Affair recovery forms a large part of our work at LoveRelations. About half the couples we work with are seeking help after the disclosure or discovery of some sort of infidelity. There is always a lot of pain and anger from both parties, when an infidelity happens. Many partners believe their relationship will never recover.
At LoveRelations we do believe that a relationship can recover after an affair and, in many cases, emerge as a stronger and more truthful one. There is a lot of hard work by both partners that needs to be done if healing is to happen. Trust is not re-built over night.
However, it seems that some partners experience greater difficulty in this process than others. I have been struck by two often co-occuring states of being in my work with couples after an affair. The first is the lack of comprehension by the betrayer of the true effect of what he or she has done. Secondly, and this tragically seems to go hand in hand with the non-comprehending partner’s state, is a highly traumatised response to the discovery of an infidelity.
The partner who has been betrayed is emotionally tortured and humiliated when knowledge of the infidelity emerges. They are clearly in trauma and experience the same array of symptoms that professionals describe as Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder. Similar to any others who have suffered threats to their emotional well-being and security, they are disoriented and confused by what has happened.
Relationship partners of both genders experience similar of the classical symptoms of PTSD:
• Repeated intrusive thoughts
• Unstable emotional regulation
• Out of body experiences
• Alternating between feeling numb and striking out in retaliation
• Inability to stop scanning for any new data that might cause more distress
• Feeling overwhelmingly powerless and broken
• Needing to regain self-worth by assigning blame
• Confusion and disorientation.
One female partner told me recently: “Every time I shut my eyes, all I can see are images of him having sex with her. It’s so graphic. Even when I’m awake, it runs in front of my eyes like a film.”
This particular client discovered that her husband had visited an old girlfriend, several times in the past 18 months. For him, it meant very little. “I shouldn’t have done it. It was like drinking too much on a night out – stupid and irresponsible but not the end of the world.”
For his partner, however, a series of trauma responses have been unleashed, which add to the pain of the original discovery. She describes very physical responses: “Everytime his phone bleeps, I feel sick. I walk into a supermarket and suddenly am in floods of tears and panic. I can barely remember what I walked in to the shop for.”
Just as distressing, this partner seems unable to stop scanning her environment for signs of threat. “If he’s late for work, I believe it’s because he’s visiting her. If he comes home early, I think it’s so he can call her while I’m still at work. If he puts a new shirt on, it’s because he’s going to meet her. I’m exhausted with the speed at which my brain works.”
Her partner can be quite dismissive about her responses. “I can’t win,” he said angrily, in one session. “I can’t look at my phone without provoking a hysterical response or an angry accusation.”
Is it possible to heal from all this mis-trust and distress? At LoveRelations, we believe that if both partners are committed to specific roles in the healing of the distress, then recovery can happen. When there is a trauma type response to the discovery of a betrayal, then the quality of the therapeutic work is doubly important.
The traumatised partner needs to see that his or her response is exactly that. This needs to be a skilful piece of work between therapist and client. The therapist should never minimise or condone the hurt, but instead help the traumatised client understand some of their responses. Some psycho-education around PTSD can be helpful for both parties.
Many partners who develop PTSD type symptoms in response to the discovery of a betrayal, will have experienced threats of loss or harm in the past. This might be in the current relationship, in a previous and, confusingly for some clients, be meshed with attachment trauma in early childhood. Sadly, often all three are caught up in the trauma response.
In the one-to-one therapy, which we offer at LoveRelations, we encourage the betrayed partner to look at previous threats or abandonments and gain a better understanding of why they may be experiencing such strong trauma responses. Separating the past from the present is an important part of healing.
We also urge the so-called betraying partner to enter more empathically into his or her partner’s world. Once both partners understand how likely it is that a betrayed partner will show the symptoms of PTSD, they realise that the healing process is the same for all traumas. The betraying partner must simultaneously play the dual roles as an ally to his or her partner’s healing and a seeker of absolution from the very person they have wounded. They are legitimately on trial for invalidating the worth of their primary relationship. The more committed the betrayer is to the process, the sooner his or her partner will be able to heal.
The partner experiencing PTSD will most likely have wildly swinging mood changes, emerging experiences of underlying unresolved issues, and agonising waves of grief. While simultaneously feeling the need to strike back, run away or feel immobilised, they must learn to self-soothe, create resilience, seek outside support, and commit to a renewed faith in a better future indeed.
This is delicate work and not for the faint hearted. We at LoveRelations have real evidence that recovery is possible but it requires commitment and skilled support.