Michael is trying to focus while at work, but all he can think of is finding his wife and his best friend in bed together. He is consumed with intense anger and he feels as if someone had punched him in the stomach. How could the two people he cared for the most do this to him?
When You are Confronted with Your Spouse’s Affair
You feel like a nuclear bomb has just gone off in your life. How could this happen? You are reeling as you take in the fact that your spouse has been unfaithful. If you are in this situation, you are no doubt experiencing a wide range of intense emotions and pain on many levels. You may be feeling overwhelmed and hopeless. You may wonder whether you can survive now that you know about the affair.
Yet even in the midst of all your pain, God’s presence can provide you with strength and courage to walk through this very dark valley that feels like a death.
Even though I walk
through the darkest valley,
I will fear no evil,
for you are with me;
your rod and your staff,
they comfort me
– (Psalm 23:4, NIV).
You Are Not Crazy
The days of the betrayed spouse may be filled with obsessive thoughts about their spouse together with the lover. They may compulsively drive by the spouse’s place of work or the other woman’s home to see whether anything unusual is happening. They may find themselves missing their spouse one moment, and wanting to hit him the next. They may wrestle with thoughts of needing to forgive and thoughts of wanting revenge. In the midst of all of these conflicting emotions, you may feel you are crazy. Let me assure you, you are not crazy.
Many of the betrayed spouses with whom I have worked cannot eat or sleep. They feel restless and unable to concentrate, and they have difficulty functioning at work or as a parent. They may also experience symptoms of anxiety or depression, and they may feel hopeless or even suicidal. To make matters even worse, learning that your spouse has been unfaithful or wants a divorce can trigger memories of previous failed relationships, parents’ divorces, and other childhood hurts. One husband’s infidelity brought his wife back to the helplessness she felt when she was sexually molested as a child. All of the personal work she had done in her life to make her feel safe in the world was completely shattered by his betrayal. For others, the sense of betrayal and rejection may bring up old wounds from childhood or other relationships. This only deepens the pain and agony of the betrayed spouse.
Infidelity Strikes at the Very Core of Marriage
The disclosure of infidelity strikes at the very core of marriage. Healthy marriage is built on trust, honesty, and transparency, while infidelity thrives on secrecy and deception. Infidelity is a breach of the agreed upon emotional, physical, and sexual monogamy that is at the heart of the marriage vows.
Many spouses who are hurt by infidelity wrestle with all sorts of questions:
- Does the infidelity mean that my spouse no longer loves me?
- Did I do something to cause my spouse to have an affair?
- How many other times has this happened?
- Can I possibly stay in the marriage knowing what I know?
- Does the infidelity mean the marriage is over?
You may feel pressurized to decide whether to stay in the marriage. If you have disclosed the infidelity to your friends or family members, you will probably receive all sorts of advice. But this is not the time for making any life-changing decisions. You are in too much pain. You need to give yourself a chance to grieve and heal. You can survive the affair.
Facing Your Grief
Infidelity, at its very heart, is a loss – the loss of the marriage you thought you had, and of the future that you had envisioned. Recovery from infidelity needs to include grieving this loss. The five stages of grief include:
- Denial: This isn’t really happening or I’m not really as upset as I feel right now.
- Anger: How could my spouse do that? How could I not see this was happening?
- Bargaining: If I hadn’t been so busy, tired, ________, this would not have happened.
- Depression: I feel so helpless and hopeless. I’m never going to be able to get through this.
- Acceptance: I have been very hurt and betrayed but I can take steps to heal. I don’t have to decide right now whether to stay in the marriage or not.
These stages form part of the framework that enables us to learn to live with what we have lost. Although they are characterized as stages, this is not a linear process. As you grieve the loss of the marriage you thought you had, you may feel anger one moment and depression the next. This roller coaster of emotions is not a sign that you are doing anything wrong – this is just part of the process of recovery. You will do yourself a huge disservice if you do not acknowledge how you are feeling and allow yourself to grieve. Pour out your heart to your Heavenly Father, who knows the incredible pain you are feeling.
The Lord is close to the brokenhearted and saves those who are crushed in spirit.
The righteous person may have many troubles,
but the Lord delivers him from them all;
he protects all his bones,
not one of them will be broken
– (Psalm 34:18-20, NIV).
Save me, O God!
For the waters have come up to my neck.
I sink in deep mire,
where there is no standing;
I have come into deep waters,
where the floods overflow me.
I am weary with my crying;
my throat is dry;
my eyes fail while I wait for my God
– Psalm 69:1-3, NKJV.
Post-Infidelity Stress Disorder
We often think of trauma in terms of surviving a natural disaster, a car wreck, childhood abuse, rape, or war. While these types of situations are certainly traumatic for many people, learning that their husband or wife has been unfaithful is no less traumatic for many spouses. With the exception of the death of a child, there is no marital event more painful than the discovery of a spouse’s infidelity. In fact, learning about a spouse’s infidelity can be so emotionally and physically devastating that some mental health professionals call it Post-Infidelity Stress Disorder (PISD) due to the stress and emotional turmoil experienced afterward. The symptoms of PISD and post-traumatic stress disorder share many of the same key features:
- Feelings of re-experiencing the trauma of the infidelity over and over again
- Rage and despair
- Poor concentration
- Replaying past events over and over again in order to search for possible missed signs or overlooked clues that the infidelity was occurring.
