Infidelity in Marriage: Understanding the Betrayed Spouse
Christian Counselor Seattle
Infidelity in marriage has been described by those who have experienced it as devastating, due to the emotional hurt and distress it causes. Discovering that one’s spouse has been unfaithful creates a wave of destruction that can take years to recover from. It has been noted that about fifty percent of all married couples will experience infidelity of some form in their lifetime.
Though it is common, the experience is personal, painful, and lonely. Understanding what a betrayed spouse goes through after discovering their partner’s infidelity is crucial to healing those going through it and informative for those who might be a support. In this article, we will look at affairs through the lens of the betrayed spouse and discuss possible reactions and feelings.
Infidelity is defined as a violation of a couple’s emotional and/or sexual exclusivity. When people get married, they promise to forsake all others and devote themselves to their chosen partner. The agreement is till death. For Christians, this agreement protects the family and shows our obedience to God’s commands regarding the institution of marriage.
Because marriage is primarily a picture of the relationship between Christ and His church, God gave these commandments to protect that relationship. Infidelity is not easy to deal with in a family. This is not to say that there is no redemption once it has happened. If a couple has the right help and the right understanding of their situation, their marriage can be restored.
Of the couples that have experienced infidelity in marriage, the majority choose to stay and work things out. One way of working things out is operating from a place of understanding, which we will aim to do in this article.
The Trauma Of Infidelity
Trauma is induced by any unexpected event that causes extreme physical, emotional, and mental disturbance to the affected person. Research shows that betrayed spouses after learning of their partner’s infidelity will experience strong emotional and psychological trauma characteristic of PTSD (Post Traumatic Stress Disorder).
Betrayal hurts and understanding what you or someone you love might be going through might be half the battle. We can look at ourselves or those we love with empathy. It is important to understand that if anyone is experiencing any of the following, it is not their fault but a natural response to a deeply painful event.
Intrusive Thoughts: Intrusive thoughts may come as a result of flashbacks, flooding, or constantly dealing with external triggers. The mind for a while seems to be difficult to control. Betrayed spouses may find themselves being invaded by unwanted and very painful thought patterns.
Hypervigilance: This is when one is constantly on the alert for potential threats. A betrayed spouse starts checking emails, phones, credit cards, etc. One becomes a detective, constantly checking for evidence of cheating
Self-Blame: Self-blame is a trauma response and in the case of marital infidelity, the spouse might start to feel responsible for their partner’s cheating.
Nightmares: In the first few days after discovery of the affair, betrayed spouses may experience nightmares and struggle to sleep.
Low Self-esteem: Self-esteem takes a huge hit after infidelity. Betrayed spouses struggle to see themselves as lovable and attractive.
Mood Swings: Betrayed partners can experience a variety of emotions in a short space of time. One minute they might be loving and understanding and the next be filled with anger and rage and then jump to feeling sad and depressed.
Grief After Infidelity in Marriage
Infidelity trauma can also cause intense grief. Grief is the response people have after a loss. When there has been an affair, the betrayed spouse may feel they have lost their partner, their sense of self, their identity, their community, and their sense of trust in the world. All these losses must be acknowledged and grieved.
Like any other grief process, infidelity will cause the betrayed spouse to go through all the stages, the first one being denial. No matter how convincing the evidence might be, the betrayed spouse will be in a space of disbelief. They refuse to acknowledge that this is happening to them, to their marriage, and their family, no matter how convincing the evidence might be.
After a while, the denial turns to anger. This is when the full scope of the situation hits them and they are angry – angry at their partner for cheating, at God for not preventing it, at the person their partner cheated with, angry with the world.
After anger, the betrayed spouse might experience feelings of self-blame, the “if only I had…then….” For example, they might start saying to themselves things like, “If only I had paid more attention, maybe they would not have strayed.” This self-blame plays into the bargaining phase of grief. It can also show up as desperation and pleas to change so that their partner would not leave them.
The truth of the matter though must be confronted at some point, and this is unfortunately when depression sets in. This is when the betrayed partner sees what has happened and realizes that there is nothing they can do to change their current reality. This feeling of helplessness is crushing.
It is usually during this stage that many people seek professional help for themselves or their loved ones. After the depression, the grief cycle leads the betrayed partner through the difficult but freeing journey of acceptance. This is when the betrayed spouse starts to make necessary changes and see help for the future and starts making meaning of it all.
However, the grief journey is not as linear as described above, so it is important to seek professional help or talk to someone who is trauma-informed to help through the process.
Stages of Recovery
Esther Perel in her State of Affairs describes three stages of healing after infidelity. This is a complex subject, but the stages are as follows:
This is in the immediate aftermath of an affair being discovered or disclosed. This is a very volatile moment for the betrayed and those around them need to understand that the betrayed will in this time go through intense emotions. Most trauma responses happen during the crisis stage.
During this stage, it is most helpful for the betrayer and those around to try and take care of immediate responsibilities that they might have. Understanding that the betrayed will not be functioning as normal and taking away the pressure of household chores, work commitments, etc., will help ease the situation as they come to grips with what they are facing. Practical help like these will go a long way in easing the situation
Meaning Making Stage
The meaning-making stage might take a while to reach, but this is the moment where the couple through the help of a licensed and experienced professional can dig for the meaning of the affair, what it’s meant for the unfaithful and what it did to the betrayed.
It’s not about assigning blame but seeking to understand the root causes. After the meaning-making sessions, both spouses will be able to make informed decisions about the future. This will also help them start down the road to building trust.
The vision stage is when a couple has gone through all that is required for them to decide on the future. This process is a hard one and again requires professional help most of the time. We have already mentioned that most couples that go through infidelity do stay together, however, the aim is for them to thrive and not merely survive.
With work and commitment from both parties, a new reality can be forged. The ability to forgive is part of the vision stage. A huge part of the vision stage is both parties moving toward forgiveness for the harm caused. This is in no way minimizing what happened but there cannot be any progress without forgiveness. As Christians, we rely on the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit to help us through the process of forgiveness of others.
Infidelity in marriage is a complex issue. During this difficult time, family and friends can be huge sources of support. However, because of its complexity and all that is involved emotionally, mentally, and psychologically, it is advised to seek professional help. If you or anyone you know might be struggling to get past the effects of infidelity in their marriage, please contact our reception team to schedule an appointment.
“He Loves Me…He Loves Me Not…”, Courtesy of Kelly Sikkema, Unsplash.com, CC0 License; “Steps”, Courtesy of Tolga Ulkan, Unsplash.com, CC0 License; “Loving Heart”, Courtesy of Giulia Bertelli, Unsplash.com, CC0 License; “White Flowers”, Courtesy of Zane Lee, Unsplash.com, CC0 License
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