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An Affair to Remember

Updated: Jan 10, 2022

Thoughts on healing

Our emotions color our lives with varying palettes. Sometimes we feel a strong emotion in reaction to something that is about to happen or has happened, but emotions also visit us seemingly out of the blue, flooding us unexpectedly with joy or grief, melancholy or desire.

Sometimes a difficult emotion (and an associated thought) hangs around longer, and we begin to wonder when it will move on, if ever. It can tease us into a cognitive distortion, where logical decision-making becomes obscured and our moral fabric is frayed leading to actions (either ours or those of our partner) that betray both personal and shared values and cause real damage. Actions begets reactions, and more painful thoughts and emotions follow in a seemingness endless horror film. If we welcome emotions without a fight, they recede naturally, giving way to another. When an emotion haunts us, it is often because we resist really feeling it ensuring that it develops like a cancer within, further clouding our judgement. Emotions like desire and despair and rage are powerful, and it is natural to want to try to control them. Certainly, we don't want to let them take over so that we say or do things we later regret. When we are facing intense thoughts or feelings, it can be helpful to ask,

How long do I need to sit with this thought?

How long do I need to feel this emotion before it can pass?

With whom might I safely share this emotion or thought?

All you have to do is "feel the feels". Avoid getting attached to or rejecting them. Simply let the ebb and flow. Each time you allow them without either repressing or acting out, you will find that that difficult emotions lose their power, show their accompanying thoughts for the fleeting experiences they are and open opportunities for healing. As partners, it can be difficult to know how to respond to our loved ones to whom we have caused pain.

trauma: a deeply distressing or disturbing experience

Communicating with a partner is essential in any relationship, but it is especially critical—and, often, especially difficult—in a relationship with a person who has experienced pain from our words and/or actions. Trauma can leave long-lasting wounds that impair partners' abilities to feel, think, and behave in healthy ways. At the same time, partners may struggle to admit to the depth of these wounds due to fear, shame, or neglect.

After infidelity, partners may struggle to cope with the impact of the trauma on the relationship, yet feel unable to communicate those struggles in healthy ways or at all. As a result, it becomes impossible to fully understand each other, leading to hurt feelings, confusion, and resentment. For a partner on the receiving end of a betrayal, being able to talk about it and its effects can be tremendously powerful, and creating an environment in which that can happen is essential. Show that you are willing to listen and support and if they do share, a simple, “Thank you for telling me. I’m here for you.” is often the best way you can respond. Being able to listen to their thoughts and feelings can be essential to ensuring your partner feels safe and cared for while giving them the opportunity to process those thoughts and feelings verbally. This includes overarching needs and boundaries that will help clarify how to create a stronger, healthier, and more trusting relationship while minimizing the risk of retraumatization. For example, it’s important for your partner to be able to tell you if they do not want to be touched in a certain way or if there are people, places, or situations that will be triggering for them. Discuss how they want to be supported if they experience an intrusive thought. It is only with this understanding that you will be able to be present for your loved one in a way that deepens your bond.

vigil: from the Latin word for "awake"; watchfulness

It is critical that partners who have engaged in an affair and desire to recommit to their marriage communicate this explicitly and often. This can include making it clear that they own the responsibility for the transgression, that they are sorry, and they are committed to holding "vigil" for the relationship during the healing process. Imagine standing quietly, holding a candle. Often, hearing these things explicitly and repeatedly is necessary to cut through the layers of grief.

Partners who have left an affair grieve as well and may also want to talk about the challenges they are having, such as feeling confused and like they don’t know what they should be doing to support their partners. Disclosing that they are at a loss trying to support their partners effectively can be worth sharing, as it will help them better understand and not mistake confusion for rejection or apathy. Partners should bring up concerns about any self-destructive behaviors noticed about either during the healing process. And individual sessions to process emotions, as well as couples' sessions to rebuild trust and improve communication, can be an invaluable combo.

The impact of an affair can take a toll on the marriage's ability to function in the seemingly automatic way it used to. Either partner may experience seemingly irrational emotional reactions—including numbness or mood swings—or the inability to participate in “normal” behaviors, including family events, church services, dates, hanging out with couple friends, sex, etc. It can be very difficult for the partner who had the affair to not take these "no's" personally and feel rejected, hurt, or embarrassed. However, it’s important to understand that they are often direct results of feeling triggered and are not a reflection on a partner’s feelings toward the healing relationship. At the same time, those betrayed may feel frustrated, misunderstood, and even disbelieved if their partners misinterpret their behaviors and boundaries. It can feel as if their grief has been reduced to seemingly arbitrary relationship issues they need to "get over".

