It can feel impossible, unjust in its expectations. Your heart has been ripped out, stomped on, left for dead. The agony is unlike anything you’ve ever known. And recovery is too great a load to bear — also too far off. I’m talking about surviving infidelity – recovering from the pain, rising from the ashes, maybe even smiling again.
If you are the person who has been cheated on, you know the gut-punch that leaves you breathless. Learning that the person you have loved and trusted with your life has betrayed you is excruciating. And the experience is, literally, traumatic. It affects you emotionally, physically, behaviorally.
Post-Infidelity Stress Disorder.
Mental health professionals have actually coined this collective damage as Post-Infidelity Stress Disorder (PISD). And understandably so. The harrowing work of surviving infidelity, recovering from the pain, and moving forward is not unlike the well-documented experience of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).
Symptoms of PISD.
Regardless of the source of trauma, three categories of symptoms are consistently present:
- Re-experiencing the trauma as flashbacks, nightmares, and painful memories.
- Avoidance, withdrawal, and emotional numbing. Nothing feels enjoyable anymore.
- Hypervigilance, insomnia, decreased concentration, and lack of trust.
In the aftermath of discovering infidelity, your life may feel like an eruption. You may experience any or all of the following:
- Ruminations about your spouse and the affair partner. What did they do? Where did they do it? How did they do it? What did they say? How did I not know?
- Flashbacks about events leading up to the discovery or admission, and about facts you have learned.
- Loss of appetite.
- Disrupted sleep.
- Rollercoaster emotions that aren’t expected and don’t always fit the moment. You may break down and cry for seemingly no reason, or feel swells of rage or sadness.
- Loss of enjoyment in once-pleasurable activities.
- Self-isolating and lack of interest in being around other people.
- Decreased concentration and performance at work.
- Loss of desire to live.
There is no magic formula for surviving infidelity. Recovering from the pain depends on the degree of pain. And that depends, to some extent, on the nature of the affair. Was it a one-time thing? Was it intentional and premeditated? Was it sex only, or was it deeply emotional and ongoing?
As inexcusable as any sexual affair is, there is something even more deeply offending about the addition of emotional, romantic intentions. It feels…so…deliberate. When the cheating partner has time to think about and desire the other person, enjoying the intellectual and emotional connection, the betrayal is invasive. It goes to the core of how you feel about yourself and your worthiness to be loved.
It’s easy for people not living the aftermath of infidelity to assume they would automatically end their marriages if their spouses ever cheated. But that’s not necessarily how it works. If you have been betrayed, you may be surprised by your incongruous emotions. Your anger may be matched only by your instinctive yearning to save your marriage.
And that’s OK. An affair doesn’t have to be the end of your marriage, especially if you are both willing to do the work of surviving infidelity.
Recovering from the pain and saving your marriage will call forth a strength you may not think you have right now. But if you are willing to face this moment…en route to another day…you can come out the other side restored.
Here are some guidelines to help compassionately move you through the work of surviving infidelity, recovering from the pain, and saving your marriage.
When in doubt…just…breathe. In slowly through your nose, out fully through your mouth. Three seconds in, three seconds out. Or try one of these breathing techniques for meditation and mindfulness.
Your breath is essential, so don’t disparage the victory in gaining control of it.
Face the issue and pain head-on.
Stuffing your emotions to avoid your pain will only prolong what you desperately want to be relieved. Go into the pain. Go into the truth. You will come out the other side.
Your journal will become a trusted friend. And how wonderful is that?
The process of trusting blank pages with your ugliest feelings is extremely cathartic. When you are struggling to trust another human being, you can trust the pages to hold your deepest pain so you can work on living.
The beauty of writing is that you are actually being your own best friend. And that becomes the seed of trust as you go forward into the more difficult work of surviving the affair.
Take care of your physical health.
You may not have the desire or energy to cook fancy meals or head back to the gym. But provide yourself with the basics.
Eat, even though you may not remember the last time you thought about food. Give your body what it needs to keep you alert and healthy.
Get enough sleep, even if you have to develop a routine for getting to sleep and resting peacefully.
Finally, exercise. If nothing else, walk. Put one foot in front of the other. Allow the rhythm and forward motion of your steps to become an unconscious mantra of progress.
Take a dog along. If you have a four-legged friend in your home, he or she will be picking up on your stress. A daily stroll through nature with your pooch will benefit you both in more ways than just the physical. Besides, dogs are great listeners — better than most people — and they don’t judge.
Learn about the affair.
This is the part you will probably most want to do…and least want to do. You will have questions that need answers. And as much as you will want the answers, you will dread them.
It will help you to do some research on affairs in general, if only because every infidelity feels isolating to its victim.
This is a critical and essential step to surviving infidelity, recovering from the pain, and working on your marriage. Therefore, working through these uncomfortable dialogues is best done with the guidance of professionals who specialize in marriage and affair recovery.
They will help the betrayed get needed and deserved answers while preventing the questioning from straying into destructive details. They will also create a safe place for the straying spouse to disclose information that is understandably embarrassing, shameful, and painful to divulge.
Remind yourself that the affair was not your fault.
You may have responsibilities for your marriage not being all it could be. But you didn’t choose your spouse’s affair as a means to improvement. It’s important that you separate these two facts so you can own what is yours and work on forgiving what isn’t.
Work on yourself.
Whether you want to save your marriage or decide you just can’t, you have to work on you.
No one should ever be in the position of having to do self-work because of what someone else did. And yet, self-work is what we should all be doing on a regular basis because it makes us better people and better partners.
Responsibility for the affair may belong to your spouse, but there are always contributions from both spouses that leave a marriage vulnerable. This is your chance to look at your own life, feelings, and communication style, especially in the context of your marriage.
Working with a therapist or therapist team will help you heal and grow as an individual, even as you work to heal your marriage.
Make time for you.
A big part of surviving infidelity and recovering from the pain is regaining the self-love that disappeared when your heart was ripped out. It’s natural to feel unworthy of love or anything pleasurable.
But you have the power to start filling that void by simply giving yourself permission to indulge some of your passions. Reach up and take some of your neglected interests off the shelf, dust them off, and bring them to life. No expectations. No GPA. Just activities that stimulate your mind in a positive way and help you re-engage with positivity.
Give it time.
There is no fixed timeline for recovering from an affair. A lot of factors influence the process. The length and type of the affair, how and when it was discovered or disclosed, and the commitment level of each spouse all weigh in. Research suggests 18-24 months as an estimate for healing time, assuming full commitment from both spouses.
Believe healing is possible.
Because it is.
Healing and reconciling aren’t the same things. You may or may not choose to reconcile with your spouse, but your personal healing needs to be non-negotiable.
When it comes to surviving infidelity, recovering from the pain will seem impossible at first. But if you and your spouse are willing to fully commit to reconciliation, you can recover from the hurt and save your marriage.
And the day will come when you realize that the memory of the affair no longer bears the pain.