- Avoidance and numbing
- Feeling that nothing can bring pleasure or enjoyment
- Withdrawal from friends and family
As with PTSD, many betrayed spouses will also become hyper-vigilant. They will watch their spouse’s every move, scour phone records looking for information, or spend hours searching email and social media accounts to try to learn more details. Many will also demand that the unfaithful spouse give them lots of details about the infidelity. If you are insisting that your spouse give you details, I urge you to stop. Please understand that the information you have a burning desire to know today may, in fact, cause you more difficulty and increase the likelihood that you will experience PISD. I am not saying that you do not deserve to know the facts, but many betrayed spouses insist on knowing details that only increase their emotional pain.
The Core of Infidelity
Many betrayed spouses will push their spouse for an explanation of why they were unfaithful. But I am certain that no explanation your spouse may provide will be helpful at this point. Furthermore, no matter what explanation the unfaithful spouse may offer, he or she has really been deceived into believing a lie. Scripture is clear that anyone who commits adultery is unwise and ultimately destroys himself. At the core of infidelity is a longing for relationship – but it is a longing that only God himself can satisfy. Every affair is just a way of running away from God.
You know the next commandment pretty well, too: ‘Don’t go to bed with another’s spouse.’ But don’t think you’ve preserved your virtue simply by staying out of bed. Your heart can be corrupted by lust even quicker than your body. Those leering looks you think nobody notices—they also corrupt (Matthew 5:27-28, MSG).
Addressing Infidelity in Christian Counseling: EMDR
In addition to traditional talk therapy, I have found that Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR) is extremely helpful in enabling the betrayed spouse to move forward. EMDR helps the hurting spouse to digest their emerging emotions, lessen the impact of images that may replay themselves over and over again in the mind, and decrease the physical agony that often accompanies this type of trauma. EMDR shortens the time for healing in many cases.
EMDR is a type of therapy that can help individuals who feel stuck or unable to move past a painful event. Originally used to help veterans with PTSD, it is now also utilized in the treatment of additional types of traumas, including the trauma of infidelity. You may feel that trauma is too strong a word to describe what you have experienced. However, any event that replays itself in your head, appears in the form of flashbacks or thought ruminations, or, in extreme cases, immobilizes you, can be considered a trauma. So if you are consumed with thoughts of your wife in bed with another man or your husband having intimate conversations with another woman online, then reach out for professional help from a Christian counselor who is trained in using EMDR.
How Does EMDR Work?
When someone experiences a trauma, the brain often stores the traumatic material in the wrong kind of memory. It gets stored in implicit memory and all the thoughts, images, emotions, and sensory information becomes very available and is cut off from other memories. The traumatized person has a sense that the event is happening now, their body is impacted by tension and anxiety, and they may experience recurring images or recall parts of conversations vividly. For the betrayed spouse, it feels as if all the details of the infidelity are stuck right in front of their face.
Let me explain how EMDR works. EMDR is different from traditional talk therapy in that it is more focused on resolving distress at a brain level. In other words, instead of trying to talk through a problem, the processing actually occurs in a physiological way. EMDR allows the improperly stored material in the implicit memory to be reprocessed and stored where it should be – in the explicit memory. Explicit memories can be recalled but they lack the vividness, high emotional charge, and strong sensory associations of implicit memories. With this type of processing, new thoughts, associations, emotions, and insights emerge spontaneously. I like to remind my clients that the brain will do what it needs to do during EMDR in order to reprocess the traumatic material. Clients often report a high degree of relief after just one to two sessions, although more work with EMDR is warranted in most cases.
After processing the traumatic impact of the infidelity, many clients report that they feel calmer, less distressed, and less weighed down in their bodies. They are also able to think more clearly. Many of my clients are then in a better position to make decisions about whether they want to work on the marriage.
Working Through the Impact of Infidelity in Christian Counseling
If you find yourself struggling with the traumatic effects of infidelity in your own life, you may benefit from the help of a Christian counselor who is experienced in helping people heal from the impact of infidelity. Talking with an objective professional counselor can assist you in processing the mixture of feelings and emotions you are experiencing. A Christian counselor can help you to move through the stages of grieving the loss of the marriage you had envisioned. It has been my privilege to assist many clients in walking through the dark valley as they recover from infidelity. I am a Christian counselor who is also trained to do EMDR. I will create a safe space in which you can share your devastation and begin to heal.
“Shattered Heart,” courtesy of Sigurd Decroos, freeimages.com; “Tombstone Cross,” courtesy of MichaelGaida, pixabay.com, CC0 Public Domain License; “Tossed by Waves,” courtesy of Jon Sullivan, public-domain-photos.com, CC0 Public Domain License; “Contemplation,” courtesy of Andrew Phillips, unsplash.com, CC0 Public Domain License.