GRIEF FOR THE BETRAYED PARTNER
The weight of the losses in an affair can be overwhelming. It can feel like your life has collapsed on top of you and you are crushed by the fallout.
Let's consider some of the losses:
the loss of trust in your life partner
the loss of the partnership that you believed in
the loss of the future you dreamed of
the loss of trust for your own judgment
the loss of your identity
even the possible loss of faith in God or a higher power
The stages of grief have been studied in psychology for years. It was originally thought that they were experienced in order. Now, it is clear that they they occur over and over, and jump back and forth in no apparent order.
We have covered the following stages below (shock and obsession are added for affair situations):
Consider the following as a preview of the grief process to help you understand what you are experiencing now and/or will soon experience. Our hope is that this will allow you to realize that all you are going through is perfectly normal.
By working through the grief stage it is important that you learn to have EMPATHY FOR YOURSELF!!! It is easy to beat yourself up when you are struggling. Understanding the grief process can help you be kind and forgiving to yourself as you go through the stages. .
During the shock stage, which almost always occurs after the initial discovery, you can expect to have a survival response of fight, flight, or freeze.
Fight: After the betrayal, you may find yourself emotionally and physically striking at your partner. This usually starts as yelling and screaming uncontrollably, while you are not at all clear about what you would like to communicate. As your in this mode, you will surprise yourself as you attack your partner, so much so that you don't recognize yourself. You might start throwing dishes, clothes, and anything you can get your hands on. You might even yell at toward anyone in your path, even your close friends and family members. You may become hypersexual, using your sex as a way to express your aggression to your partner. Or you may want to pursue a revenge sexual affair to hurt your partner.
Flight: You may simply pack your bags and run. It may be to a friend, your parents, or a hotel. You may search for any way to put distance between you and your partner who has become a threat to everything you valued in life.
Freeze: Your body will go numb. You may feel as if your body is simply shutting down. You simply curl up in bed and don't move. And getting out of bed may seem like it requires way more energy than you have to give. Daily tasks will feel overwhelming and ignored.
No matter how you respond (fight, flight, or freeze), your emotions may feel out of control. Tears will flow with no warning. And the next minute you may find yourself screaming or laughing. In the shock stage, it's hard to make sense of the world or your behavior.
In the Shock phase, you are in survival mode. Pain is not being effectively processed as you are just making it day-to-day, guided solely your instincts. Sometimes our instincts are telling us it is best to fight. Other days are instincts direct us to flee or to freeze. These responses are hard-wired in us but often do not make much sense in the context of modern life or modern relationships.
Fortunately, the shock phase does not usually last long, from a week to several months. There is very little that you can do to not be in shock. It is largely involuntary. Just know that it doesn't last that long and you will survive it.
After shock comes denial. Rather than face the reality that life as you knew it is over, it easier to pretend that the betrayal didn't really happen or that it didn't really mean that much to you. We just are just desperate to make the pain go away.
In our denial, it may feel comfortable to fall into the rhythms of every day life as a way to hide from our painful emotions. This avoidance can initially be helpful, especially if your brain is not ready to comprehend what has happened. At this point, it is too hard to make new meaning of your life so you adapt by trying to ignore that it happened.
Rationalization is part of this denial phase. If your partner has an on-line affair, you might tell yourself that it didn't count because he/she never actually met in person with the other person. You may be inclined to quickly accept an apology, no matter how shallow, telling yourself that he/she realizes the mistake and that it will never happen again. Or you may write it off as "what all men do" and that "there's really no way to stop it". Lastly, you might try to convince yourself that it didn't really happen, that you are misreading the situation. Or maybe, if it did happen, it's better for you not to know!
While people are quick to see the flaws in denial, it is perfectly normal and an expected part of the grieving process. Yet, it is important to not get stuck here.
The pathway out of denial is to grant yourself the freedom to feel your emotions. The whole gamut of emotions must be allowed to flow into your experience, from outrage at what has happened to the love you still feel for your partner.
It takes great courage to do this. You may be hesitant or downright terrified to take this step as it may open a flood gates that could drown you. Yet, you should take comfort that, if you allow yourself to sit with your emotions, they will run their natural course. Each emotion has a purpose, trying to send you a message. Once you feel the emotion and get the message, it begins to fade away.
