When an affair is discovered, a relationship is changed forever. Two people are grieving different things at different times and the world seems to go into a tailspin. Partners who have the affair have their own list of challenges and I will reserve those challenges for another post. This post is about how the very identity of the betrayed partner is shaken to the core.
There must be something wrong with me.
Betrayed partners (at varying levels) will internalize the affair as an insult to who they are and what they provided to the relationship. "If I were younger, more attractive, more attentive"; the list goes on and on. This partner will put their very being under a microscope to extract some kind of meaning out of what they are going through. Most will blame themselves, some only for a short while until the anger sets in. Others may carry that blame for years.
The betrayed partner is trying to make sense of this somehow. The research and my experience with counseling couples recovering from infidelity teaches in most relationships the answer is much more complex than simply lost attraction. Even some of most desirable people in the world have been cheated on.
Post-Traumatic Stress Symptoms Betrayed partners seem to experience a form of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder in many ways. They may experience:
This is a traumatic experience. Trauma is a highly stressful event that is emotionally overwhelming and exhausts a person's ability to cope. This is our brain and body's way to manage risk for re-injury and to regulate emotion.
Crisis of Identity and Loss of Trust in Many Facets of Life
To extend the understanding of the crisis in identity, many betrayed partners will ask: "What does this mean to the world around me?" . They lose trust in themselves to understand the world around them. They lose trust in their partner's love and fidelity. They also lose trust in the "realness" of the world around them. "If I didn't know this, what else is there I don't know?"
Many betrayed partners have to find a new place to put their identity, because the person or relationship they put it in is not as it seems. They are faced with the potential of no longer being part of a couple, and perhaps explaining to other people why the couple split. If they stay, the betrayed partner must contend with the embarrassment of this decision; even if only few people know. The person they were bonded to is not who they thought and the wake of that shock can spread to many (if not all) other aspects of life.
Finding Hope in a Dire Situation
Knowing that this event does not have to permanently define who you are is key. It also does not define your relationship. Affairs are such a taboo subject that statistics vary widely; between 30-60% of all marriages will experience infidelity. It is very likely that you know someone who has survived this. Getting support is key to recovery. For some support is reading books, others it is talking with a pastor or trusted friend. Most couples who are trying to stay together find a trusted therapist to assist them. The most important key to recovery is understanding that you must work to recover. Many couples are able to rebuild after an affair and emerge stronger and better than ever before. Some are better apart. Working toward recovery will help BOTH partners decide if they will be better together or on their own; but better is possible.