Getting Past the Affair
A Program to Help You Cope, Heal, and Move Onâ"Together or Apart
By Douglas K. Snyder, Donald H. Baucom, Kristina Coop Gordon
The Guilford Press Copyright © 2007 The Guilford Press
All rights reserved.
WHAT'S HAPPENING TO US?
"It's been three weeks since I found out. In some ways, it feels like it just happened, and at the same time it feels like this is going on forever. I've cried all the tears that I can cry, but then I find myself closing the door at work because I'm about to break down again. I lie in bed alone at night unable to sleep although I'm exhausted; in my mind I see my husband with her, and I think I'm going to throw up. I know I'm jumpy and irritable, and the kids must think I've turned into a monster. I can't concentrate, and I'm forgetting things at home and at work. We talk, we avoid each other—it doesn't matter. Nothing's working. One minute I want to kick him out of the house for what he's done; the next moment I want him to hold me and make it go away. I don't trust him about anything anymore—I even started checking his cell phone bills and his e-mails to see if he's contacting her again. This isn't the man I married. I've lost my sense of security; nothing fits together anymore."
What's Going On with Me?
If you've just learned that your partner has had an affair, you're struggling with one of the most traumatic experiences a person can face. (If you're the person who had the affair, you're also struggling, and we'll talk about that later in the chapter.) There are all kinds of traumatic events—from floods or plane crashes to infidelity. Any of these can be overwhelming. But natural disasters and mechanical failure are unintentional and typically unavoidable. A partner's affair results from deliberate decisions by your partner —the one person who's supposed to love and care for you, protect you from the rest of the world, and treat you with respect, dignity, and honesty. For many people, few betrayals can be more hurtful and disruptive.
Understanding the impact of traumatic events and how most people recover from them can help you develop a larger picture of what's happening to you and your partner and what's likely to happen to you both in the future. So, first, what is a traumatic event?
* A trauma is a major negative event or set of events that destroys important assumptions or fundamental beliefs about the world or specific people—in this case, your partner and your relationship.
Traumatic events disrupt all parts of your life—your thoughts, feelings, and behaviors.
You assumed that your relationship would be safe and that your well-being would be uppermost in your partner's mind, both when you were together and when you were apart. You trusted that your partner valued you and your relationship. You expected honesty—that no large parts of your partner's life would be hidden from you. Finally, you expected your partner to honor commitments you made to each other—whether stated out loud or just understood. Most likely one of those commitments involved reserving certain behaviors for the two of you—specifically, sexual or intimate behavior and sharing of certain information or feelings. When those commitments are violated, we feel violated ourselves.
Why does the dashing of those assumptions hit us so hard? Because we all rely on certain assumptions to get through the day with minimal effort. When your partner tells you something, you don't want to have to stop and evaluate whether it's the truth. If your partner comes home late, you don't want to wonder whether the meeting really ran late or have to check up on where he or she was. And if you think your partner was unfair about something, you want the freedom to get upset or express your anger without having to worry that you'll be left for someone else. Your assumptions about your partner and your relationship make your life together safe and predictable. When they're shattered, you're thrown off balance, disoriented and unsure of how to get your bearings.
The effects of this trauma take a variety of forms, some of them surprising, in your thoughts, feelings, and behavior. Can you identify with any of the common reactions listed in the box on page 12? We'll go into more detail on them in the following pages, because understanding these reactions is critical. (Exercise 1.1 at the end of this chapter can assist you in this.) Your partner's affair doesn't just violate the mutual commitment to reserving sex and romantic love for each other. It calls into question every other assumption about your partner and your relationship: "If you lied about this, what else are you lying about? If you're going to do what you want without regard for me even in this most intimate part of our life, are you just going to do whatever you want in other areas too?"
When important assumptions are violated in one aspect of your relationship, the whole relationship can be thrown out of balance. That's why you might feel the way so many people struggling with a partner's affair feel:
"I feel like the rug has been pulled out from under me. I don't believe anything anymore."
"I've lost my bearings. I'm totally confused and disoriented."
"I don't know my partner anymore. This just isn't the person I thought I married. How could this happen?"
You may start questioning your assumptions about yourself as well:
"How could I be such a fool? I can't trust my own judgment anymore."
