The Immediate Aftermath
Disclosure shock is a universal reaction to the betrayal of infidelity. Even suspicious partners are devastated when their worst fears are confirmed. Being betrayed by someone you have trusted feels like a mortal injury. Clearly, it matters how you find out that you have been betrayed. Finding out the truth from a remorseful partner is quite different from being forced into hiring a detective to uncover the truth after months of unanswered questions.
At the time of discovery, each partner reacts strongly but differently. Injured partners need to know that the affair will be stopped. They also need to know that all of their questions will be answered. Involved partners can also be in a place of profound suffering: Their lives are in shambles; they’re caught in what feels like a no-win situation; they cannot escape the pain they’ve caused; and they now know that they must relinquish either the affair or the marriage. Their double life has crashed and burned.
The involved partner may respond to the revelation with complete honesty, staggered disclosures, or stonewalling. Even if the straying partner eventually comes clean, earlier denials or partial truths hinder healing and recovery. Dragged-out admissions are like driving long distances on a flat tire. Quick attention gets you back on the road fast, but delaying the repair after a blowout can cause irreparable damage to the wheel and axle. Immediate honesty is the best way to rebuild trust.
The betrayed partner may respond to the revelation with tears, numbness, or rage.
When tempers are escalating, call a time-out to avoid further scarring. Make an appointment with each other to talk about the issue when you have both calmed down. Don’t just walk out without saying something. You can say, “I am ready to explode. I don’t want to make things worse than they already are, so I am going to go for a walk. Let’s table this discussion for later, when we’ve both cooled down.” Don’t follow your partner if he or she is trying to do some damage control. Regard withdrawal as a strategy that can help the relationship at this time rather than as an avoidance maneuver.
The whole thing seemed unreal. I woke up every morning and couldn’t believe that it wasn’t just a bad dream. I don’t know how I’ll ever feel safe again.
If there were a Richter scale for emotional earthquakes, the discovery of an affair would register at the outermost end of the dial. Some people manage to recover quickly; the majority, however, feel as if they have been hit by a seismic event in a part of the country where there has never been one before. They are not prepared for the tremor that knocks them off their feet and destroys their home life. In the first minutes and hours after the revelation of infidelity, emotions are out of control.
In the immediate days and weeks that follow, the betrayed partner, the unfaithful partner, and the affair partner are overwhelmed by their enormous losses.
- The injured partner has lost the positive image of his or her life partner and the assurance of a secure, committed relationship.
- The involved partner has lost his or her secret love nest and faces the potential loss of marriage and family.
- The affair partner has lost the romantic cocoon and, usually, the dream of living forever with the lover.
All three are miserable in different ways. Because being deceived is not the same as being a deceiver, however, the betrayed partner is the one who is traumatized and can’t imagine how he or she will ever become whole again.
Reactions of Betrayed Partners
Even when people think they are prepared for bad news, hearing the worst sends a jolt of adrenaline into the body that sets off a stress reaction. All the body’s systems are aroused, and they stay aroused for a very long time. Skin prickles, muscles tense, and reactions are hair-trigger. The body responds as though danger were in every hushed voice and every ringing telephone.
Irritability and Aggression
Every potential irritation is magnified. The “pea under the mattress” is as big as a rock. The music on the radio makes you want to scream. The baby’s fussing feels like an insidious campaign of harassment. Driving becomes a war game, where only the speedy and aggressive survive.
Throwing an object across the room or pounding a fist is not unusual after the revelation is first made. These angry gestures may be a way to express rage without being physically abusive. However, you must take any threats of violence seriously. If you are afraid or if you suffer any actual physical assaults, you must have a safety plan or request police intervention. I have treated individuals who have had to remove guns from the house to keep them from killing themselves or someone else.
Homicidal fantasies by the betrayed spouse are more often directed toward the lover than the unfaithful spouse.
Some people are numb before the revelation because they have turned off their sensors and become oblivious to suspicious signs. Others go numb after the revelation.
Marilee went numb when she first heard her husband’s confession. She felt turned to stone. She was aware of what was happening, but from a distance. She took in the information without color or feeling, struck dumb by the enormity of the betrayal. She was protected, at least for a time, from a pain that was too difficult to bear.
Betrayed partners commonly review over and over again the period in their life during which the affair was possibly taking place. As soon as they lie down to sleep, they are flooded with images, memories, and unanswered questions. They need to escape, but the whole surreal pageant parades across their vision. During the daytime, they get out calendars and review dates, looking for the missing parts, trying to make sense of what happened in light of their new knowledge. They try to figure out what was going on in their perceived life and how that coordinates with what was going on in the double life.
Sleeping offered Janet little relief. She had a recurring dream of being abandoned and alone that woke her up, sweating with panic. She recounted scenes of her husband, Jim, avoiding family gatherings and working on evenings and weekends. She found it hard to grasp the reality that he had shared his heart and his body with another woman.
