By Mara Katz LCSW-C
Trauma is characterized by events that overwhelm “normal” or relied upon coping strategies and is worsened by a sense of isolation. No one is prepared to learn that their intimate partner has been unfaithful and, in spite of fantasies about how we would respond in such a situation, the reality is much more complicated. Infidelity tends to be so outside of our expectations of our partners or frame of reference, something that happens in movies or to other people, that we often don’t know how to respond. While not physically unsafe, the disclosure of an affair creates a sense of emotional unsafety and may challenge a person’s sense of identity and place in the world.
Learning of an affair might prompt a “fight, flight, or freeze” response with the impulse to be to lash out, to separate, or do nothing. This may also be complicated by social pressures or family culture that suggest there is a “right” way to respond, which is contrary to the impulse itself. Hearing friends or family members declare, “I would never stay with someone who cheated,” may be confusing when the reality is complicated by children, shared finances, history, and a genuine love and affection. Religious teachings that encourage “forgiveness” may contradict intense angry feelings and impulses to lash out and hurt.
The trauma of learning that your partner has engaged in an affair is crazy making. Mixed in with the feelings of betrayal, aloneness, and confusion is the damaged trust. Obviously, one’s trust in their partner is damaged, but also the trust in oneself to be able to read cues, to recognize signs, and to respond to signs. Perhaps you knew something wasn’t right, but explained it away as your imagination or your partner’s stress in other areas of life. Maybe you identified a new pattern of behavior, but found your partner’s explanation to be reasonable or satisfactory. Sometimes, it’s just a “gut” feeling that gets pushed to the side or written off as “just me being insecure.” In some cases, there may be no indication that anything was wrong. When worst fears materialize into reality, it doesn’t simply damage trust between partners, it calls into question one’s ability to trust themselves.
Humiliation, isolation, and fear may drive a person to uncharacteristic behaviors that are consistent with acute stress reactions. Intrusive thoughts and memories are common as one replays scenarios that they thought had one meaning, but now have another. Ruminations about what might have been happening in the past or what might be happening now dominate the relationship and even the most mundane interactions lead to emotional flooding, on both sides, and bitter conflict. Shame that others might judge the choice to stay (or leave) increase the sense of isolation. Guilt, the belief that “I must have done something” to cause the affair, creates a dynamic that makes it difficult to express feelings. Anger at the unfairness of the situation can lead to feeling out of control.
There is no “right” way to respond to infidelity in a relationship. There is no intuitive knowing about what to do or when to do it. Healing, whether within the relationship or outside of it, is painful and scary. It is also possible. Developing skills and strategies to reduce emotional flooding, to contain intrusive thoughts and feelings, and to tolerate and express painful feelings can help in the journey to understand the meaning the infidelity has for the individual. With improved understanding of the meaning of the event comes a clearer path forward. Individual psychotherapy prior to or concurrent with couples therapy can be immensely helpful in navigating this painful terrain.