"How could I miss seeing it? I think some of my friends were trying to warn me, but I just wouldn't listen."
"Did I fall short as a partner? Did I get so busy and distracted that I didn't see what I was doing? What was wrong with me?"
Research indicates that people are at high risk for developing significant depression and anxiety after experiencing a betrayal such as an affair, just as they would after any significant loss. Affairs bring about many losses—loss of safety and predictability, loss of dreams for your relationship and perhaps for your future, loss of innocence, loss of trust. These are on top of the loss of something special and unique that you two shared exclusively: sex, romance, and your innermost thoughts and feelings.
You might experience a wide range of other negative feelings as well, from anger to anxiety and fear or even guilt. Anger is a common reaction to believing you've been treated unfairly, and affairs feel extremely unfair. Your partner chose to cheat, lie, cover up, and perhaps put you at risk for a sexually transmitted disease. Does your anger make sense? Absolutely. Fear and anxiety arise when your world feels unsafe and unpredictable. A partner's affair breaks down all the protective walls, and suddenly nothing feels safe or predictable anymore. Guilt usually results when you think you're to blame or have done something wrong. In trying to make sense of a partner's affair, some people conclude, "It must be me. At some level, it must be my fault." Those feelings, too, are understandable, but make no mistake about it: Your partner's affair isn't your fault. In Part II of this book we'll help you explore your own role in creating your relationship with your partner. But people have to take responsibility for their own individual behavior—and that certainly includes your partner's decision to have an affair.
On a fundamental level, an affair throws your normal emotional state into total disarray. Your feelings might change from one minute to the next. Or they might be so jumbled together that you don't know what you feel. Maybe you're not really feeling much of anything—and think there must be something wrong with you because you're not. Research suggests that a trauma is often followed by an initial sense of numbness, possibly as a way of protecting ourselves from being overwhelmed by intense feelings. In most cases, those feelings surface at some later point. Or you might be someone who doesn't experience emotions strongly; people react differently to traumatic events.
If you're one of those people who is experiencing a lot of strong emotion, your behavior is likely to be out of character or at times even chaotic. When you can no longer trust or believe what you've always taken as a given, you're not likely to act the way you used to either. You might find yourself shouting at a grocery store clerk for no good reason or showing up unannounced at your partner's office to talk—only to change your mind and leave abruptly. Or you may find yourself driving toward the outside affair person's house or place of business, not entirely clear about what you would do or say if you were to confront that person. Research suggests that an individual may even become physically aggressive toward his or her partner or the outside person during this time. Todd felt as though he'd lost all self-control after discovering Mika's affair three weeks ago. He found himself yelling at coworkers in meetings over trivial issues; at home he was short-tempered with his children. Even worse was the shameful memory of punching Mika's lover during a confrontation outside a local coffee shop. While anger is common, such aggression is obviously problematic and can potentially be dangerous. If you're struggling with managing your anger, you may want to jump ahead to the guidelines for handling strong emotions in Chapter 3.
Your usual daily routines developed within a relationship that had predictability and meaning. Now that relationship has been called into question. Are you really going to get up and make coffee for someone who betrayed you? You used to give each other a peck on the cheek when you left in the morning—nothing passionate, just a sign that you loved each other and were partners. A simple peck on the cheek is no longer simple. Now if your partner touches you, you may cringe as it brings back painful memories, or you might want to sink into an embrace, trying to feel connected again. Should you still go out to dinner together with friends? If so, are you cold and distant, or do you pretend to be the happy couple while inside you want to die? Behaviors you took for granted, which had become routine and almost automatic, now seem awkward, disgusting, or unsafe.
The bottom line is that a partner's affair is a big deal. It's traumatic. It involves violations of core assumptions about your partner, your relationship, and perhaps even yourself. You can anticipate a wide variety of feelings, most of them negative. And at times you're going to say and do things that just aren't like you. It's miserable. It feels awful. But it's also a normal reaction to what's happened. And our research and clinical work with couples strongly suggest that if you go through the recovery process in a healthy manner, these feelings won't remain as strong as they are right now, and they won't be there all the time. Things can get better.
What's Happening to Us?
