Jim said he expected Alan Funt to jump out of the back seat of the car and yell, “You’re on Candid Camera” when his wife, Gina, told him that she had just ended an affair with someone at work. Her revelation was so unexpected and so contrary to his image of her because he knew his wife to be a moral person who had never been promiscuous, and their marriage had felt very loving and secure. His initial numbness and shock was followed by other traumatic reactions. Jim became obsessed with questioning Gina about all of the details of her affair. He checked the cell phone bills and rummaged through her purse for clues of further infidelity. He had enormous mood swings and noticed that he was easily startled. He could no longer listen to country western music because too many of the lyrics distressed him. He had intrusive thoughts during the day and terrible dreams at night about his wife’s infidelity. When he had to drive on the same road where she had made her disclosure, he had flashbacks. Although Jim felt that he must be going crazy, his traumatic reactions are characteristic of many betrayed spouses.
Traumatic events such as natural disasters and criminal attacks shatter our assumptions about our sense of safety in the world. In a similar way, the discovery of infidelity is devastating because it shatters basic assumptions about the security we expect in committed relationships. Most people feel safe from the betrayal of infidelity if they are in a loving relationship where both people have been disapproving of extramarital involvements. In intimate relationships, there is a truth bias, so people tend to take their partner’s word as truth unless there is a prior history of lying and deception. After the betrayal, the traumatized spouse questions everything they trusted and depended on. They say that they no longer know who they are married to or what their marriage stands for. The most severely traumatized are generally the ones who had the greatest trust and were the most unsuspecting. However, even someone who is suspicious and is initially relieved to learn that they weren’t paranoid, has difficulty accepting the reality of a partner’s deception.
The trauma continues until safety is established. Continuing contact between the unfaithful spouse and the affair partner will delay recovery. Stopping an affair does not just mean ending sexual intercourse. It means ending all emotional and verbal intimacy. The involved partner may wish to maintain a friendship with the affair partner, but the betrayed spouse cannot heal until the personal relationship is totally terminated. However, when the affair partner is a co-worker or professional colleague who cannot be totally ignored, the contact must be strictly business. That means no coffee breaks or phone calls or little discussions about how the marriage is going. Only by sharing any necessary or unplanned encounters with the affair partner can trust be rebuilt.
An important stage in recovering from any traumatic event involves telling the story about what occurred. The involved partner must be willing to answer questions about the affair. During an affair, there is a wall of deception and secrecy. The story of the affair must be shared in order for recovery and healing to occur. Lack of discussion will maintain the sense of secrecy which contributed to the intensity of the affair for the involved spouse. Therefore, disclosure will allow both spouses to gradually let go of this threat to their marriage. The disclosure process goes through stages: the first stage of truth-seeking often feels like the inquisition of a detective and a criminal; the second stage of information-seeking is a neutral process like a reporter and an interviewee; the final stage of mutual understanding is an empathic search for the meaning of the affair. Marital therapy can help couples create a healing process of disclosure. Couples who work together to understand the individual and relationship vulnerabilities that led to an affair can emerge with a stronger, more intimate marriage than ever before.
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