In grieving for an affair, the stage following denial is usually obsession. You will feel an urge to pour over every detail of your partner’s deceit and betrayal. Every act that your partner took over the past few years will come under your mental scrutiny. This will interrupt your normal daily thoughts at the most inconvenient time.
You may become a forensic detective (or hire one!), reviewing bank statements, phone bills, credit cards, emails, texts, calendars, any anything you can get your hands on. You will feel yourself drowning in information. You will get in your car and physically visit locations where the infidelity took place. You just have to see it with your own eyes. And once you do, you can't stop thinking about it. Also, you obsessively tell others all the details of what happened, repeating yourself on a loop. All your free time gets swallowed by your obsession's.
In doing so, you are trying to figure out what your partner did, what you were doing at that time, and what you might have done to discover the infidelity earlier or to prevent the betrayal in the first place. Not having all the answers just puts the obsession into overdrive, usually until you become completely exhausted. Unfortunately, in spite of your exhaustion, you will find it hard to sleep since your mental hypervigilance feels impossible to turn off.
Like the other stages, the obsession serves a purpose. You are building a foundation of facts so you can start making meaning of what happened. You are grasping for a new understanding of reality. And there is a side benefit; your hyper-focus on finding out what happened keeps you distracted from the deeper emotional pain.
The most important step to work through this stage is to purposefully shift your focus from your partner's actions to taking care of yourself. This will send a message to yourself that you have value, no matter what your partner did. It will also allow you to regain a sense of control over your life.
Also, this is a good time to learn to be mindful of the present moment. Obsessive thinking usually is focused on the past (the betrayal) or what your partner may do in the future (more pain?!). Now is the time to enjoy a cup of coffee, watch your favorite tv show, or take time in the park with your child. Exercise, yoga, massage are a few of many ways to connect with your body. These activities can take your mind off the obsessions and bring you into the present moment.
The concept of "constructive anger" is now widely accepted in the world of psychology. As a natural response to perceived threats, anger helps us overcome obstacles. Anger can also:
tell us that something we value dearly is at risk,
motivate us to fight for something,
makes us acutely aware of injustice.
trigger an adrenaline rush,
allow us to be stronger, sharper, and able to respond to a threat, and
provide a sense of control.
Repression of anger usually is unsuccessful or counter-productive. It just builds up until it explodes, or gets stuck inside and transforms into a deep resentment.
The biggest risk in the anger stage is that constructive anger turns to aggression. Aggression is when the anger manifests into action directed at another person, not the original offense that was committed.
Aggression is "I hate you", while anger is "I hate what you did".
Your aggression may be directed towards your partner, kids, friends, co-workers, and even at God. You may become short tempered with everyone that you are in contact with. You may punish your children for minor infractions. You get angry at yourself for not seeing the affair coming in the first place. You may spew cruel words your spouse. You may hide his/her phone at a critical time just to punish him/her. The list could go on and on.
It’s important to know that anger is considered a secondary emotion. It is in the "second" position because it shows up as a result of more sensitive feelings underneath the surface. The key to releasing anger is to understand and give voice to the more vulnerable feelings.
In other words, a client may say,
"I am incredibly angry but my anger comes from this deep sadness and abandonment that I am feeling."
Such feelings may be hard to admit. And doing so requires great courage.
Another helpful activity in the anger stage is to create and maintain healthy boundaries (see separate section). Often we become angry when our boundaries are constantly violated. Understanding how to set and hold boundaries during the affair recovery process will allow the anger to start to subside.
Bargaining is usually a sign of desperation. It reflects a willingness to sacrifice almost everything to make the pain stop. Normally bargaining is just part of the give and take of life. But bargaining in the context of an affair, in a state of desperation can be a disaster. The danger is that we bargain away what is most valuable, our personal integrity.
In this stage, betrayed partners make bargaining statements like:
If I have sex more often with my partner, then he will not cheat again.
If I just tell him how horrible his affair partner is, he will dump her.
If I am nicer to him, he will love me more.
