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

17 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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    1. Exactly! My husband recently left after 33 years (the week my father in law went into a nursing home and my dad into palliative), said it was a communication problem, but has since moved in with someone from our teen years (the same week my dad died). There are layers of grief, and the grief I feel for the marriage ending is due to the loss of what I thought was my reality isn’t, Watching my kids in pain, my mother and mother in law, our community etc. And, constant new betrayals make the grief “new” or refresh it every few days. And, while the grief I feel for my dad is hard and sad, there is a natural aspect to it – not a forced “choice” to end the life we had and choose to put that effort into someone else, not our relationship, not into his relationship with our kids, not our dog our home but make his life “new and simple”. It’s a horrible rejection, one I can’t explain. I’m blessed that my support system is so amazing, but society expects us to pick up the pieces, its just a divorce…..a common occurrence until it is you that is experiencing it. They are different types of grief, but both hurt nonetheless.

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      1. I am so sorry. Are you familiar with Ashlee Birk? Her story might help you feel less alone. She found out about her husband’s affair when he was murdered by his affair partner’s husband, leaving her with five children. She wrote a book about it here https://www.amazon.com/Moments-We-Stand-Silence-Breaks-ebook/dp/B00M7IUEYU/ref=sr_1_1?keywords=ashlee+birk&qid=1572193643&s=digital-text&sr=1-1 and the story was on dateline. If you google her name, you can find videos of her telling her story. She started a foundation to help people find strength after tragedy. I hope you find peace and healing.

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  3. Grieving a loss for any reason is painful, it is just different. In death you can’t get that person back but you will always have the memory of the love you shared. In the case of an affair, you may be able to get that person back but it is a different person. You have lost the person you thought you had and you have to deal with the pain of betrayal and rejection from the one person you trusted most and loved more than anyone else. I don’t think which one is worse can be measured. It is not that simple. The amount of grief depends on the depth of your trust and love for that person.

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  4. Not sure about a comment a year later, however, i was told of an affair 12 years ago , it hurts like hell , and also just found out, through dna that my child i raised is not mine

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    1. I read your comment so you count. I am sorry to hear about your loss. My story goes that my ex was raped at work and did nothing about it. Told me the day we were breaking up and that ripped me apart. To make matters worse she started justifying his act, telling me how he was in trauma afterwards etc. Going through hell since then.

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  5. I’ve discovered betrayal for the previous 3 years. I knew something was going on but didn’t “know” (via facts) until about 5 months ago.

    I feel like at first I was devastated but yet I also feel like the adrenaline got me through the first couple of months. Now I feel like it’s REALLY getting to me. My husband is being humbled, seeking forgiveness, doing everything in his power to show me live, consideration, trust… basically anything I’m needing.
    So, why is it hurting more as time goes on and the funks it puts me in are lasting longer. I don’t know what to do, where to go from here or what to expect. I’m so tired of hurting… already and it’s just been the 5 months I mentioned. Help!

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    1. It’s been almost 4 years since I found out my husband of 23 years had been having a 2-yr-long affair with one of my best friends. Various triggers make the pain flare up occasionally, but now instead of a gaping wound it feels like a big, slowly fading bruise. Yes, I felt a huge amount of grief and loss — so many things I thought were true were not. But I’m here to tell anyone who needs a lifeline that you will recover. Heal on your own schedule, and don’t let anyone hurry you (even yourself!).

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  6. My husband cheated and comitted suicide 2 months after i found out. He only did the trickle truth. He died mid sept. So this is very painful. Then im told theres a baby involved. We were married 15 years. I have not even made it to mourning him. Im still stuck on the betrayal and deceit

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    1. Oh I’m so sorry! That leaves you with so many unanswered questions. Are you familiar with Ashlee Birk? Her story might help you feel less alone. She found out about her husband’s affair when he was murdered by his affair partner’s husband, leaving her with five children. She wrote a book about it here https://www.amazon.com/Moments-We-Stand-Silence-Breaks-ebook/dp/B00M7IUEYU/ref=sr_1_1?keywords=ashlee+birk&qid=1572193643&s=digital-text&sr=1-1 and the story was on dateline. If you google her name, you can find videos of her telling her story. She started a foundation to help people find strength after tragedy. I hope you find peace and healing.

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  7. I found out 4 months ago that my husband had been cheating on me in Thailand for years. We have been married for 37 years and separated for the last 9 years, due to my suspicions. We were in the process of reuniting and I was moving back in when I found the folder with all the pictures, emails, letters and money transfers to his girlfriend in Thailand. I was and am devastated. Even though it happened over 15 years ago, it feels as though it were yesterday. He is indifferent because it happened so long ago for him. He said he was unhappy and that was the reason. I am still in shock even though I had suspicions and had moved out. I cannot stop crying and it simply hurts. I have lost over 10 pounds due to grieving. I am humiliated and embarrassed that I was so naive. The crying just won’t stop.

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  8. Hello ….
    I had been married 48 years when my husband admitted having a short affair 34 years ago.
    I was not the first time in our early marriage he was unfaithful to me….but I had thought he told me all.
    This one 1983 came very soon after a big emotional upset with another women. I know now this would have been the final straw ….as I could not have stayed in the marriage. There has been over 30 years of fidelity since. But now I am 72 years old and have always loved my husband vey much. …we have built a good life together . We have grown sons and four wonderful grandchildren.. He is so sorry for the hurt he has caused and can’t do enough to help me heal now……but needed to tell me the truth…..
    It’s a tough life and not for the faint hearted!!,…

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