I talk to people about relationships for a living. At least for the last 15 years I have. So I decided to write a little bit about the greatest pain a relationship can face: an Affair.
An affair feels like a broken heart, a slap in the face, a rug pulled from underneath you, the biggest uncertainty you’ve ever felt; it also feels like anger and rage. One minute you are ready to hurt or shame your partner, the next minute your heart is broken, and the minute after that you are terrified to face what this could mean for your future, for your kids and family and friends.
An affair in the relationship almost always looks and feels like trauma for both parties involved. I know, you are probably thinking why is this traumatic for the one that betrayed, but trust me, I have seen it so many times that I believe it is and I will explain.
So let’s talk about the trauma of the betrayed person
First: You will be in shock, your body will be hot and cold, your stomach will ache, you might throw up, and your body will shake. Then Disbelief sets in. “How could this be?” You had no idea or you did have an idea and this feels like a confirmation – “now I don’t feel stupid,” “I knew something was off, but I didn’t know it could be this bad.”
Second: Your brain, at lightning speed, is going to try to figure out what this means and all the details. You may be flooded with questions for your partner: Did you love the affair partner? If so, how much did you love them? Did you tell them? Did you have sex? What kind of sex? How many times? Are you leaving me? Were you going to leave me? Will you leave me for the affair partner?
Third: Your brain wants the timeline: When did this start? What day was it? When did you see each other? Where was I? Did you wear our wedding ring?
Fourth: You feel a pressure to take a stance. It’s clear your stance is against the affair but what now? Do you stay and work things out? Do you leave and start over? Then fear and anger sets in – fear because staying could be just as hard as leaving and anger because you never asked for this. But it doesn’t matter now; you have to fix it together. I know, I said together. Even though the betrayer should do most of the fixing, you know you are going to have to do it together. This is incredibly frustrating and unfair.
These are just a few of the reactions people have and I could write about this for a long time, so if you are interested in learning more, please let me know via private message and I will write about it.
The one who Betrayed is also going to be traumatized
When I talk about trauma of the person who betrayed, I’m not suggesting that they self-inflicted trauma through having an affair. They are most likely traumatized by the D-day, the day when the affair is discovered and they are faced with the consequences of a broken, angry partner or spouse. Because somehow the brain never contemplates that someone will find out and once they find out, all hell breaks loose.
D-day: On D-day (discovery day), there will be lots of panic. What do I tell? How much do I tell? I hate seeing how much I hurt you. Maybe I shouldn’t tell you everything because I will hurt you more. Omg we might not make it; you might leave me over this. You might feel like you have no idea what to do, constantly trying to assess how detrimental this might be to your life, your partner’s life, to the kids, family, and friends.
Shame and Guilt: Then Shame sets in: what have I done? I’m a terrible person, an idiot, a selfish person to hate. I hate myself for this
The shame alone can be traumatizing and combined with the fear of the relationship being over any second, will create a great deal of avoidance to talk about the affair later.
Every time the affair comes up the person who betrayed will feel not only the shame but also the fear that because they messed up the and relationship could be over.
Fear: Now here is a fascinating thing that happens: Because of all the shame and fear experienced by the person who betrayed, all or most positive memories of the affair partner get overridden with shame and fear. I know this is hard to believe, but when they think about the affair partner they feel disgusted, believe me it does happen, but only if they are afraid that the relationship could end.
And now what?
Live your Truth
For the betrayed partner
Don’t, please don’t, feel like you have to decide on the future in this moment or any time soon. Take your time! I always say to myself and all my clients; When you are overwhelmed do not think of solutions or the future. All you have to do is to get through the moment until you don’t feel the crushing pain. Your truth will be clear as day with time. You will figure out if you will stay or go, but be patient with yourself.
For the partner who betrayed
If you don’t know what your truth is, it’s ok to say that. Even though this seems terrifying, if you lie about your commitment, you are risking double betrayal. So, if you are not 100% sure about your commitment to ending the affair, take a risk and believe that your partner wants the truth, even when it hurts.
It’s okay to be vulnerable
For the betrayed partner
Being vulnerable is who you have been with your partner. Do not shame yourself if you feel like you miss, need, and depend on your partner. Be accepting of yourself and all your emotions. You are not weak to need your partner!
For the partner who betrayed
Be emotionally available! You are also scared and sad and grieving the loss of the relationship and maybe the loss of the affair relationship. (however please seek therapy to talk about missing the affair relationship). Don’t hold back your sadness, grief, guilt, and shame. Your partner needs to see that you are also overwhelmed.
The less you feel alone the more you can function.
Consider Marriage counseling
If both parties reach an agreement about staying committed to their relationship and the affair has ended, marriage counseling can be extremely helpful. Your therapist should be skilled at helping you express your feelings and helping you to listen and understand your partner’s emotional experience. You won’t go back to the way it was, but you can build something new and stronger than ever.
Darina Alban LCSW-C and Mara Katz LCSW-C