There are many feelings that people experience after discovering that their spouse has had an affair. The first is usually shock so strong that it feels like being punched in the stomach or having difficulty catching your breath. The shock can feel painful and like living in a dream. Soon, this shock turns into disbelief: It can’t be. There is some mistake. I heard incorrectly. This isn’t happening…
But with verification, the truth surfaces and there comes a tidal wave of anger so strong that often, one is left not knowing how to handle it. She may scream, throw things, scream at him, curse the world or suffer fits of crying she may not have ever experienced before. Anger becomes a strong emotion, and one that’s difficult to control.
What we need to understand is that anger is usually a “cover-up” emotion. The emotions being experienced are being expressed as anger, but the real root of the feeling is a deep well of betrayal leaving her feeling emotional, physically in pain and sad. When the realization settles in around all that has happened, the end result is often a dark well of depression. Underneath her anger, rage, fury, disbelief and shock lies a sadness that powerfully take over.
Let’s visit Joanne who has been married fifteen years when she realized her husband was having an affair. She heard the news first-hand from a phone call from her husband’s mistress and she knew instinctively that what this woman was telling her was true. As she heard the details of this woman’s life with her husband James, the shock and betrayal were unmistakable true.
“It felt like tsunami. My environment looked different. I couldn’t get my bearings. Everything in my life seemed torn apart. I tried to understand what had happened, but everything seemed different and I couldn’t distinguish what was the truth and what was my imagination. I spent most of my time in bed crying. I couldn’t eat. I had to take weeks off from work and I cried all day. When I tried to talk with James, it ended in my screaming at him. I can’t stop thinking about this.”
Joanne experienced many of the signs of depression. Some of which are:
Feeling of sadness or emptiness
Loss of interest in activities
Change in eating habits such as overeating or a reduction in eating
Change in sleeping habits--- inability to sleep or sleeping too much
Loss of energy Feelings of worthlessness
Obsessing over events I
f you, or anyone around you, finds themselves in Joanne’s shoes, here are 5 steps you can take to start to get a grip on the madness and begin to take your life back:
1. Seek Professional Help
The rule of thumb here is that if you have felt this list of feelings for more than two weeks, then it’s time to seek help. This need for help becomes more urgent if you are having thoughts of hurting yourself or others—in that case, call your local emergency room (911) immediately.
Aside from the immediate needs, the thing to know is that this can pass. Once you’ve contacted a professional, often he or she will recommend that you also seek the counsel of a medical professional to assess if medication can help ease the burden of your depressed feelings. Often medication is useful, but talking and understanding the situation is also imperative. It is important for your well-being and also important to understand why the infidelity occurred and what kind of resolution is possible. Only then can you get past this difficult point (both personally and in yourmarriage). From this foundation of healing you can begin to build a stronger marriage and, hopefully, escape the pain of a second experience like this one again in the future.
2. Change the Family Atmosphere
Let’s return to Joanne and James and see what they have done to move toward that goal. The atmosphere in most homes after the affair is toxic; filled with accusations, anger, recriminations, blame and shame. As you might imagine, Joanne lashed out at James demanding answers. This led to long arguments that left him feeling exhausted and attacked.
There was never a time that I could relax. I never knew when she would hit me with something---questions or accusations. No matter how sorry I was, it changed nothing. We can’t go on like this.
James needed to feel safe in his home and not fear that attacks could come at any time. Joanne needed a different way to let him know how she felt and to have her questions answered. They learned how to do this by scheduling an hour to talk three times a week that was exclusively for them. No phones were answered during this time insuring that their needs to connect were protected and that they could focus on what they needed to do to work past this incident happened.
Joanne and James agreed to follow these rules:
Speak to each politely
Start each sentence with “I” rather than “You” so the conversation was not accusatory.
To clarify by repeating their understanding of what was said.
Take turns speaking. Spend no more than fifteen minutes on each topic.
Do not exceed the hour.
Talking together can gradually be reduced in both the number and length of meetings as the need for it decreases. Having your questions answered helps alleviate your sad feelings.
One of the most difficult experiences after discovery of an affair is the need to think about it repeatedly. Joanne shared some of her obsessions:
I wondered what I missed; how I didn’t know he was cheating on me? Did he really have to work late? Did he like her better than he liked me?
To a large degree, you will find your questions answered during your talks, but you need to have a way to deal with your obsession. It is normal to think about an upsetting event repeatedly. The terrorist attack on the United States on 9/11 illustrates this. We were glued to our television sets to learn more about it. We were in shock; we couldn’t believe it; we no longer felt safe; and we worried that it could happen again. We thought of time as “Before” and “After” 9/11.
You can see the parallel to the discovery of an affair; both events are considered traumas. You can reduce this obsessive thinking by setting aside a time to obsess. Joanne picked a half hour each evening for this. When she started obsessing, she learned to stop at her designated time. This gave her more control over the obsession. It will decrease in time as the affair becomes a part of your history, and you accept it just as we did when the Twin Towers fell.
4. You Feel What You Think
Our feelings are a result of our thinking, but often our thinking is distorted. By examining your thoughts, you may realize that they are distorted. When you feel depressed, worried or anxious, stop and check out your thinking. Then look for the evidence to prove what you are thinking. Then challenge your thoughts and change them to realistic thoughts. When Joanne thinks: I can never trust James again. She is encouraged to examine that thought and change it to something more like this: I don’t know if I can never trust him again. He has never done anything like this before.
Here are some examples of how you can challenge your thinking and by doing so, change your mood: Thought: If he cheats once, he will always cheat. Challenge your thinking to: I don’t know that is true. I can’t look into the future. Thought: This is terrible. It feels like the end of the world. Challenge your thinking to: It feels terrible, but it won’t feel terrible forever and it is not the end of the world.
5. Self-nurturing Measures
There are many things that help fight depression. When you’re in the middle of it, you may not “think” of these ideas but they are available and have proven results. A few examples are: relaxation techniques, or meditation exercise that your doctor approves of for you. Joining support groups and staying in contact with friends are also helpful as is treating yourself well. From a manicure to a relaxing bubble bath, each of these steps can help to take your focus off your painful feelings and can help to improve your mood and self-esteem.
Over time, things can get better. Joanne and James had a good experience in therapy even though the beginning was a little rough until Joanne’s anger and sense of betrayal were addressed. Then they were able enjoy each other more even as they worked on their problems. They both feel that their marriage is stronger now and that they have learned how to keep in that way.