[This article focuses on a relationship the offending partner has taken responsibility for betrayal and the goal is to stay together. If this has not happened, see Not “Just Friends” by Shirley Glass for ideas on how to start the process of acknowledgment]
When an earthquake hits, heavy damage can be done to roads, buildings, and bridges; even the ground itself is weakened. Aftershocks can damage already weakened structures, and can be as powerful as the initial quake.
In a similar way, when an affair or indiscretion comes to light, the partner who was cheated on has an initial strong reaction. Aftershocks; caused by unexpected triggers—events, memories, words, thoughts; can damage already weak self-esteem and trust. The best way of dealing with betrayal aftershocks is a Trigger Plan.
Sexual liaison, an emotional relationship with someone else, or casual online contact all break the unique and protective world that exists within a relationship. For the partner who discovers the betrayal, life gets turned upside down; your main source of emotional support becomes the source of intense, deep hurt. The shock of a severe and unexpected betrayal creates deep reverberations which affect everything from daily functioning to work performance to connection with your partner.
The original discovery of the affair can be a powerful shock that knocks over everything you knew about your relationship. Emotional triggers to the betrayal can then stretch an already taxed emotional system to the limit. When one’s emotional system cannot recover; recurring and intrusive images, thoughts, and feelings can cause severe stress—Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) may result.
One of the key elements in healing from an affair is what John Gottman calls “atonement”—the partner who had the affair making amends for the betrayal. A second essential aspect of healing is to deal with traumatic aftershocks.
Tips on dealing with the trauma of cheating:
1. Get Your Needs Met
Clearly ask your partner for what it is that you do need, as a positive request. Ask for as many of these needs as necessary (and for as long as necessary). Your partner’s role job is to try to meet your needs as much as possible. “I need to hear how important I am to you” is a specific need, focused on you.
2. Plan for triggers to happen
Create some signals you can both understand. Talk about the plan together when things are calm, as when triggered you will not be able to say, “I am triggered now and what I need is…”
A trigger plan involves:
1) Identifying potential triggers
2) Signal(s) for either of you to bring attention the fact that you are triggered,
3) Specific actions—needs.
Deciding what you need when triggered is up to you, not your spouse. Whether you need physical distance, a hug, an apology, or time with nature may vary from moment to moment; you can address this in your plan, and it is okay to have needs change. Having your partner be attentive and respectful will help both of you move through conflicting needs.
3. Stop Self-Blame
Planning for triggers does not mean that you are hampering your recovery as a couple “If only I could get through this” increases self-blame. Also, “If only I had…” thoughts do not help. These thoughts are ineffective ways of trying to get control of an uncontrollable situation. Your partner made the choice to step outside the bounds of your relationship; that is painful and unchangeable. Focus on what is going well, what both of you are doing well through the process of healing.
4. Avoid Time-ing Yourself
There is no time limit for the trauma of betrayal. Some people struggle a year later. Triggers are a form of emotional memory; deep down in the brain they have quick access to limbic system responses and are long-lived because their purpose is to try and avoid further hurt. Unfortunately, the replaying of hurts does not help get on with your life. What does help is reassurance, self-care, and getting your needs met. In general, and with practice, after about 3-6 months hypervigilance starts to subside.
5. Practice Good Self-Care
Some examples of self-care: Yoga, walks, a favorite comedy movie, a good book, sitting by a fire or beach with a good friend or pet. Creating daily rituals of care is essential.
6. Seek Help
Don’t be afraid to ask for support. It is a lot to go through yourself and a guide can make the difference between rebuilding your relationship or ending it.
Knowing that triggers may come and having a plan ready is the best way of dealing with the after-trauma of cheating. As you manage the tremors, you will build confidence that you can get through this. As your partner provides needed reassurance, you will slowly rebuild trust.