Written by: Caitlin Edwards
I consistently work with couples coming in for therapy because of infidelity. In my experience, this is one of the most painful reasons to seek couples therapy, no matter if the affair was ten years or ten days ago. I am frequently asked the same question: “is my reaction normal?” As such, it feels important to me to name what is normal for couples coming in because of this painful discovery.
Reactions of the betrayed partners
Learning about infidelity can result in a response like a physical attack: our entire nervous system gets brought online and we can experience a very strong visceral response. Often, the nervous system stays online until we can begin to feel safe again. A consequence of this is that any trigger or cue for the affair can feel like we are learning about it all over again—which is why that bodily response to their cellphone vibrating continues to occur. As our entire nervous system is online, we may experience the common ‘fight, flight, or freeze’ continuously.
Many betrayed partners experience increased anger and irritability—and for good reason. They have been betrayed. The agreements they thought they had about their relationship appear null and void. As such, they may react with intense anger to what used to be small things. These small things can build and build until the partner explodes in anger or there can be a constant level of anger and irritation. Another way of ‘fighting’ is to constantly interrogate or demand knowledge from the unfaithful partner. All of this is normal.
However, just because it is normal does not it mean it is healthy for either the individual or the relationship. While anger can be a just emotion in this scenario, anger that results in physical or emotional damage is not. While it can feel necessary to interrogate the betraying partner, this interrogation rarely results in being soothed. It is more likely that both partners will end up feeling exhausted and struggling to come closer together.
Some betrayed partners leave immediately. It as though some signal has gone off that says ‘no I cannot stay here and confront this overwhelming pain.’ While it may make sense for the betrayed partner to have some space to process and organize their experience alone, leaving for too long does not allow for partners to process and organize the experience together.
Freeze often comes in the form of emotional numbing. The pain of learning about an affair can be devastating and, for some partners, it makes sense to not feel the pain rather than move through it. Emotional numbing can look different, but often comes in the form of distraction. Some people dive into work, others into video games, and still others into planning what their life will look like without the betraying partner. While freeze does offer some protection from the emotional pain, freeze also halts the ability to understand, process, and transition through the pain.
Reactions of unfaithful partners
Just as there are common reactions from the betrayed partners, there are common reactions from unfaithful partners. While we do not experience the discovery of the infidelity in the same way, we often struggle alongside our betrayed partners.
Some unfaithful partners experience the need to defend their actions, whether that be the initial reason for the affair, or their need to stop by the gas station on the way home and not arriving at the exact time they intended. It can be hard to confront how one’s actions have impacted another. And the need to consistently provide proof and/or answer to the affair can build resentment or defensiveness. This is normal and can be worked through.
One of the most common reactions I see is impatience. Many partners who are unfaithful want to ‘move on’ quickly and struggle to understand why their partner is still caught up in learning about the affair. It makes sense that the unfaithful partner who is recommitted to the relationship wants to move past it quickly; whether intentional or not, there is pain involved and it can be hard to truly look at the reasons for the affair and what is needed to repair the relationship.
While grief over the affair is common, it is one of the hardest aspects for the betrayed partner to understand. Grief is valid. Affairs often occur for a reason and often meet a need that may not be met elsewhere. As such, it is important to acknowledge your grief and have time to organize your experience around it. Grieving the loss of the affair is normal and can also be worked through.
Learning about an infidelity can be incredibly difficult. Often, partners struggle to feel like their relationship is a stable and secure place. Both individual and couples therapy can help to rebuild that safety and security, establish agreements that make sense for both partners, and heal fractured relationships.
For more information on our services, click here: Infidelity Therapy