Richard Nicastro, Phd, digs into the painful experience of being betrayed in an intimate relationship, offering insights into how to move into a space of self-care and compassion.
An emotional tsunami often follows the discovery that your spouse/partner is (or was) having an affair. A psychological trauma has occurred in the form of a betrayal that can result in a wide range of psychological, emotional and physical symptoms.
The emotional distress and intensity of feelings make self-care a top priority in the affair recovery process. At the same time, it’s easy for self-care to fall by the wayside when your pain is extreme. Consider this article a gentle reminder to bring self-compassion to your journey.
The pain of discovery
Prior to finding out about the affair, you may have had suspicions that something wasn’t right — your spouse/partner may have been acting in uncharacteristic ways that raised a red flag. You might have asked him/her, “Is everything OK?” or openly wondered about a specific behavior (“Why are you suddenly taking your cell phone everywhere you go?”).
In these instances, the repeated denials by your partner can be disorienting. Your instincts are telling you that you should be concerned, while your partner might be very convincing that you have nothing to worry about. (And of course, none of us actually wants bad news, so it’s natural to want to believe the best and stop digging for the worst.)
Of the conflict caused by her own nagging questions and her husband’s insistence that she was seeing something where nothing was, one wife said: “He was making me feel like it was all in my head. I started to feel like I was going crazy… And then one day he forgot to delete his texts and everything came crashing down. Then the real pain began…”
Saving yourself (as well as the marriage/relationship)
While couples counseling can be an effective way to help couples heal from infidelity, the betrayed partner/spouse frequently needs additional support to help with the emotional upheaval caused by betrayal trauma.
Giving yourself permission to set daily intentions for self-care can go a long way in helping you through this painful period. Let’s turn our attention to ways you can prioritize your needs.
1) Giving voice to your grief
It’s not uncommon to feel like you are losing your emotional footing after the affair discovery. The life you knew is quickly lost and you can feel just as lost. It can feel like you are being swept away by intense emotional reactions (including hopelessness, despair, anger/rage, anxiety, suspiciousness, tearfulness); conflicting feelings (wanting to work on the marriage one moment, wanting to divorce the next) … these reactions seem to blindside you at times.
It’s important to know that your emotional experiences (while extremely painful) are a normal reaction to traumatic events. Grief is one of the most common and overlooked reactions to infidelity. Even if you and your partner successfully rebuild (which many couples do), the relationship you once knew is changed.
Identifying your feelings as a form of grief can help you find your emotional center when you need that center the most.
2) Are you falling down the rabbit hole of self-blame?
Long-standing self-esteem struggles can intensify after finding out your spouse/partner is/was unfaithful. The belief that you are responsible for your mate’s infidelity because you are deficient in some way is a form of self-attack that has no place in your healing.
Self-blame can be explicit or subtle. Some blame themselves for perceived inadequacies that are believed to have fueled the other’s unfaithfulness; others may now see themselves as “fools” for not having known about the affair earlier. Awareness is an important step in quieting this self-sabotaging voice.
Create self-statements (thoughts you repeat to yourself) that run counter to any thoughts of self-blame. Don’t worry if you do not fully believe these thoughts as you say them. The goal is to have a counter-balance to keep self-blame from running rampant.
3) Don’t forgo your needs
As insecurities skyrocket, it’s easy to become completely focused on your partner. The hyper-vigilance that is born out of betrayal can become all consuming: worries that your spouse is still seeing the affair partner; fears that you must preempt future infidelities by meeting all your partner’s needs in order to make him/her happy.
In these instances, the danger is that you contort yourself (completely forgoing your own needs) in an effort to save your marriage/relationship. This approach isn’t the fix it might appear to be, and in fact, it is detrimental to your wellbeing and the health of your relationship.
Don’t forget to pay attention to your needs and make a self-care plan.
4) Hit the pause button on major decisions (for now)
When our emotions are running high, we’re more likely to make extreme decisions, decisions we may later regret. Many struggle with whether to end their relationship or work to see if a healthy relationship can be re-created. Your immediate thought might be to leave your partner, which may be a knee-jerk reaction arising from the depths of pain.
Some have decided to retaliate in some fashion, for instance, outing the unfaithful partner to friends and family or having their own affair. Many who look back realize that they were being impulsive, acting out of hurt and anger rather than their core values.
Rash choices can undermine an underlying intention to work on the relationship.
(Note: you shouldn’t delay decisions about leaving an abusive relationship.)
5) Don’t go it alone (the isolating impact of shame)
It’s easy to think that an affair happens only to highly dysfunctional marriages/relationships or to those who have no moral code. But the truth is, infidelity also happens to so-called happy marriages.
You might feel humiliated that your spouse/partner cheated — ashamed that it happened to you. These feelings can prevent you from reaching out to a trusted family member, friend, or even a mental health professional who specializes in affair recovery. Finding the support you need can be challenging (for instance, your friend is telling you that you should leave your husband while you are committed to working on your marriage); but when you find the support you need, it can be essential to making it through this difficult time.
Frequently, couples feel hopeless after the turmoil caused by an affair. But with time, effort, and a plan, rebuilding is possible. I’ve seen this firsthand in my counseling work with couples.
What I want to stress today is that the pain of the betrayed partner needs its own attention.
Use the above five points to help move into greater self-care and compassion. The intensity of your pain reflects the love you have for your partner. As you work on making sense of the whirlwind that is now upending your life, remember to give to yourself — a heightened self-care that, over time, will begin to help you find your emotional center.5