The deluge of questions immediately following the revelation seldom satisfies the need to know. Betrayed partners turn into Grand Inquisitors in the weeks and months that follow, until they believe that they have uncovered all of the secrets and lies. It can be terribly difficult for the betrayed partner to show constraint; most want to know everything right now. The midnight interrogation leaves both partners exhausted.
After confronting Jim with evidence of his four-year affair, Janet had, in rapid succession, locked him out of the bedroom and then insisted that he make love to her. Afterward, she felt guilty about having sex with him; she didn’t understand that her conflicted feelings were going to alternate between needing reassurance from him that he’d never leave her and wanting to kick him out immediately.
Malcolm told me that when his wife told him she was in love with someone else, he felt as if he was going to pass out. Then he told her he didn’t believe it. Then he felt stupid for not figuring it out sooner, and finally he felt so humiliated he wanted to hide. Soon he was out of control with fury. He would cycle through all these emotions (and others besides) over and over again for months.
Reactions of Unfaithful Partners
The immediate reactions of the unfaithful partner in the initial hours after revelation may either transform or solidify as the early weeks and months go by. Defensiveness can turn into openness or persist and become aggression. Ambivalence can turn into clarity or persist and become chronic confusion.
As the implications of the situation become clear, even those who believed they had found their true soul mate are jolted back to reality. It is as though a switch has been flipped and full attention and energy is channeled back into the marriage. I’ve observed individuals panic about losing the spouse they had been planning to leave for the perfect relationship. Once the illusion is burst, reality returns.
Over time, the fantasy bubble deflates even more if the affair partner acts with impatience and self- interest.
Some unfaithful partners understand the need for the betrayed partner’s ongoing quest for concrete proof of the affair. Others turn on their partner and attack as though snooping were an offense worse than infidelity. One man, whose wife read his incriminating e-mail correspondence, turned on her in a rage. He threatened her with divorce if she ever questioned him or checked up on him again.
Ambivalent partners may want to do the right thing and make amends, but they don’t want to reveal too much about the modus operandi—how they managed to carry off the deception. They are frustrated by the constant hammering for details and searching for clues. They feel smothered by the lack of privacy and personal freedom. When a period of indecision is followed by a commitment, unfaithful partners may feel that they should be welcomed back with open arms. I call this the “Hi, Hon. I’m back” maneuver. It’s not uncommon to hear, “I said I’m sorry. Why do you have to keep bringing up the past? I’m here now, aren’t I? Why can’t we go back to the way things were before? I told you it didn’t mean anything.”
Although it is quite painful for the betrayed partner to witness the involved partner’s sadness regarding the end of the affair, grief can be seen as evidence that the illicit relationship is really over. Most often, the involved spouse is dealing with complex and heartrending issues. It is not uncommon for involved partners to feel shame, loss, and the fear that there is no light at the end of the tunnel.
They are forced to ask some frightening questions:
- Will I lose my spouse and my marriage?
- Will I lose my affair partner and our romantic odyssey?
- If we stay together, will my spouse ever let me forget?
- Can I ever feel as good with my spouse as I did with my lover?
If you’re the unfaithful partner, you know that having an affair is both agony and ecstasy. It may have been the most exciting and meaningful thing that has ever happened to you—and the worst.
Now that it is exposed, you are probably dumbstruck by how an innocent, life-enriching friendship could ever have turned into such a nightmare. You face a terrible loss with no social support and a lot of social disapproval. Because society at large disapproves of infidelity and frowns on the self- centeredness associated with cheating, the involved partner does not receive much sympathy for his or her unhappiness. More than once, I have heard unfaithful partners lament, “Can’t you see that this is hard on me, too?”
It is important to acknowledge your feelings of loss, loneliness, depression and so on. You did cheat. But you are also a human being longing for emotional connection with another human. If you don’t acknowledge your own personal loss, then you risk becoming overwhelmed with both the loneliness of not having a partner to connect with you in the way you desire, the guilt of having an affair, and the challenge of working on recovering your broken relationship. Life is tough for you right now. You’re not expecting sympathy, but you still need love and connection.
As you most probably have nobody to turn to right now, the best suggestion I have for you is to acknowledge your own feelings to yourself. Don’t try and deny your feelings of missing the other woman or other man. You do miss them. You do miss the way they they made you feel. You just realize that the affair relationship was a mistake (hopefully), and you truly wish to work on your marriage (I hope). As you work on your marriage, and your marriage environment improves, then your grieving for the lost relationship will subside. If you ignore your feelings, you will not be in reality with the moment and may resort back into connecting with the other person. This is NEVER a good idea.
- Reactions of Unmarried Affair Partners
- Why Some People Are More Traumatized Than Others