Rick Reynolds, LCSW
by Rick Reynolds, LCSW
Founder & President, Affair Recovery

Healing After Infidelity: What Doesn't Work.

I poured diesel fuel on our bonfire last Christmas Eve. That’s something I’ve taught my children to never do. The results were spectacular, the flame ignited the vapor in the can and the explosion blew the can out of my hand and across the field. Thankfully I wasn’t hurt, but my kids got a great reminder as to why you don’t pour fuel on a fire.

This week I’d like to discuss some of the least productive things those who were betrayed did after the infidelity came to light. Just as most people would agree that pouring fuel on a fire isn’t particularly productive, those taking our past survey agreed that after the affair was made known certain courses of action failed to be productive.

The question, “What was the least productive thing those who were betrayed did after the infidelity came to light?” was structured with seven categories followed by an opportunity for participants to make other suggestions. Suggested categories were as follows:

  • 21.6% Believed my mate was telling me the truth.
  • 17% Didn't take action soon enough to heal.
  • 8.5% Punished mate by telling everyone I could about his/her affair.
  • 6.1% Confronted the affair partner
  • 3.3% Refused to get help
  • 3.3% Believed / acted on bad advice
  • 3% Told the kids prematurely

Respondents also had the opportunity to supply their own unproductive actions.

  • 32.5% Submitted other actions. Five themes stood out in their answers.

1.    Tried to manage my mate’s recovery.

2.    Blamed myself for my mate’s failure and tried to become someone I’m not.

3.    Initially believed my mate, which caused me to minimize the extent of the problem.

4.    Used rage and anger to transmit my pain.

5.    Didn't get help soon enough.

What makes these actions so unproductive and how much harm can they do when healing after infidelity? Let’s examine each action. While not exhaustive, I hope to speak to each action with compassion and insight, though I will be forced to be brief.

21.6% Believed my mate was telling me the truth:

22% of women and 19% of men chose this category. Previous surveys revealed that the question of how to trust again is asked almost 2:1 over any other question. I believe that people felt this was the least productive thing they did because it caused a further deterioration of trust after the affair. The continued deception perpetrated by the unfaithful spouse can cause the betrayed spouse to feel the fool and distorts their judgment.

It is also related to the third suggested category: “Initially believed my mate, which caused me to minimize the extent of the problem.”

Here are examples of the write-in submissions from this category:

Immediate "forgiveness"...did not guard my heart and trusted he was not going to see her again. Instead of detaching and watching for true change or utilizing "tough love" sooner.

I did so many of these things, but trying to force myself to believe him, even when I knew in my heart that it was probably another lie, was the most damaging. Trust was the absolute hardest thing to rebuild largely due to the repeated lies.

A friend told me, and my wife denied it for months. I wanted to believe it wasn't true, so I gave her the benefit of the doubt.

17% Did not take action soon enough to heal:

18% of women and 16% of men chose this category. It’s not unusual for decision paralysis to set in after betrayal. Several factors contribute to this. First is ambivalence. This is when two diametrically opposed beliefs effectively cancel each other out. A part of the betrayed spouse may believe for dignity’s sake that they need to leave. While a separate part of them may want to save the marriage for the sake of the kids, or maybe they see what seems to be a heartfelt change in their mate. Until one side wins out over the other, it’s hard for the betrayed spouse to choose what to do.

Hopelessness is another reason for decision paralysis, especially when it comes to deciding whether to give the marriage a shot. Without examples of others who have successfully worked through betrayal to achieve a better life, healing after infidelity seems impossible, resulting in little to no motivation to make the effort.

The pain of betrayal also serves as inhibitor to seeking help after infidelity. With depression there is a loss of motivation, energy, and concentration. To some simply getting out of bed each day feels like all they can do. What’s sad is how the effects of the betrayal rob them of the motivation they need to heal.

Anger can also delay the necessary healing. The unfairness of it all leads to a natural resistance to healing. They did it, so why should the betrayed spouse need to do anything to heal? But if you’re a passenger in a car that is in an accident, it’s certainly not fair and not your fault you were hurt, but if you are to walk again you must do the hard work of rehabilitation. Bottom line: it’s not fair, but hopefully we can accept our circumstances and chose to move forward into health. Surviving infidelity means courageously facing the unfairness of the situation.

