When an infidelity comes to light, it is usually accompanied by trauma, and is described as something that can be psychologically damaging as a result of extreme stress or threat. Time stops and one or both parties are frozen even if it’s only for the briefest time before the harsh realisation of the discovery sets in. Unfortunately, it is not something that is likely to be ‘got over’ quickly and for a long period afterward, the trauma may be experienced again and again in moments where the betrayed party is thrown back into the pain, for example, by seeing something on TV, a beep from the phone or an innocent remark.
Even if the infidelity was suspected, there will be some doubt lurking as a form of protection from what can be a very painful reality. When reality presents itself that, yes indeed, their partner has been having a relationship (sexual, emotional or both) with someone else, initially there may be a desire to pretend it never happened. They might say: “I’m okay, we’re okay’” but most will at some point begin to unravel emotionally and fall apart. Although there may be initial feelings such as numbness and they feel like they’re coping, once the anesthetic wears off, it is often replaced by anger/rage, fear/anxiety, depression, hopelessness, and/or relief.
Dealing with the fallout
It’s hard to cope, to think of anything but what has happened – can’t sleep, can’t eat and obsess about the infidelity. There may be an urgency to talk about it all the time, asking “Why? How? When? Where?” Yet nothing will satisfy or bring any peace. The “betrayer” may become frustrated and start avoiding the conversations or telling the minimal truth so as not to cause any deeper hurt. They may well be carrying huge guilt even if it is masked by blaming the other– “you weren’t that interested in me so I went elsewhere”. It is a very difficult time for both.
The betrayed party may feel huge rage, a kind of anger they have never experienced before and they are horrified even if they feel it is justified. Many betrayed partners will still be in love and may be slow to show anger because they fear losing the relationship and that would just be too unbearable. They hope they can work through it and everything will be back to normal again. The truth? It may sound very harsh, but frankly that old relationship is now gone. If a decision is made to stay together, the relationship have will be different to what was before, because the old relationship didn’t work well enough for at least one of you.
There are many reasons why people look outside their primary relationship but broadly speaking one or both will have stopped investing in each other emotionally, physically and or/sexually and there may be unresolved fear, hurt and/or anger between them and the relationship is just not meeting their needs. Fear of intimacy and commitment can manifest itself in infidelity (and this can include problematic behaviour with porn).
Can a relationship be rebuilt?
Many of my own clients over the years have admitted that, in hindsight, if they had known the damage it would cause, they would not have been unfaithful, even if they had been unhappy leading up to it. Some relationships will not recover, yet I often hear their strong undertones of guilt from both parties i.e. that they could have tried harder or they feel terrible for the hurt they have caused to the other, etc.
For those who stay together and give their relationship a second chance, they may remember this time as a wake-up call. Life does get in the way of love and couples begin to take each other for granted. Feeling ignored, dismissed, disrespected and unloved provides fertile ground for infidelity.
The bottom line with infidelity is that trust has been destroyed and anxiety becomes very familiar to the couple. It is a long road back with many symptoms of trauma taking at least nine months to recede. Some relationships will end, but those that do and where the couple have honestly faced what has happened, end up having a better relationship than before. It has given them a chance to deepen their understanding of each other and figure out the relationship they want for the future.
Finally, as a couple counsellor, I would recommend anyone who is going through this to get professional help, whether you go by yourself or with your partner. It is one of those problems that is particularly complex, where emotions are heightened and is particularly tough to work through on your own.