Part of what's happening to you as a couple right now is a direct result of the turmoil that's going on with each of you individually. Let's face it: No matter how well your partner might be managing his or her own feelings, your relationship isn't likely to go well when you're still struggling with the initial trauma of finding out about the affair. You're not likely to express yourself effectively. You're probably not able to listen in a caring way to your partner's views. You may find it difficult to collaborate on even routine tasks such as paying bills together, making decisions about the children, dealing with a car that needs repair, or the hundreds of other mundane chores involved in having a committed partnership. And when these tasks get put aside, the negative consequences of neglecting them can bring additional stress. The phone company threatens to disconnect your phone; one of the kids gets into trouble at school; the rattle under the hood turns into a major engine overhaul, with no money to pay for it.
All that can happen even when your partner is handling his own feelings reasonably well. Chances are he isn't. Independent of what you're feeling, your partner is probably struggling with his own turmoil. Right now, you may have too much of your own hurt or anger to be very sympathetic. That's understandable. But at some point, if you want to be able to interact more effectively, you're going to need a better understanding of what your partner is experiencing. Reading the material on pages 20–24, where we speak to your partner, might be helpful when you decide you want to gain more of this understanding. But for now, just consider that your partner is probably wrestling with difficult feelings too—possibly including confusion and uncertainty about the future, anxiety about your relationship, aloneness, hurt, anger, guilt, or shame. In fact, even if you are managing your own feelings well, there's a good chance your relationship would still be feeling crazy because of what's going on with your partner right now.
Mix together these two factors—your own turmoil and your partner's—and you have the perfect formula for chaos. Just when you feel able to talk constructively, your partner won't. And just when your partner feels able to approach you or respond constructively, you can't. Moreover, whatever feelings either one of you is struggling with at any given moment can trigger equally intense and difficult feelings in the other.
To understand why this happens, it's helpful to think of your interactions as serving three functions—communication, protection, and restoration—each of which is thwarted by the trauma of the affair:
1. It's too hard for your partner to hear what you feel has to be said. You want your partner to understand the trauma caused by the affair. Those feelings are intense, sometimes exceeding your ability to express them. And if your partner cares for you at all, hearing you express these feelings will be uncomfortable or even painful. After all, it's your partner who is the source of the trauma. So your partner may eventually pull back or stop listening as intently when you continue to express your feelings. At that point you're likely to feel unheard, and you're going to crank up the volume. But a person who already feels on the defensive or overwhelmed by the intensity of your feelings is going to pull back even further, and you're going to feel even less heard and less understood. It's a vicious cycle of wanting to be understood and, instead, feeling less and less heard by your partner.
2. The need to feel safe often means trying to protect yourselves from each other. In addition to wanting to be understood, both you and your partner want to feel safe. But you can't feel safe when you're afraid you might be hurt again. You've probably heard of the "fight or flight" response to threat. When you choose to "fight" in response to danger, you arm yourself, go on the offensive, and keep others away by threatening to do them harm. So, in an effort to protect yourself you may sometimes punish your partner such as through verbal attacks: "How could you be so cruel? I hate you." "Where was your integrity? Just wait until I tell the children." Aggressively pursuing control can be another way to "fight" your way to safety: "You're never going anywhere again without my knowing where and without your checking in." "You can't be trusted; I want our bank accounts signed over to me." Physical aggression can be still another way of seeking safety, even when initiated by someone who's physically smaller and less powerful. It's a way of saying, "Stay away from me unless you want to get hurt." Unfortunately, fighting isn't very effective at restoring a damaged relationship. It's not even a great way to ensure safety. Attacks can lead to counterattacks.
Some safety-seeking partners opt for "flight" instead of "fight," retreating physically by demanding separate bedrooms or separate living quarters or retreating verbally—withdrawing into silence and refusing to interact. Other kinds of retreat can be more subtle. Faye desperately wanted to forgive Joe's affair and made every effort to put it behind her. But her feelings of insecurity and anger continued to gnaw at her, and she found herself avoiding being alone with Joe. Joe noticed her retreat and complained about their lack of intimacy, but Faye didn't know what to do about it. Some couples end up leading a civil life together but really talk only about superficial things, ignoring more difficult relationship issues. (Continues...)
Excerpted from Getting Past the Affair by Douglas K. Snyder, Donald H. Baucom, Kristina Coop Gordon. Copyright © 2007 The Guilford Press. Excerpted by permission of The Guilford Press.
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