with new boundaries and new relational dynamics. I often ask couples in crisis of any sort: “Your first marriage looks like it’s over. Do you want the second one to be with each other?” Those that say yes are challenged to use the betrayal as a catalyst for growth such that it becomes an event in their history, not the entirety of it.

Therapy does not provide clear cut answers, but instead serves as a forum to process the betrayal. While the recovery of trust is often the stated goal, we understand that genuine trust hinges on the ability to tolerate what we don’t know about one another. The drive to uncover every detail about not only the affair, but our partners’ lives, runs counter to this genuine trust. Ultimately, recovery from an affair is about the choice to be with each other, rather than being forbidden to be with another.

 

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