Dealing with the betrayal of infidelity

By psychologist Angie Willcocks

Finding out that your partner has been unfaithful is one of the most terrible things that can happen in your adult life. The discovery of infidelity is a great shock, whether it’s a bolt out of the blue or the confirmation of a long-held suspicion. What follows is grief, confusion, anger, denial and despair.

The days and weeks following are difficult, to say the least. The betrayed partner struggles to make sense of what has happened and tries to decide what to do, while still carrying on with daily life (work, chores, children, pets etc). The unfaithful partner often also struggles with the reality of what the affair means for their family and the very likely possibility of losing at least one person they care about.

This time is full of emotional pain, tormenting thoughts and indecision. However (and I hate to sound so positive in light of all this) it can also be a time of real honesty and connection. Infidelity doesn’t have to mean the end of your relationship. In fact, relationships can actually be strengthened and improved as a result of the shake-up that comes from infidelity (providing the affair has ended). There are better and less painful ways to improve your relationship – that’s for sure! But if you find yourself in the unfortunate position of having been cheated on, all may not be lost.

After seeing a number of couples in the turmoil following infidelity, I can say that no two are the same. The reasons people cheat are not always clear (even to them). Nonetheless, I’ve heard some comments more than once:

  • “I fell out of love”
  • “I felt unloved/bored/unsatisfied and met someone who made me feel alive again”
  • “My partner didn’t appreciate me/listen to me/ touch me/care about me (etc) enough”
  • “I didn’t meant for it to happen, it just did” (one of the least impressive reasons I’ve heard – just ahead of “all men cheat, just not all get caught,” which thankfully I’ve only heard once!)

There are also different reasons for staying together and working on the relationship. I don’t think it matters what the reasons are, as long as both partners can accept the other’s reason for staying. When I started out as a psychologist working with couples (and without my own children at the time) I scoffed at the idea of people staying together “for the children” or because they “can’t afford to separate”. I’ve since seen enough couples rebuild healthy and happy relationships for those very reasons that I value them as much as any other.

When it comes to re-committing to your relationship, it’s not the why that matters as much as the how. Staying together “for love” and then doing no work on the relationship is much less likely to end in happiness than staying together “for the kids” and working your butts off to improve things. Also, I  suspect that some people use these reasons (especially “the children”) to end an affair that is no longer working for them. Telling your lover, “I have to go back to my wife because of the children” is much easier than saying “Actually, I’m a bit bored with all this now and realise that my wife is not that bad, even though I’ve complained about her a lot to you!”

Deciding to work on your relationship does not require absolute certainty that you can stay together. In fact, not knowing how it will work out but deciding to give it a go is perhaps the most realistic choice for both of you at this time. Janis Spring, in her fantastic book After the Affair makes the point that both partners need to ‘behave’as though they feel positive about the future of the relationship (even though they don’t ‘feel’ very positive about it).

One way to show that you are ‘optimistic’ about the relationship is to have some counselling as a couple. This is a time when you can finally air unspoken issues in an upfront and honest way. Essentially, there’s “nothing left to lose”. I’ll be honest and say the result is not always that couples ‘live happily ever’. But even if you do later decide to split, you’ll have the gift of knowledge about what really went wrong. This knowledge is so important for recovery.

Finally, here are six survival tips for coping with the discovery of infidelity in your relationship:

  1. Don’t feel that you need to make a decision straight away about what you’re going to do.It’s never a good idea to make life-changing decisions when you’re emotionally distressed. Take some time.
  2. Find someone to confide in, whether this be a friend, family member or professional (GP, counsellor for example). A common problem that comes with being betrayed by your partner is shame, hurt and isolation. Many people don’t want anyone to know their partner has been unfaithful and I know of people who have not told a soul.  Sometimes this is because they are loyal and want to protect their partner, or more commonly they think that the infidelity says something about them as a person (“If I tell people my wife cheated on me they will think I’m a bad lover” or “If people know my husband cheated on me they’ll think I don’t give him enough sex”). Another reason people don’t tell friends and family is that they’re afraid that other people will judge them for staying in the relationship when their partner has been unfaithful. It’s easy to have an opinion on other people’s relationships and it’s very, very common for well meaning friends or family to say things like “I’d NEVER stay with my husband if he cheated”; “He’ll do it again you know” or “You can’t put up with that – kick her out”. Comments like these have people feeling even more alone. Pick your person, but do confide in someone.
  3. Look after yourself physically. People very commonly forget to look after themselves properly in the face of stress and grief. This is understandable but unhelpful. Eating properly (even when you are not hungry), exercising, getting some rest and avoiding excessive alcohol are all very boring parts of staying well enough to cope. If you are finding sleep difficult for more than a couple of weeks (see my column on stress, anxiety and depression for more info) see your GP.
  4. Expect some pretty painful feelings but also realise that they won’t last forever and that you will recover. Don’t try to avoid or dull the feelings with drugs or alcohol. This just leads to more problems down the track.
  5. Watch your thinking. It’s normal to think a lot about the affair, especially in the first month after finding out. But be careful: torturing yourself with replaying scenes or imagining the two of them together is not only painful, it is also really unhelpful. Even though it’s hard, you can choose what you think about (the ability to do this is part of what makes us human). Distracting yourself from your thoughts is the best option at this point. Keep busy, see movies, read books and seek help if you find that you really can’t find a way to stop thinking about it all after the first month or so.
  6. Reading about infidelity can help some people feel less alone. I particularly like After the Affair by Janis Spring, but any book from a reputable bookshop should be OK.
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