If you're lucky, you'll never have to know what it's like to be the victim of infidelity. Still, the statistics aren't promising: About 60 percent of men and 40 percent of women will have an affair at some point in their marriages. If you've been the victim of an affair, you know that it hits like a punch to the gut. The many emotions that follow feel like a hailstorm of pain. There are some predictable emotions, such as anger, panic, betrayal or a sense of loss. And depression has been so acute for some people that they have become suicidal.
Yet, in the array of feelings that hit so hard, there may be some emotions that you never expected to feel. When I sit with couples to discuss the aftermath of an affair, here are five emotions that take everyone by surprise:
Shame: You knew that if you ever discovered an affair, you'd be angry, but why are you feeling shame? Shame is usually prompted by a sense of humiliation because a person believes he/she has made a mistake. So if anyone should feel shame, it ought to be your partner, right? After all, your partner is the one who behaved badly. But discovering an affair causes you to evaluate yourself. People have a tendency to wind and rewind the movie reels of their lives, looking for blame; they will often feel as if they had messed up somewhere. You're not alone if you feel shame; it's natural when something this important has gone wrong.
Emptiness: Feeling sad is a natural response to losing the affections of someone you love, but emptiness is different because it's the absence of emotion. People are alarmed when they look inside and realize there's nothing there. A feeling of emptiness is actually a psychological mechanism that kicks in during any period of shock; in some ways it actually protects the mind. Given time and resolution of the trauma, it usually dissipates.
Possessiveness: You may have told yourself that if your partner ever cheated on you, you'd dump him or her in a heartbeat. Many people share that feeling. So why, when you feel that you partner has strayed, are you thinking about wanting him or her back more than ever? Separations between partners can generate an increase in attraction, and imagining you partner in someone else's arms can stir a longing to pull you close together. And there's a good reason why you feel possessive toward your spouse. He or she belongs to you — not as property, but as someone who has exclusively promised to partner with you for life.
Annoyance: There is a list of very strong emotions that a betrayed partner might have to confront, but there will also be a more pervasive sense of irritation with what your partner has done. As a spouse, you may just want to say to yourself, "really, could he/she be that stupid!" This isn't just forgetting to put a stamp on the electric bill before sending it out; it's a big lapse in judgment and behavior, and the mistake directly affects you. For good reason, you had higher expectations for your mate. Your partner's behavior affected everything going forward and you know it's just plain annoying!
Relief: Many people who discover a partner's affair had sensed that something had been wrong, but weren't able to figure it out. Some have been seeing signs of it for months. Now that it's in the open, you can finally begin to work on it. You didn't want an affair to happen, but now that it's out in the open, you and your mate can start to confront it.
All emotions are possible when you find out your partner has cheated on you. You were thinking that you were crazy — now you know you aren't. Can you do something about it? Sure! In The Secrets of Surviving Infidelity, I help couples process emotional turmoil.
- Give yourself permission to feel. Don't fight the emotions that you experience, try to identify them, understand them and respect that they are normal.
- Make room in your mind for feelings. Sometimes people are so busy with day-to-day activities that they really don't have a chance to reflect on where they are emotionally. It's good from time to time to clear your head of clutter: physical exercise, prayer or meditation or a simple walk in the woods can help.
- Don't dwell. If you continue to get stuck, then something as simple as journaling or talking to a friend can help. If the negativity is unshakable, then it may be time to get professional help.
- Talk to your spouse. Yes, it's true that your mate was the cause of your emotional firestorm, but you may not be able to move forward until you can have meaningful discussions together about what you are going through. If your connection grows after the affair, you may feel comfortable speaking up. If the relationship is still tenuous though, you should not give up on having a heart-to-heart. The best way to get started is to tell your spouse that you want to talk about how you feel, but you only want him or her to listen.
Strong emotions are your mind’s way of letting you know that something outside of the ordinary is happening. You wish the event of an affair had never happened in the first place, but understanding, accepting and processing your feelings will bring you closer to healing.