It was interesting to me that so many respondents submitted "Didn't get help soon enough" when they supplied their own answers. Here are examples of the comments associated with this category:

I wanted to heal very quickly and pushed too hard. I tried to find somewhere and some way to heal quickly, but really didn't find much until finding this web site. I couldn't afford to go to any of the sessions or take any of the courses, however the web site itself is very helpful both for myself and my spouse. We read everything that comes across. It's been 8 years this month since disclosure. We are healing. There is still an odd time when overwhelming feelings occur, however it has been a long journey.

I’m trying to protect my husband, who by the time he confessed had been faithful for many years. I didn't get help and didn't want anyone to know.

We have never been to counseling...still think that this would speed up our process. I read and read and read, but infidelity-specific counseling is difficult to find where we live.

Getting help and choosing to move forward can never come too soon. You don’t have to know what you want to begin choosing life. You just need the courage to honestly look at your situation, your mate and yourself. Wisdom is not about having the answers, it’s accepting what you don’t know. At the very least, do something to pursue healing. At Affair Recovery one of our most effective steps forward is our couples intensive weekend, EMS Weekend Retreat, which can help an individual or couple determine if it’s worth going forward of if they need to throw in the towel. Other resources also exist such as therapists, BAN, and COSA. I urge you to take the first step toward healing.

8.5% Punished mate by telling everyone I could about his/her affair.

8% of women and 10% of men confirmed that this was an unhelpful action after infidelity. It’s also closely related to the fourth suggested category: Transmitted my pain though rage and anger.

It’s natural, but not so helpful if the betrayed spouse seeks revenge for their mate’s betrayal or if they use their mate’s betrayal as a justification for transmitting their anger. Comments for this category were as follows:

I constantly reminded him of how disappointed I was & I felt like I hated him. In reality, I was so shocked this happened but I still loved him so much. I believe things happen for a reason- you don't get to this point in your life if things are going well. I learned that I have to appreciate him....it's all he ever wanted.

I would OCD about all the things that happened and I would suddenly go into these awful rages and start beating him up because the anger and grief was so overwhelming.

Rage and entitlement to hurt him.

Two other categories I want to mention were in the categories that respondents themselves supplied.

First was “Trying to manage my mate’s recovery.” 26% of men and 15% of women wrote this one in. One of the first lessons I was taught in graduate school is that I couldn’t want it more than my client. I could never serve as my client’s motivation, and the same is true in marriage. The betrayed spouse can never carry the motivation for their mate. They can’t make them do anything. The unfaithful spouse has to find their own motivation if they are to move forward and if the marriage is to be restored.

Here are examples for this category:

Tried to be the one to fix everything, thus allowing my spouse to delay taking responsibility.

Kept trying to push him into brokenness but only because I thought we would heal faster.

The last category we’ll cover is “Blamed myself for my mate’s failure and tried to become someone I’m not.” This can occur because the unfaithful spouse blames their mate for what they did (to push away their guilt) and the betrayed spouse accepts the blame. It can also come from their fear of losing the relationship after the affair. The fear of the loss of the marriage can cause them to blame themselves. It’s interesting that men were almost twice as likely to do this as women. Examples of this type of comment were:

Thinking it was about my actions, weight, hair style, etc. Trying to control my spouse. Hyper-vigilance.

I kept thinking it was my fault and tried to become someone I am not.

Plastic surgery.

Tortured myself over what I could have done or not done to prevent it from happening, thinking it was something I did or didn’t do that caused the affair.

If you’re in the in midst of recovery and trying to survive infidelity I hope you’ll learn from those who’ve gone before. It’s not time that will heal you, but it’s how you use that time. Are you making decisions that bring new life and health or are you still stuck in a spiral of destruction? I hope you’ll choose life.

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Betrayed for seven years. "Courageously facing the unfairness of the situation." What a euphemism for living hell. It's been over two years. I try to live in the present and follow my counselor's and our counselor's advice. I still feel defeated by the triggers and flooding. Expressing anything about my pain makes him angry and he tells me to "move on." I want love and respect. Move forward, find myself, forget the past, live in the present, appreciate love given today, --- seem like insurmountable mountains to climb. How can I ever experience his face, voice, and embrace again without thoughts of them together? How can boot camp help me, and help us?

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