Couples, Couples Therapy, marriage

How Finding out About a Spouse’s Affair is Like a Death

finger wife cryingTears.  Lots of them.  “I am just so tired of hurting.  I want the pain to go away.”  As usual, my heart was breaking for the spouse sitting across from me who had recently discovered that her partner had an extramarital affair.  Like many spouses before, she declared, “Of all the things I thought I knew in the world, I was certain that my spouse would never in a million years be unfaithful and now I don’t know which way is up.  I can’t count on anything anymore.  All my safety is just completely washed away.”  “I am so sorry that this is so painful,” I offered, “I wish I could make that better for you—I really do, but the truth is that it is going to hurt for a long time.  Eventually, it won’t hurt as much, but when I say eventually, I mean that a year is short in affair healing time.”  Even though I’ve been doing therapy for a long time, the emotions still impact me.

I hate seeing people in pain.  I feel things deeply and enduringly, which is what drew me to the therapeutic profession.  I wanted to alleviate emotional suffering for people.  However, there are certain types of pain which need to be healed over the course of time, and sometimes tender emotional scars never go away.  Some of the deepest emotional pain I witness occurs in cases of grief and loss in which relationships with people are ended or intensely damaged.  The loss of human relationships through death, divorce or other means just hurts.  A lot.

Infidelity and Intense Grief

In cases of betrayal, sometimes people don’t understand the principles of grief and loss that are at play which complicate recovery.  Here is a typical presentation I’ll encounter maybe three months after the disclosure of an affair:

Betrayed partner:  “He couldn’t understand why I was still crying about the affair, and I tried to explain that it still hurts and he just got mad and asked why I couldn’t see that he was sorry and just focus on our future.  I don’t know why it’s still hurting so bad.  I’m embarrassed that it is still making me cry.  I don’t want to make him mad, but it hurts.”

Oh dear.

People who have betrayed their spouses don’t like to witness the pain they have caused because it makes them feel shame, which is uncomfortable.  They also commonly feel fear that this might be the emotional episode in which the spouse decides to leave.  Frequently, they get defensive and upset with their spouses for not healing fast enough.  Men in particular, as a general rule, have an aversion to tears and emotional pain resulting from something they have done in relationships.  They want to run from it, regardless of the cause or validity of the emotion.  They feel almost panicky and search for ways to “fix,” the emotion, which means make it stop.  I think it’s because they get so socialized out of feeling vulnerable emotion themselves that they literally have no idea what to do with it when their spouses display strong vulnerable emotion, at least in many instances.

How Infidelity is a Loss Issue

In cases like these, I normalize the intensity of emotional pain for both partners, but also try to help them understand the deep grief.  I have explained to many husbands, “This is a loss issue, and loss is always painful.”  “What do you mean loss?  I’m still here.  Why can’t she see that I’m trying to fix it and I’m sorry,” the husbands fire back.  I’ll explain, “She can see you, but first of all, she has no idea who you really are because you’re not who she thought you were, so she needs time and safe experiences with you to be able to even think about trusting you.  Second of all, she is still grieving the marriage she thought she had but doesn’t have and will never get back—the marriage in which her partner stayed faithful to her.  She married you with that expectation and has lost that dream.  She needs time to be sad over losing that marriage.”

When I explain this, partners can be a little more tolerant of the deep expression of emotions.  However, for some reason when it comes to emotional injuries, we want people to be better faster than is reasonable to expect—mostly because we don’t like feeling our own uncomfortable emotions when seeing emotional pain.

Physical Pain as a Metaphor for Emotional Pain

Sometimes if I compare the wound of infidelity to a physical injury, partners understand a little better.  “What if you had run over her with your car and she ended up in a body cast?  Would you be getting upset that she wasn’t walking in a week?  No, you wouldn’t, because you would know that the injury takes time to heal.  If while she was in a body cast she told you her pain was flaring up, would you say, ‘It’s been 6 weeks since I ran over you.  Why do you insist on focusing on the pain instead of looking ahead to the future?’  No, you wouldn’t, because you would realize that sometimes pain flares up.  Emotional injuries are the same.  You don’t get to argue with her about whether she is in pain.  Your job is to move toward her and say, ‘Show me where it hurts,’ as if it were a physical injury.  You can’t fix this for her, but you can just be with her and ask if there is anything you can to do reassure her or help her feel more comfortable or safe.  If there isn’t, you just sit with it.  If you want, you can talk about how uncomfortable and sad it is for you to see the pain you caused, but you can’t argue about whether the pain is valid or demand that she heals right away.”

Relationship loss is searing, no matter the type, and infidelity is a type of relationship loss.  Partners need time to grieve and be sad.  Most importantly, they need to be validated and comforted in their pain.  As long as it takes.

Again, people always want emotional pain from infidelity to heal faster than it does—both the betrayed partner and the offending partner.  My experience is that in affair time, it’s not uncommon to see people have deep emotional triggers regularly for at least two years.

If your partner betrayed you, know that the disorientation, fear and hurt are normal.  Give yourself time to grieve the loss of the marriage you thought you had, just like you would give yourself time to grieve the death of a loved one or a lost relationship.  Eventually, grief diminishes in intensity, but if grief is criticized and shut down by a partner instead of honored and respected, it will last longer.  Clinically, I tell people to write when they are experiencing episodes of grief.  Articulating pain through writing is a way to manage emotional intensity.  Intentional self-care and deep breathing and meditation can also be helpful.

You’re not crazy if you’re in intense pain months after discovering a spouse’s infidelity—you’re just a human with a big attachment injury.  I don’t know if time heals all wounds, because some wounds can persist for decades, but usually time does decrease emotional intensity.

Photo: Copyright: mukhina1 / 123RF Stock Photo

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4 thoughts on “How Finding out About a Spouse’s Affair is Like a Death”

  1. While I appreciate what you are saying and agree on many levels, have you lost your spouse or partner because he/she died?
    Once someone is dead there is no ability to heal, deal with it gracefully, re unite with that person….except in your mind.

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    1. Thank you for pointing that out–you’re right and that type of grief is a different type and comparatively larger. My point is not that the grief is as intense as losing someone–only that it is a valid loss. When I had miscarriages, it was a grief/loss issue–I couldn’t get those babies back–but it wasn’t as big a loss as a spouse or a fully developed child, in my mind. Many different types of losses are different in intensity. My only point is that part of having to heal from an affair is grieving the marriage one can never get back–the one in which there was complete trust, and while healing does happen, it’s never the same as it was before, so the grief around it should be expected and allowed.

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  2. While I agree that losing one’s spouse to death is one of the most intense losses one can suffer, when you discover that your life wasn’t what you thought it was, it can definitely feel like a loss. I’ve been there, and it was a long road to recovery, knowing that my significant other was alive and well but just didn’t want me any longer.

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