Remember... it is okay to feel frustrated, angry, and sad. It’s okay to set boundaries. It’s also okay to leave a relationship that has become simply too much for you; you must consider your own wellbeing.

Take care to not attribute all feelings and behaviors to the impact of an affair. Generalizing all concerns under one "label" can be destructive for both and prevent partners from addressing other problems in meaningful ways. Neither of you are infallible and the fact that you or your partner struggle does not mean that any and all feelings and thoughts are irrational or necessarily the products of an affair.

meditation: the act of contemplation; reflection

Meditation has many benefits. It calms our busy minds, relaxes our bodies, soothes our emotions, and enhances our health and well-being. But who has time for it? We think we need to set aside an hour or so each day and sit silently. If we can manage that in our busy schedule, then there's the struggle of sitting still, not feeling bored or falling asleep, or getting distracted by our thoughts.

What if our concept of meditation could be a practice you look forward to doing?

Getting curious instead of critical

Seeing instead of sleepwalking

Relaxing instead if stressing

Healing instead of hurting

Improving heart health and resilience to disease

Opening your perspective

According to Bellaruth Naparstack,

"Guided imagery (sometimes called guided meditation) is a gentle but powerful technique that focuses the imagination in proactive, positive ways. Although it has been called visualization, mental rehearsal and mental imagery, these terms are misleading. Guided imagery involves all the senses, not just the visual sense – a good thing, since only 55% of the population is strongly wired visually. Over the past 40 years, the effectiveness of guided imagery has been validated by research, demonstrating its positive impact on health, wellness, attitude, behavioral change and peak performance. So subtle, safe and gentle as this technique is, guided imagery meditation can be a surprisingly powerful tool, and increasingly so over time."

I began using guided imagery very effectively in 2009 with military members returning from deployment. There are a lot of examples on the internet, but here are some freebies that have research to support their effectiveness. The more you practice mindfulness practices, the better the results.

We all need connection. Mutual relationships and interdependence are crucial for our well-being. However, for those who have experienced betrayal, the process to rebuild trust with themselves and others takes center stage. Restoring healthy boundaries is central.

Boundaries serve as a way to communicate comfort level and what our individual limits are. They are usually emphasized in interpersonal relationships but are equally important intrapersonally (within oneself) as partners work towards reducing some of the more acute psychological symptoms or trauma while also working towards increasing the practice of self-care.

Healing from trauma continues with building safe, reliable relationships. A traumatic experience can leave an individual vacillating between boundary extremes with other individuals. Extremes in boundaries can be between submission and dominance; enmeshed and isolation; giving too much and giving too little. One of the main goals in restoring healthy boundaries is to find the balance and middle ground . Factors that contribute to physical boundaries are privacy, physical closeness, touching, and sexual behavior. Partners are allowed to set their comfort level with these factors and it likely will be different throughout the process of healing. A partner previously comfortable with hugging when they return home from work might now only be comfortable with hugging the children. An example of a boundary violation: Your partner tries to have an intense conversation about a triggering topic after 10 PM. “No” is a Complete Sentence A common difficulty with partners after infidelity is the inability to say no to out of fear that by setting a limit the other partner will feel rejection and it will disrupt the healing process. In turn, partners determine they must please their partners to the detriment of their own needs and wants. By contrast, setting a boundary communicates that both people in the relationship deserve care and attention. Setting a boundary might sound like “No thanks, I’d rather not” or “If you keep bringing this topic up after 10PM, when I have asked you not to, I will have to sleep in the other room”. Learning to Say “Yes” On the opposite end of the spectrum, there are some partners who respond to infidelity by isolating themselves and cutting off all social support. Reaching out, making meaningful connections, and allowing one’s vulnerable side to show through are all essential parts of rebuilding trust in relationships. A great place to start practicing finding the middle ground instead of isolating would be to begin to say “yes” to invitations from other safe individuals. Your boundary needs will change over time. We cannot expect others to know when our needs change. It is important to speak up. An interpersonal effectiveness skill from Dialectical Behavior Therapy can help you express your needs and set boundaries.

Grieving (and healing from) an affair is a process. There are no shortcuts.

Healing from an affair involves a reckoning. It requires a burial of the past relationship. Allow yourself the grace and compassion needed to help you heal and gradually rebuild your relationship with yourself and with your partner. And get clear on how to inoculate yourself against the classic pitfalls that plague modern marriages.


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