You’ve recently discovered that your partner is having an affair. You find yourself shocked, in disbelief, perhaps enraged, or having an out-of-body experience. You wonder if it is really happening to you. You wonder if you read the email wrong or misunderstood the text message from the “friend” of your spouse. You begin to wonder if your life together has been a lie, and if you really know your partner.
What should you do? What should you not do? As a licensed clinical psychologist and marriage and family therapist, I encounter couples and individuals in this situation frequently. I am often contacted by a new client in a crisis, having just learned about the affair, and feeling conflicted and confused about what to do or where to turn.
The longer I do this work, the more I believe that relationships can survive and overcome an affair. I have heard many individuals in a relationship state their deeply held belief that an affair would end their relationship, that they could not tolerate or live with such a betrayal. But after an affair is exposed, and the partners find themselves in this situation, perspectives can, and quite often do, change; a different type of relationship assessment takes place where the costs and benefits of staying or going are weighed.
Your Feelings Are Normal
Even though it may not feel like it at the time of the affair exposure, your relationship may be able to weather the storm of a partner’s betrayal. Frequently, an affair occurs because the couple’s relationship became strained, unfulfilling, or unrewarding; and in turn an emotional space had been created for another to walk into. Repairing a relationship after an affair is not easy, but it is very possible.
It is not unusual for a betrayed partner to feel a little unbalanced, or for his or her mood to shift from anger to sadness to fear to self-blame and back to anger all in the space of a couple of minutes. All of these feelings are normal and can be expected if a person finds that his or her partner has been unfaithful. It is a very confusing time for both partners in the relationship. Although you may be tempted to take action, to strike first, and do something that would allow you stop feeling so powerless, it is best to not make significant decisions in the hours, days, or even weeks immediately following the affair exposure. The exception is seeking distance and safety if you believe that either you or your partner is at risk of physical harm.
You may find yourself completely shocked by the revelation, or perhaps not shocked at all because your intuition was telling you something wasn’t quite right in your relationship. In the time immediately following the exposure, both partners are usually in a panic, but for different reasons. The hurt partner can feel as though their life has been completely turned upside down, that the person they trusted the most has betrayed them. The unfaithful partner is attempting to calm the angry and hurt partner, while also trying to manage the fallout of the situation. It can be very tempting for the hurt partner to want to strike back and hurt the unfaithful partner as they have just been hurt.
The hurt partner may feel as though he or she needs to make some rather extreme decisions to send a message and to gain control of the situation. The hurt partner might feel that the unfaithful partner should leave the home temporarily or move out permanently. The hurt partner may want to immediately contact an attorney, transfer funds from a joint account, to tell family, friends, neighbors, or even employers about the affair. The hurt partner may want to declare their desire for a divorce.
What to Do If You’ve Been Hurt
While these emotional reactions are understandable in the immediate aftermath of the affair exposure, with adequate time and space you might feel differently in a week, and you will most definitely feel differently in a month. You don’t want to make impulsive decisions that may feel right in the moment, but that will only serve to further damage your relationship.
The best response in the initial aftermath of the exposure is to pause and not make any significant decisions about the status or future of your relationship for at least three months. Determining what you want and how best to proceed can be achieved only through creating the time and space for understanding and emotional processing.
In order to remain resilient and stable during the days and weeks after the exposure, I recommend doing the following:
- Contact and make an appointment with a qualified and licensed therapist.
- Confide in a friend who you know is loyal and loving to both you and your partner. Avoid over-confiding in family (parents, siblings) as it may be challenging for them to forgive your partner or accept your relationship if you decide to continue it.
- Engage in self-care aimed at reducing your stress: yoga, massage, leisurely walks in the sunshine, time spent with some of your favorite people.
- Get outside and walk, run, or cycle—move and get some exercise.
- Try to maintain as normal and as usual a routine for your children; at this point they do not need to know, and should not know, about infidelity in their parents’ relationship.
- Try to accept and tolerate your mood swings; they are normal given the circumstances and will gradually subside.
- You may not feel hungry, but it is important to eat and remain well nourished.
- Try to stay socially engaged with friends, work, and social activities.
- Be aware of how much alcohol you are consuming and try not to allow it to become your means of self-soothing.
- If you are a religious or spiritual person, pray for wisdom and patience.
An affair does not have to mean the end to a relationship. Like any other long-term commitment, partners in a relationship affected by an affair should carefully and thoughtfully weigh and consider all of their options before choosing how to proceed.
© Copyright 2014 GoodTherapy.org. All rights reserved. Permission to publish granted by Anne Brennan Malec, PsyD, LMFT, Infidelity / Affair Recovery Topic Expert Contributor
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