“I said I’m sorry so many times. She knows everything but she keeps on bringing up the same stuff over and over. Why can’t we just move forward? What is the point in bringing up what I did over and over? Is she going to be like this forever?” In the immediate aftermath of a found-out affair, there is chaos. There is the discovery, followed by shock, anger, sadness. Many times, there is a disconnect between how each partner experiences and hopes to move forward in the aftermath of an affair. There are two stories at play here: that of the betrayed partner and that of the partner who betrayed. While both parties need to, and must tell their stories, a bridge must first be built as the betrayed partner comes to terms with the discovery.
So how do you wade through this space? Is there a right way, is there a wrong way? How do you know you and your partner are healing? Is there even hope? Right after the discovery of an affair, couples enter the crisis phase. This phase must be resolved first before any forward movement can occur. For those couples who choose to attempt to recreate a story together, how this crisis phase is handled by the betrayer can either help bring calm or increase distress. It’s a confusing stage and while each couple (and person) is different, there are some general ideas that can help. Listed below are some of those ideas, addressed directly to the person who finds themselves in the role of betrayer.
Acknowledge. Acknowledge how your actions have deeply wounded your partner. Acknowledge the amount of pain they are experiencing. Do this over and over and over, more times than you feel is necessary. Now is NOT the time to provide reasoning and explanations as to why the affair occurred. The time for insight and explanations will come, but right now, your partner cannot hear your story when they are being swept away in the emotion of betrayal.
Understand. Understand that your partner’s rapidly shifting mood is normal. The wound of a revealed affair strikes at the core of a person’s sense of reality, identity, and stability. These responses are similar to a trauma response. This new reality attacks the memories, what your partner thought was real and now sees as a lie. Emotions surge and the reptile brain takes over. Right now, there is little to no control over these rapidly changing emotions. One minute they might feel hopeful, the next crying in a corner or angrily attacking and questioning. The more you can sit with your partner’s experience, the more you aid in the healing process.
Initiate. Recognize that your partner will experience a great deal of fear and will be very sensitive and easily triggered. Rather than waiting on your partner, you initiate. If you see and recognize a change in your partner’s emotional state, speak up, act, engage in some way. Demonstrate that you are willing to show up for your partner, even if that means you might have to face more anger and accusations. If it is around a particular trigger (contact with the other party or maybe your phone dings a notification), tell your partner before they see the contact. Let them know immediately of anything that has the potential to be upsetting. Being upfront and willing to face and initiate tough conversations relieves your partner of the burden of discovery. It begins to build a bridge between the two of you, a tentative sense of confidence in your desire for this relationship. It helps to calm fears around ongoing secret keeping.
Perspective. Your partner is going to have a ton of questions. Most likely, they will ask these questions over and over and over. These questions are not meant to catch you in a lie. These questions are your partner’s attempt to create a new narrative, a new story of the past. You have known of a different reality all along. Your partner has not. They are struggling with the awareness that what they believed to be true of the past is not.
Empathy. For you, the betrayer, there is a mix of emotions. There can be relief, guilt, shame, hurt, loss of identity, resignation and a whole host of other emotions. What you need to know is that your story matters too. Addressing and shifting your own experience of self is just as important as standing with your partner’s story. Please understand that while the affair is yours to own, it is not the only part of your story. This happened and cannot be changed. What can be changed, though, is you and your partner’s ability to create a new relationship, one without the need for fear and secrecy. Guilt is there, yes, because your actions have wounded your partner. Guilt does not need to become a story of shame.
This journey requires courage and change, from you and your partner. The unpacking and rebuilding of a relationship takes time and effort. Imagine though, a relationship where two people have chosen to own their personal issues and triggers, taken time to hear, to understand and see, have grown in their willingness to be both self and we in the relationship, and are now able to give and take, to ask and receive. If you could have that type of a relationship, would the rewards outweigh the cost? Would it be worth it to wade through all the fears, the lost trust, the missing pieces, the unspoken wounds and hurts? This is a question only you and your partner can answer.