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I caught my husband in an affair a year ago and we’ve been working through it. I’ve chosen to stay married and we’re both working in counseling to heal. However, I keep having thoughts about my husband’s affair and I want to bring it up, but I feel I’m just going to make things worse. He’s very patient with me and doesn’t get angry at me for wanting to talk about it. I’m just tired of how much it still comes up in my thoughts and I feel like it’s just always there. I don’t want to keep dragging us down by talking about it, especially when he’s doing his best. Since his affair, he’s been open and willing to fix things. We’re healing, but I don’t see these memories and feelings going away anytime soon. Am I doing something wrong?
What you’re experiencing is completely normal in the aftermath of a betrayal. It’s a trauma response; much like the reactions soldiers or victims of natural disasters have in the months and years following their overwhelming experiences. Even though you weren’t in immediate physical danger of losing your life[i], your body has a similar response to the discovery of your husband’s affair. Your life, as you thought you knew it, flashed before your eyes. This sudden reversal of your reality is jarring and makes it hard to navigate the world you thought you understood.
Because the new reality doesn’t match the promises made in your marriage, your brain goes through an exhaustive sorting process of trying to figure out what happened, how it could have happened, and what will happen. There are so many unanswered questions. Psychiatrist Anna Fels described this process in a 2013 New York Times commentary:
“Discoveries of such secrets typically bring on tumultuous crises. Ironically, however, in my clinical experience, it is often the person who lied or cheated who has the easier time. People who transgressed might feel self-loathing, regret or shame. But they have the possibility of change going forward, and their sense of their own narrative, problematic though it may be, is intact. They knew all along what they were doing and made their own decisions. They may have made bad choices, but at least those were their own and under their control. Now they can make new, better choices.
But for the people who have been lied to, something more pervasive and disturbing occurs. They castigate themselves about why they didn’t suspect what was going on. The emotions they feel, while seemingly more benign than those of the perpetrator, may in the long run be more corrosive: humiliation, embarrassment, a sense of having been naïve or blind, alienation from those who knew the truth all along and, worst of all, bitterness.
Insidiously, the new information disrupts their sense of their own past, undermining the veracity of their personal history. Like a computer file corrupted by a virus, their life narrative has been invaded. Memories are now suspect: what was really going on that day? Why did the spouse suddenly buy a second phone “for work” several years ago? Did a friend know the truth even as they vacationed together? Compulsively going over past events in light of their recently acquired (and unwelcome) knowledge, such patients struggle to integrate the new version of reality. For many people, this discrediting of their experience is hard to accept. It’s as if they are constantly reviewing their past lives on a dual screen: the life they experienced on one side and the new “true” version on the other. But putting a story together about this kind of disjunctive past can be arduous.”[ii]
Part of the reason this processing is so difficult is because the trauma from the betrayal is stored deeply in the body to protect you from further harm. It’s stored in the same area where breathing, heart rate, and other automatic functions originate. These are all designed to keep us safe and alive. When something reminds you of the betrayal, your body responds to protect you. Your breathing changes, your heart rate increases, and you lose your ability to think beyond the present moment. Even though there isn’t a physical threat to escape, your body is doing what it’s designed to do…protect you.
These moments can be triggered by direct reminders of the affair or even something ordinary, like a moment feeling of powerlessness. They way you handle these triggers will, in large part, determine how well you heal from his affair. I encourage you to use these triggers as an opportunity to seek support from your husband and others who know your story. Don’t hold them in and shove them into an emotional corner. Instead, talk about what feelings and thoughts surfaced. You’ll discover needs that your husband and others can help meet.
Also, it can be helpful for your husband to work on being proactive by reassuring you on a regular basis before you get triggered. For example, if you’re heading into a situation where there will be potential reminders of the affair (time of year, a location, etc.), then your husband can anticipate this and ask you what you need and check on your emotional wellbeing. Instead of both hunkering down to get through these moments, use them as an opportunity to draw closer to one another.
You have a husband who is accountable and wants to help you heal. Don’t prevent him from doing the very thing he’s instinctively doing to create a better marriage. Honor the strong emotions that come up instead of trying to shove them out of the way. Your body is reminding you that you need safety and connection. Your husband wants to be that guy for you, so allow these surprising and difficult moments to turn you toward each other.
Geoff will answer a new family and relationship question every Friday. You can email your question to him at firstname.lastname@example.org
About the Author
Geoff Steurer is a licensed marriage and family therapist in St. George, UT. He is the owner of Alliant Counseling and Education (www.alliantcounseling.com) and the founding director of LifeStar of St. George, an outpatient treatment program for couples and individuals impacted by pornography and sexual addiction (www.lifestarstgeorge.com). He is the co-author of “Love You, Hate the Porn: Healing a Relationship Damaged by Virtual Infidelity”, available at Deseret Book, and the audio series “Strengthening Recovery Through Strengthening Marriage”, available at www.geoffsteurer.com. He also writes a weekly relationship column for the St. George News (www.stgnews.com). He holds a bachelors degree from BYU in communications studies and a master’s degree in marriage and family therapy from Auburn University. He served a full-time mission to the Dominican Republic. He is married to Jody Young Steurer and they are the parents of four children.
[i] Even though the risk of death from disease contracted from a sexually transmitted disease is a reality of having a sexual affair, this type of physical danger is different than the immediate danger of war or natural disasters.