Infidelity throws us head first into a whole new world of confusion, anger and hurt.
The person we thought we could trust turns out to be someone entirely different, someone who is capable of betraying us in the worst way possible.
The question I am asked most by those in the early days of discovering an affair is “what should I do if I can’t trust my partner?” I tend to reply, “of course you can’t trust them”. Instead, work on yourself and make a start on the long road to recovery.
Rather than thrashing in pain and wondering when you’ll ever be able to trust again, what needs to happen is that you accept the feeling that this person cannot be trusted, because right now all the evidence suggests that’s true.
You are not ready to trust yet, because you are at the beginning of a long journey of infidelity recovery.
If you’d like to learn more about how recovering from infidelity might look in the long-term, I discussed this recently on my podcast with infidelity expert Dr Caroline Madden.
Right now, though, surviving the storm of infidelity depends on learning to accept your feelings rather than battle with them or ignore them.
This is easier said than done, as so many of us are taught as children to suppress and ignore our feelings.
I urge my clients to go right back to the beginning as they navigate the aftermath of an affair. I often start by having the client finish this sentence: “Feelings are:….”
This helps us identify the messages around feelings that we were given as a child. Our parents, families, schools and the general zeitgeist will have all contributed to that.
When I was growing up, for example, the messages I got were that feelings get in the way and that they would hold me back. Feeling sad, angry and upset would only prevent me from achieving at school: feelings were an inconvenience that got in everyone’s way. Nothing was more of a priority than doing well at school.
For many of us growing up in the 1960s, 70s and 80s, we will have absorbed the idea that feelings are dangerous and inconvenient. If that’s you, you will have to fight against this cultural programming.
Hardly anyone writes down the reality: feelings are what we NEED to listen to, with close and careful attention.
“Triggers are the events, many of them unexpected, that make you feel a certain way. For example your partner coming home late, a call from your mother, the sight of a place you know your partner visited with the affair partner.”
Some people feel that feelings should be squashed down so that they can soldier on and continue to be there for everybody else. This is problematic, because of course the feelings will erupt messily in the end. Others treat feelings as instructions – if I feel this is good, I should do it.
I like to suggest that actually feelings are clues, not instructions, as to how we should act. We need to combine head and heart to make a wise decision. If we feel angry, we should not go and shout it all out right then and there. If there is something you feel strongly about though, you should attend to that, and come to an understanding of why you feel that way.
Most of you recovering from a partner’s infidelity will have become accidental experts in ignoring your feelings. In the run up to discovery, you will have been anxious, suspicious that something was going on, and you may even have confronted your partner and been told your feelings were wrong.
A good way to get acquainted with your feelings is to keep a feelings diary. This is an exercise I ask all my clients to do. Draw three columns, and label them “time”, “feeling” and “trigger”. Commit to filling it in at least daily.
You may be surprised that many, many people struggle even to differentiate between a feeling and a thought. For example a feeling is “angry” “sad” or “anxious” – not “I think my husband is still in contact with another woman”. You do not need to record your thoughts at this point, just the feelings.
Triggers are the events, many of them unexpected, that make you feel a certain way. For example your partner coming home late, a call from your mother, the sight of a place you know your partner visited with the affair partner.
Looking back over the diary, you will be able to see patterns – which feelings are recorded over and over? Those are the ones you will need to pay the most attention. What are the triggers, the events that really bring you down? Once you know these, you can plan around them.
Don’t forget also to record the good feelings. Often when asked to write down feelings, people record only the painful ones, possibly because they’ve been trained to believe that feelings are uncomfortable and unpleasant.
So, if you felt peace watching the autumn leaves fall, or if a comedian on the TV made you laugh, or if you had an excellent cup of coffee, put that down too. This will help you feel that you will survive: even in the midst of the horrors of infidelity, there are moments that are OK.
You will also realise as you look back on your diary that no feeling lasts forever. You will realise that what you felt so strongly at 9am on Friday two weeks ago is no longer what you feel. Some of the passionate feelings that you’ve recorded you won’t even be able to remember.
Once you’ve reached a stronger understanding of your own feelings of anger and betrayal, you will also be better able to communicate with your partner. Therapist Terry Gaspard offers some advice on how those conversations can be managed.
Andrew's Relationship Toolkit
Having realised that your feelings about your partner’s affair will come and go in intensity and frequency, it helps to try and stand back from them.
An exercise that really helps is to visualise your feelings as a river. Sometimes the river is slow and ambling, sometimes it is fast-flowing and full of rocky rapids. You, however, are just sitting on the banks watching what passes.
You cannot stop the river and hold onto just the nice parts, because damming the river will destroy it. The good and the bad feelings just pass you by: there’s no escaping the difficult feelings, but you can rest in the knowledge that a different feeling will be coming down the river in a moment.
Listening to your own feelings will be at the heart of your journey to recovery. Our feelings are the clues we need when we’re deciding how to behave. Observing them is an art, and it’s one you will need to refine and practice.
Keep writing them down, and I guarantee you will end up with a really clear picture of your relationship with your feelings. Whatever happens with your partner, you will come out of this awful time stronger and more resilient.
“Listening to your own feelings will be at the heart of your journey to recovery.”
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