“I love you! I hate you! Hold me! Don’t touch me! Take your shit and get out! Don’t leave me! You scumbag! Do you still love me? Fuck you! Fuck me!”
This is how Esther Perel describes some of the contradictory emotions that betrayed partners may feel in the aftermath of the discovery of their partner’s affair. Something of a rollercoaster of emotions, going up and down, often in quick succession. In her book ‘The State of Affairs’ she highlights that affairs bring us face to face with some very volatile and opposing forces of passion for both partners:
“The lure, the lust, the urgency, the love and its impossibility, the relief, the entrapment, the guilt, the heartbreak, the sinfulness, the surveillance, the madness of suspicion, the murderous urge to get even, the tragic denouement…addressing these issues requires a willingness to descend into a labyrinth of irrational forces”
Every infidelity is different and every experience of betrayal is unique and nuanced. Affairs vary significantly in their context, duration, meaning and motives. There are however some typical consequences of infidelity and broad principles that can be useful in the process of recovery.
Shirley Glass uses the language of trauma to describe the impact of the revelation of infidelity on the betrayed partner:
“People who have just found out about a partner’s affair may react as if they have been viciously attacked. Where they formerly felt safe, they now feel threatened. In an instant their assumptions about the world have been shattered. Commonly, they become obsessed with the details of the affair, having trouble eating and sleeping, and feel powerless to control their emotions, especially anxiety and grief, which can be overwhelming”
Esther Perel argues that part of the trauma is that infidelity highjacks both our sense of the future, but also of our memory of the past, which is one of our most important psychic structures. She argues that in that moment of discovery, the betrayed partner loses a coherent narrative – they are robbed of their story. Perel argues that many of the common trauma symptoms from infidelity, such as flashbacks, interrogations, circular ruminations and hypervigilence are the consequences of a life so fractured that it can’t simply be pieced back together.
At a time of crisis – there is often no shortage of advice from friends and family. As we explored in part one of this blog there are some very strong cultural narratives around infidelity and this often feeds into the advice, which is well intentioned, but can be unhelpful.
For many people the point of discovering an affair is a moment of clarity that sometimes surprises them – this could be clarity that the relationship must end or maybe that they really want to fight for it. The professional wisdom would be not to rush to set anything in stone at this point. This is particularly important as during this period of crisis and trauma, feelings about your partner and the prospects for the future are likely to vacillate. Shirley Glass advices that even if you decide to immediately separate, then you should try to wait at least three months before making any final decisions.
Glass argues that at this point the only question is about whether you can commit to working on the relationship – to commit to a process of grieving and healing, even if ultimately you do not stay together. She argues that it is very important that this is an active rather than a passive decision. The most important indicator as to the level of eventual healing –whether that is ultimately together or apart – is the level of commitment from both partners to work on the relationship and the process of recovery.
Part of this process is what she refers to as opening windows inside the relationship and putting up walls with the affair partner. The ultimate wall is that all contact and communication with the affair partner has to stop.
Phase one of the process focuses on honest and full disclosure. It is going to cover the myriad of questions that the betrayed partner needs answers to – the who, what, where, when, how and how long questions? Perel argues that many affairs get buried under a mountain of shame and mistrust. To prevent this it is really important that honesty is encouraged from both sides – that the unfaithful partner is fully open in answering all their partner’s questions about the details of the affair (*) and that the betrayed partner is able to fully express their feelings about it. Honesty is now the only way to undo the legacy of deception and lies.
Glass argues that one of the particular challenges is that it requires the unfaithful partner to become an agent of healing – they have to engage, to move towards the pain and to offer comfort. This calls on them to dig deep and stay with the traumatic reactions of their partner and sit with their pain. It is often challenging for them to watch their partner’s suffering and to give them the time and space needed to grieve, particularly when they know that they are the cause of that suffering.
Perel argues that at this stage all of the compassion needs to flow towards the betrayed partner and the unfaithful partner needs to try to focus on listening and empathy. The key response is going to be the expression of guilt and remorse, rather than shame and self pity.
In the second phase of recovery, attention switches to the why questions – to the meanings, motives and even the demons behind the affair. Perel argues that untangling such meanings is vital since it sets the stage for the decisions that will follow in the re-building stage of the recovery.
It is often assumed that behind an affair is either a troubled relationship or a troubled person. Whilst in many cases this holds to be true, it is also the case that infidelity often occurs in relationships where there are no serious pre-existing relational problems. Sometimes the affair is more about the status of the unfaithful partner than it is about the relationship itself – whether that’s a crisis of identity, a form of self discovery, the search for an un-lived life or a reconnection with a lost part of themselves. Other times the affair might be a search for something beyond the relationship – something transgressive, something explorative, a different type of connection. Esther Perel explores some of the wider meanings and motives behind affairs in her TED talk.
Here attention turns to the future of the relationship and a commitment is being made to start afresh. Perel argues that at this point the couple have to decide to put their old relationship behind them and start a new one with the same partner! This is the time for going back to basics and exploring a range of building blocks to a good relationship:
At this point I am going to give a shameless plug for our One:Retreat days and weekends since these are exactly the themes that we explore during our sessions. We have helped many couples who have come to us at this point in their relationship wanting to start again.
It is important that through the recovery process the betrayed partner feels a sense of justice. Esther Perel argues that the type of justice is important here and that there is a difference between retributive justice and restorative justice. The former seeks only punishment but the later engages in repair. One of the key principles of restorative justice is to develop an empathetic understanding, by both the perpetrator and the victim, of each other’s experiences. Indeed, Shirley Glass argues that the goal of the restorative process is for both partners to understand the infidelity through each other’s eyes.
Is forgiveness ever possible? Well Glass argues that whilst forgiveness is not a precondition for recovery, it is essential for healing. She suggests that it is not a single event but rather a gradual process of increasing compassion and reducing resentment. It is something that happens at the end and not the beginning of the journey! She argues that it is important to understand that forgiveness does not mean forgetting; it does not mean excusing the behaviour; and it certainly does not mean giving permission for further betrayal. She suggests that it is both a choice and a gift, but that it will ultimately come with a number of benefits -both for psychological and physical well being. Most importantly she argues that it is a process that enables the betrayed partner to transition from being a victim to being a survivor!
(*) it is important to guard against questions that might elicit images or content that might be unhelpful in the longer term – for example detailed descriptions of the intricacies of the sexual relationship.