Surviving infidelity can feel impossible, infuriating, exhausting, not-worth-the-effort. And that’s the moment you wake up and remember what’s going on. Surviving infidelity triggers can feel like having coarse salt rubbed into a wound that never gets to heal.
For the betrayed spouse, such a Promethean punishment can make the idea of love, trust and happiness seem like a cruel joke. As if learning that your spouse has been unfaithful isn’t bad enough, now you have to worry about surviving infidelity triggers too.
And if the idea of those doesn’t make you choose the single life, there’s the added bonus of never knowing when the little demons will strike.
So how is it, then, that so many marriages survive infidelity? Why would a betrayed spouse want to worry about the bitterness and distrust always sticking around? And why would the straying spouse want to worry about being punished forever?
And perhaps worst of all, why would either spouse want to walk on eggshells in an effort to steer clear of triggered memories and emotions?
Believe it or not, couples do survive. And surviving infidelity triggers is a big component of their journeys.
Affairs aren’t just the last straw of the unhappy and desperate. A significant number of men and women who admit to having cheated on their spouses also claim to be “happily married” to their spouses.
You may wince or shake your head, but that incongruity can actually be the key to saving a marriage after infidelity. If both spouses agree that even 20% of their marital history is positive, they stand a 90% chance of making it.
But what exactly is a trigger, and why is it something you need to embrace if you’re determined to reconcile your marriage?
Think of a trigger as an aftershock to an earthquake. At any moment, for no apparent reason, a seemingly innocuous event can cause the memories and emotions of the infidelity to come flooding back.
When a person is in a triggered state, “reality” fades to the background. The entire focus is on stopping the pain and fear.
Regardless of the seemingly neutral situation, the person goes into survival mode — emotional fight-or-flight. And surviving infidelity triggers now feels like surviving discovery of the affair all over again.
If you are working to save your marriage after an infidelity, understanding and being prepared for triggers will help tremendously.
Keep in mind that both the betrayed and the betrayer can experience infidelity triggers. It’s always easy to give the betrayed spouse a “victim pass” and assume s/he is the only one suffering. But surviving infidelity triggers belongs to the betrayer, as well. And saving your marriage will call upon two-way compassion to neutralize them.
Here are 5 tips for surviving infidelity triggers, shared from the wisdom of both therapists and “survivors.”
- Accept and expect triggers as normal.
In the same way that grief weaves a tangled path, even while moving forward, healing after infidelity takes time. It happens in waves, and not all of them can be planned.
There will be moments when you feel you have made progress, then suddenly, wham! A smell, a song, a stretch of road, the “ding” of a text notification late at night — nothing seems inculpable.
And then, here come the emotions. You feel what you felt months, even years ago, complete with the bath of panic hormones racing through your body. You feel vulnerable, angry, nauseous, afraid, even unsafe…and unsure.
And yes, it’s normal. Surviving infidelity triggers takes practice…and preparation.
Individual therapy in situations of infidelity doesn’t restore trust. And trust is the cornerstone of healing a marriage broken by infidelity.
In the context of couples’ therapy, you can ask and answer questions in a safe setting. You also learn indispensable skills for communicating deeply painful information without risking further damage.
By choosing a practice with a male and female working together, you have the added benefit of a dual-gender perspective. The “energy” in the room is also more balanced.
The therapists are able to gently and compassionately guide you through the expression of triggered emotions. They also teach you coping skills, both for you as individuals and for the marriage as an entity.
- Master yourself.
Of all the tips for surviving infidelity triggers, none is as essential as your own mindset.
If you are the spouse who was betrayed, you have a right to expect deference and certain actions by your spouse. But s/he could remain under house arrest for years, and if you don’t change your own mindset, your marriage won’t survive.
Triggers are malevolent because they use a memory to push negative emotions to the surface and throw you off center. And they bait you into reacting from the cloud of those tainted emotions.
No matter which side of the infidelity you are on, it is best to choose who or what is in charge. You…or the triggers. If the answer is you, at the moment the trigger emerges, you’ll need to surrender your badge of victimhood, blame or excuses.
Your emotions must not be your compass. You have to choose how you are going to think…and always how you are going to behave.
- Check in with yourself daily.
This is an essential exercise in self-mastery. You don’t get the luxury of “winging it” when it comes to surviving infidelity triggers and healing your marriage.
You may wake up after a night of bad dreams and dredged-up memories. And you may look at your spouse and feel all the sadness and hurt again.
Write it out. Put the feelings through a screening process that you and your therapist(s) devise. But no matter what, you decide to adopt the perspective that this trigger and resulting negative feeling and how you handle it are merely fuel for growth.
If your commitment is to create a new and better marriage, you will both benefit by committing to self-accountability and self-growth. And you will have to be persistent and steadfast, and live that commitment daily.
- Communicate potential triggers with one another.
Everything comes back to communication, doesn’t it?
Remember, you may be trying to heal your marriage. But you’re not trying to return to your marriage to the way it was. That marriage doesn’t exist anymore. In many ways, it shouldn’t either.
You are working to evolve as individuals in your relationship, and that involves open communication with yourself and with one another. No mind-reading or guesswork allowed.
If you’re the spouse who cheated, be mindful of the potential triggers that could send your partner into fear. You may think nothing of staying late at work or going into the other room to take a phone call. But your spouse will likely get triggered.
And if you’re the betrayed spouse, you will have to give your partner the opportunity to earn back your trust. A betrayed spouse that steps into the role of Chief of Surveillance by insisting on tracking the partner’s devices and car and keeping him/her on a short lease may find him/herself with a partner that can’t live without a measure of personal autonomy.
By communicating openly and compassionately, you will be fostering trust, love, and a mutual desire for happiness.
The work of surviving infidelity — and surviving infidelity triggers — may seem like an unjust burden, especially to the betrayed spouse.
But that call to action that puts so much responsibility on each individual is the very thing that saves the marriage. As you struggle together at surviving infidelity triggers while still in the context of your marriage, you build a stronger bond and foundation of intimacy, respect, trust and love, the cornerstones of a satisfying and lasting marriage.
Remember, a pearl is nothing more than the oyster’s determination to destroy what would otherwise destroy it — by turning it into something beautiful.