It doesn’t matter what the statistics say about how many spouses cheat or which gender or age group cheats more. When your spouse has betrayed you, you feel your entire world has imploded. You can’t breathe, you can’t think, you can’t see through your tears. And surviving the pain of infidelity seems impossible.
Infidelity is a violation of the basic rule of monogamy, let alone of marriage. For most, the vow of faithfulness and forsaking all others forms the foundation of a marriage. The kind of security this vow offers opens the door to authenticity, vulnerability, and the deep intimacy that enriches the marital relationship.
A spouse’s violation of this fundamental vow shatters the bedrock of a marriage. For the betrayed spouse, the tapestry of life might as well have unraveled in one gut-punching moment.
The pain of infidelity is unlike any other. It consumes a person, emotionally and physically. It calls forth a roller coaster of primal feelings of rage, abandonment, and loss. And surviving the pain of infidelity takes a herculean effort at a time when the betrayed spouse has nothing left to give.
People often think they know what they would do if they ever learned of a spouse’s infidelity. Things can seem so black-and-white when viewed from the outside.
But it’s not until you are in the grip of life-altering experience that you realize how unpredictable your emotions can be. If you have discovered your spouse has been having an affair, you may feel strangely determined to save your marriage. Or you may want nothing to do with your cheating spouse again.
Surviving the pain of infidelity may sound like a pipe dream in the early stages of discovery. But history shows that through the ages countless people have endured the agony and moved on with their lives with or without your spouse.
You, too, can get through this painful time.
Consider these eight strategies for surviving the pain of infidelity that have helped betrayed spouses get through this miserable time.
Stop and breathe.
It may sound trite to say, “breathe”, but science tells us your breathing is uniquely tied to your emotions, and vice versa.
When you feel like you’ve been kicked in the diaphragm emotionally, you literally may not be able to catch your breath. And when anger, panic, and fear rush in, your breathing will take on a rhythm designed to prepare you for fight or flight.
If you can control your breathing, you will help to ground yourself for the difficult work ahead. Slowing your breathing can even help to reduce pain in acute situations.
You may not feel you have control over much, so something as simple as controlling your own body by breathing can be empowering. Try counting backward from 100 by 3’s, as you breathe in through your nose, out through your mouth. Do this regularly throughout your day and see the wonders it works.
Get help early on.
Whether you decide to leave your spouse or stick it out, surviving the pain of infidelity is a painful process. Aa reel of self-created images of your spouse in the arms of another will haunt you and run on an endless loop in your mind if you let them. Endless questions will demand answers before you can entertain any idea of staying with your spouse, a stranger to you now.
You may not know how to navigate this nightmare of turmoil and the tsunami of emotions unearthed by infidelity. It’s not unusual to reach a pain threshold and then push away before being able to release it.
The work of healing from infidelity, both as individuals and as a couple, is sensitive and exhausting. You didn’t go into marriage with back-up training in post-affair management.
Enlisting the support of a husband-wife therapy team who specializes in marriage and infidelity to guide your emotional healing can impart clarity and understanding in a safe environment. You will get help releasing and managing powerful emotions, stemming the tide of collateral destruction to your relationship and family, and creating a path forward either together or apart.
You may not feel you have the energy, focus, or emotional composure to sit down and write. But that’s the point. Writing your thoughts and feelings is a process that doesn’t ask you for organization or answers. It is a gift you give to yourself as a way of dumping the pile-up of chaotic, confusing thoughts and feelings that are keeping you from moving forward to feeling less miserable.
You may not know who you can trust anymore. Find a trusted friend or spiritual advisor and bare your soul. Just. Talk.
You will sort through your feelings and assuage your anger by talking through them with someone who cares and can remain objective. The goal here is to avoid stuffing your feelings and going into isolation.
Take care of yourself.
As with breathing, telling you to take care of yourself might get an eye roll. But eating regularly and nutritiously, sleeping at least eight hours a night, and getting even minimal exercise will keep you functioning.
Surviving the pain of infidelity requires the best of you at the helm. If you have difficulty falling and staying asleep, try a guided meditation or praying on a rosary or prayer beads. If you forget to eat, try preparing healthful meals in advance and having them divided and on-hand. If you don’t have the energy for the gym, take your dog (or a shelter dog) for a walk. (Animal friends are great listeners, too.)
No matter what, you are the one who needs to show up for you.
Make time for just you.
Find some ways to get away from the energy of the affair and all the conversation about it. Whether you stay together or part ways, you will need to redefine your life. Acknowledging your identity as an individual with unique interests and gifts is a healthy way to remind yourself that you are going to get through this intact.
Understand the affair.
It’s a horrible bind to be in — needing answers to questions you never thought you’d have to ask. You want the answers, but you dread hearing them.
You must understand how the affair came about and why. And it’s imperative that you not take responsibility for your spouse’s choice to cheat. But it’s also vital that you come to understand your role in your marriage, both positive and negative.
Your questions might also lead you to the validation of instincts you may have had regarding the existence of the affair — or at least to a heightened trust in them.
Decide to move forward.
You will move forward in the work of surviving the pain of infidelity when you decide to stop living in the past. You can’t move forward if you are keeping the affair alive by thinking about it night and day.
If your spouse is remorseful, and you are both committed to rebuilding your marriage, you will need to compartmentalize the affair, after you have given yourself sufficient time to process the pain of betrayal and received apologies from your spouse adequate enough for you to at least start the process of forgiveness.
If you allow everything you see, hear, and experience to trigger your descent into painful memories and fear of recurrence, you will have more trouble healing. It will take self-management and discipline to avoid taking the bait that daily life will inevitably offer.
You both need to heal, and you both have individual inner work to do if you are going to survive the infidelity.
Surviving the pain of infidelity asks you to do for yourself what your spouse was unwilling to do: make you a priority. Even if you can’t decide whether to stay in your marriage, you can (and must) make up your mind that you are going to get through this. Your life depends on it.
Mary Ellen Goggin offers relationship coaching for individuals and collaborates with her partner Dr. Jerry Duberstein to offer private couples retreats in the quaint seaport, Portsmouth, NH. To learn more about Mary Ellen and her work, schedule a ½ hour complimentary consultation.