We sacrifice ourselves because we are to scared to face the deeper fear of losing everything. But by bargaining from weakness and fear, you may end up accepting poor behavior that you never dreamed would be OK for you. You then become vulnerable to issues of depression, anxiety and low self-esteem. Your affair recovery work will also get stuck. And, you will set yourself up to become resentful at your partner due to the unresolved issues that remain and the newly compromised life that you have created.
This brings us again back to boundaries. Healthy boundaries are the opposite of bargaining from weakness. A sure sign that a boundary needs to be put in place is when you are feeling a sense of growing resentment. This is the time to focus on the hard but rewarding work of boundary setting.
After you have tried everything else (denial, anger and bargaining), there will be an urge to give up. Feelings of emptiness and hopeless begin to dominate your mental landscape. Your mood shifts to a lower place that you previously knew existed.
This depressive stage colors everything you see and do. You may find yourself pulling back, being less social, and refusing to reach out to friends about with your story and your pain. Some describe life during this stage as having as a dark cloud over looming overhead. Life feels heavy. You feel lonely even when surrounded by loved ones. Activities that once brought joy, now seem blah. All motivation is lost and it feels impossible to muster up enough energy to crawl out of bed. No matter what anyone says, you can only see and feel danger and darkness. You are looking at the world through a negative filter, only seeing what is bad.
What makes everything worse is that you really believe this depressed state of affairs will never end. You may even come to believe that you have a mental illness. However, it is critical to know that this it will not last forever and that you probably do not have a mental illness.
Many psychologists view depression as a normal adaptive biologic drive which serves to preserve and maintain our wellbeing after a crisis. By shutting ourselves off from everything that is happening in our regular life, we are forced to look at the dark side of existence and take a really hard look at how we live our lives. In a way, it opens us up to radical changes in how we approach life. It also slows the body down, offsetting feelings of hyperarousal or anxiety.
However, the depressive drive can easily get stuck or become extreme; thus, becoming maladaptive, particularly if activated over an extended period of time. If it gets truly stuck, you should confer with your medical professionals and explore whether medication would be helpful.
First, you must realize that you cannot rush through the depression stage any more than you can other stages. In fact, it often requires the most amount of time to work through. One way to move through it, as with other stages, is to allow yourself plenty of time to sit with your emotions and the pain. Be patient as you explore your emotions, talk about them, feel them, learn from them, and allow them to inform (but not control) your path.
While you are working through your emotions, remember to pay attention to the "big three" cornerstones of self-care; diet, sleep and exercise. There are countless books written on these topics so we will not cover these topics here. Still, remember that focusing on the big three will help you gather the energy to do the emotional work.
ACCEPTANCE STAGE (FINALLY!!)
In the acceptance stage, your emotions start to level off. More times than not, you feel like you are connected with reality. You are now coming to terms with the “new” reality that your spouse has acted in ways that you thought were imaginable. Yes, your prior life has been forever changed, but now you are ready to figure out your future, willing to learn and grow, and making new meaningful of your marriage and your life.
In no way does it mean that you’re okay with what happened. It was NOT “good” that it happened – but it is something you can live with and definitely learn from. And it can make you a better person.
You will still experience both good days and bad days. Strong emotions will arise but you will know how to feel them and learn from the experience. You may feel rocked by the pain but it will be tolerable and you will still be able to function and return to feelings of gratitude or joy.
The mental fog that you felt will lift and you can think clearly again. You will spend time with friends and family. Others may view your acceptance as a sign that all the healing is complete, that you and your spouse are back to "normal". That will probably be far from the truth, but you could be in an affair recovery process that feels constructive and hopeful. The other grieving stages may return but they won't be as intense or last as long.
In time, step-by-step, you will let go of the past, having learned what you needed to learn from it, and start building a new future, hopefully with your spouse but maybe not.
In this stage, you accept that:
trust has to be rebuilt from scratch.
in the past, you only knew a small part of who your partner really was but your are willing to get to know him/her fully now.
you made a contribution to your marital problems, even though that does not justify your partner's betrayal.
your partner was unfaithful without accepting that his infidelity was OK.
You know you have really landed on acceptance when you can fully embrace what happened to you without allowing it to define who you are and wish to be.
Be kind to yourself during the grieving process. Don’t pressure yourself to hurry through it. Get lots of help from others, including the team at the Affair Recovery Therapy Center, to support you on your grieving journey.