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

Why Couples Fail After an Affair | Part 4 - Not Grieving the Loss

Why Couples Fail After an Affair: A Four Part Series

Part 1: Not Knowing What Happened
Part 2: Not Getting It
Part 3: Denying Your Reality
Part 4: Not Grieving the Loss

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I hate grief work, as anyone in our office will attest. I think it comes from a one-year season in my life where I lost my mother, grandmother, father-in-law, uncle, and the 10-year-old son of our dear friends. I was devastated by the losses, but each time I tried to move on it felt like another death knocked me down causing a sense of utter helplessness. My response to these events was pure rage. The circumstances were beyond my ability to comprehend. I couldn't fix it. I couldn't control it. I couldn't even understand it. Sad to say, I didn't know much about grief in those days; I wish I had. The only way I knew to respond was with anger and rage, which I selfishly spewed out on everyone around me.

The pain after an affair can be as crushing as losing a loved one if not more so. It's a pain like nothing else we experience.

With the deaths of my loved ones, I experienced some kind of finality. However, in the case of betrayal, having to live with the ongoing consequences and corresponding fear of a repeated betrayal perpetuates the trauma.

Typical Responses to Pain After Infidelity

Our current culture has a problem with the type of loss associated with infidelity. We're expected to be able to overcome any obstacle by pulling ourselves up by our bootstraps. We're taught from an early age that our "can-do" attitude will give us the ability to overcome all of life's obstacles.

We often enter into "modes" in order to deal with our pain, and the three most common I see are:

  1. Fix-It

    At this point in our lives, we're well-trained in the Fix-It mode and frequently utilize this approach to handle our infidelity crisis. We soon discover that much of the wreckage created by infidelity can't simply be fixed.
  2. Control-It

    At other times, we enter into the Control-It mode, but many aspects of infidelity are flat-out unmanageable, and the pain keeps going on. It's impossible to control our spouse, and controlling the flow of information causes more damage in the long run than getting everything out.
  3. Understand-It

    We might even try the Understand-It mode, falsely believing that our capability to comprehend what happened will stop the pain. In the case of infidelity, there are rarely enough answers, and even when answers come, they fail to lessen the pain. It's important to point out here that there is tremendous benefit from seeking to understand in regard to building empathy, learning the full story of what happened, and learning how to heal after infidelity. However, purely cerebral understanding cannot replace the role that grief plays in specifically addressing and transforming pain.

How Grief Can Transform Our Pain

As Americans, we have little training in the healthy practice of Grieve-It mode. It's applicable to situations that are too messy to fix, too big to control, and too unjust to understand.

Grief is the only way to deal with loss and pain after infidelity.

Grieving is the soul's primary path for transforming pain and trauma into peace and, ultimately, acceptance. For many of us, though, grieving is a foreign path that we might even run from and fight to avoid. Rather than allowing our pain to be transformed, we'll attempt to manage it or even numb it. The problem is, we cannot selectively numb only certain areas of life. So, we end up becoming completely numb, and that all-consuming numbness results in more collateral damage.

"Pain that is not transformed will be transmitted."

- Richard Rohr

I couldn't agree more with Rohr's quote. To move beyond a betrayal, it is imperative to learn the Grieve-It mode. I can imagine the resistance some of you are feeling right now. You might be thinking:

  • How can anything good come out of this?
  • I didn't cause this. Why should I have to walk through the pain?
  • This is their issue. Why should I have to do the work?

I don't always know the answers to these questions. But I do know that some situations are so big it's impossible to find all the answers, and at times we have to go on living without knowing. If there are no good answers, what are you going to do with the pain that feels like death in your soul? How do you handle running into something so horrible that it brings you to the end of yourself?

In these situations, we may be powerless, but we're not helpless.
We still get to choose how to respond.

This is so important to us that two of Affair Recovery's "We Believe" statements are

1) Severe crisis can lead to radical transformation, and

2) Failure teaches what success cannot.

I can honestly say that my year of death was one of the most painful times in my life, but it was also one of the most transformative. I'm certainly not trying to justify the evil that has occurred in anyone's life or excuse anyone's addiction. I can say, though, that every major lesson I've learned after the age of thirty hasn't been the result of success but, rather, has been the result of failure. If we allow ourselves the grace to process it fully, there is a way for our pain to be used as a catalyst for healing, growth, and transformation.

This may surprise you: a major determining factor between those who go forward with new life and those who remain stuck after an affair is their willingness to grieve the loss.

One of the lectures given at EMS Weekend is titled "Barriers to Recovery," and one of the six barriers we discuss is "A Failure to Grieve". Below is a portion of that lecture:

Grieving Done Well

Those who go into Grieve-It mode may spend months sorting through their grief with tears, pain, and true sorrow but, at the end of their journey, they feel refreshed and renewed. I remember one of our mentors explaining how each night after she got the kids to bed, she'd go to the bathroom and cry out to God while weeping. While that may sound strange to some, at the end of her season of mourning she was renewed. She worked through the grief and was able to emerge without that tangible sadness, that weight in her soul, dragging down even the best days. You can read her compelling story here.

Since I began my work as a therapist in 1981, I have never known of a single person who has thoroughly grieved and had any regrets or felt a need to blame anyone. They are free and at peace. When people fail to move forward after the affair, it's often due to the inability to grieve the loss. Instead of healing from the pain, they try to control and manage the pain which only results in further damage and isolation.

Untransformed pain manifests itself in some unexpected but harmful ways. Frequently, it's seen as bitterness and resentment. Eventually, untransformed pain makes us toxic to everyone around us, and our pain is transmitted through mistrust, rejection, and isolation. We continually play the victim and claim self-protection as the defense for making everyone else wrong so we can be right.

Samuel shared some poignant thoughts in one of his video blogs, where he cautions survivors to not 'anger their way through recovery'.

Whichever process you choose to work through the pain of infidelity, please do not skip grieving. It's hard and it hurts, but truly grieving the losses created by infidelity is the only way to overcome the pain and discover peace. For more help on how to grieve while being supported by a tight-knit group consider the Harboring Hope course for betrayed spouses.

Harboring Hope registration opens monthly. Subscribe to be notified.

Harboring Hope is our online course for betrayed spouses to heal after infidelity. It often sells out within a few short hours. Don't miss it!

Subscribe to Registration Notifications!



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Thank you Wayne for offering I broader timeline for recovery. For my situation I need way more than the 18-24 month window expressed in much of AR’s information.

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