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

Intrusive Thoughts After the Affair: How to Manage Flooding

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"Rick, don't you want to help your mate move beyond the pain of betrayal after your affair?"

It was certainly important to me, but, initially, my responses to Stephanie's pain only made things worse. Eventually I was able to realize when Stephanie was emotionally flooded, and quickly learned that in those moments I couldn't necessarily make things better, but I could certainly make things worse.

Dealing with intrusive thoughts and painful triggers is critical in surviving infidelity.

The emotional flooding accompanying the trauma of infidelity can be crippling for the betrayed spouse, so it's vital that the unfaithful spouse knows the appropriate responses to help their mate.

In previous newsletters on Post Traumatic Infidelity Syndrome, I've explained the chemical and physiological realities of what happens when triggers and emotional flooding begin.

A few tell-tale signs your mate may be flooding are rage, verbal abuse, physical abuse, fight or flight mentality, marathon questioning sessions, threatening, sudden changes in decisions (such as demanding their mate pack up their stuff and get out even though they've previously been committed to working on the relationship), and other highly charged reactions.

As mentioned in Intrusive Thoughts After the Affair: The #1 Obstacle to Recovery, when emotionally flooded, the individual is in a survival state and not necessarily rational. For individuals impacted by infidelity, part of their new reality inevitably includes flashbacks, triggers and intrusive thoughts. Surviving infidelity is dependent on learning how to cope with this reality.

What not to do:

John walked through the door after work to find his three children watching TV and no sign of his wife. He found Kathy in the bedroom, strewn across the bed and sobbing into her hands. Tentatively he said, "I see you're having a bad day. I'm going to take the kids out to get pizza and I'll bring something back for you." Then he closed the door, grabbed the kids, and headed out for pizza.

While John's response wasn't the worst, there are others that may have been more helpful. Witnessing the pain or anger of someone who is flooding can be overwhelming. There is a continuum of negative responses the unfaithful spouse tends to make, ranging from ignoring their mate's hurt to the other extreme of trying to manipulate and control through the use of anger, defensiveness or blaming.

continuum of responses to emotional flooding by betrayed spouses

While John didn't totally ignore Kathy's pain he certainly avoided dealing with it by grabbing the kids and getting out of the house.

Common responses that make things worse are:

Giving Assurance:
Don't try to soothe or quiet your mate by making empty promises they have no reason to believe.

"It won't happen again..."
"Everything will be OK..."
"Honey, you're living in the past..."
Or, "Nothing happened today, you don't need to be concerned," are all examples of attempting to assure your mate.

When your mate is flooding, in their mind everything is not okay. Telling them that it will be okay only escalates the situation as their mind starts to race and they begin to let you know their reality. Instead, listen to them and work your program. Actions speak far louder than words.

Trying to control or manage their response:
When someone is emotionally flooded they are in survival mode and won't be rational. Trying to reason with them or manage their response will usually result in things getting worse. Listen to what they are saying. If things are unsafe, take a time out rather than trying to control them.

When you move into shame or guilt you make it all about you, and there's a good chance when you make it all about you it will only escalate the flooding. Stay in a position of being concerned for them. The greatest gift you can give them is to take responsibility for your actions, forgive yourself and be concerned with helping them heal. It may seem cliché or even callous, but don't let it become just about you; remember that they are the ones sacrificing everything to work through this pain that they didn't cause, so keep their healing paramount in your mind. Your own time will come, but initially you'll need to work on being safe for them to share their hurt and pain.

Trying to correct how they see things (defensiveness):
The primary trigger for defensiveness is when you're told what you did, why you did it and how you felt about it. There is an automatic desire to correct their thinking. This is always perceived as defensiveness. Remember, when someone is flooded, it's about survival, and defensiveness will always make things worse. Instead of trying to explain, try to understand how they are seeing things.

Pretending like everything is okay when they are clearly upset:
It may seem that ignoring the problem is going to help if your mate is flooded, but the opposite is true. If you can't be safe while they flood, then things will continue to spin out of control. Ask if they're okay and if they need to talk. If they don't want to talk they'll let you know, but to avoid showing concern for them (as John did in our scenario) only creates the impression you don't care or that your own comfort is more important than their healing.

Over the course of recovery, you'll have to accept that you don't know what's good and what's bad. In all honesty, it's your own perceptions and choices that got you here in the first place. Why should your spouse believe that now you know what's best? Humility goes a long way in helping your mate to feel you're safe. The best definition of humility is "I can't," and the best definition of wisdom is "I don't know." Letting your mate know you are open to gaining a deeper understanding of their pain and that you don't know all the answers but you're going to do everything you can to find those answers, goes a long way to giving your mate hope.

Directing your mate in how they should talk to you:
This is all about making it more comfortable for you, which I can promise is not at the top of their to-do list when they are flooding. It's okay to ask, but telling them what to do or how to speak to make it easier for you it is inherently all about you, and it will only increases the probability of escalation. Instead, consider how you might alter your responses to make it easier for your mate.

Telling them you know how they feel:
In reality, it's impossible to fully understand how they feel. Most unfaithful spouses have no idea what it feels like to be betrayed, and trying to pretend that you do is usually an attempt to short-circuit empathy and quiet your betrayed spouse. Instead of jumping straight to empty phrases like "I know how you feel," try truly listening to the words they use to describe their pain.

Shaming them:
After the flood has passed, you may be tempted to remind them how they acted while flooding, not out of loving concern, but as a way to shame them and to try to prevent the same behavior in the future. That still makes it about you and your comfort rather than maintaining compassion and genuine concern. Broaching the subject of their flooding and what happened because of your concern for them is one thing, but trying to manage their behavior only prolongs recovery.

Being a positive force in your mate's recovery begins by accepting them where they are at and being genuinely concerned about their emotional state. It's not about trying to get them to understand you. As you pursue recovery, there will come a day when the concerns of the unfaithful will be addressed but not till flooding can be first understood and soothed.

Responses that help are:

Try to call a time out:
Once someone is emotionally flooded it's impossible to be rational. If at all possible, call a time out. If emotional flooding is an issue, come up with a protocol for calling a timeout beforehand. That agreement will at least give you opportunity to stop the potential damage.

Rather than telling your mate what's wrong with what they're saying, which is seen as defensiveness, find what's right and tell them they're right. Your ability to take responsibility for whatever they say that is true will help stop the escalation. Even if it's only 5% true, take responsibility for the five percent and don't try to correct the other 95%. This is a huge exercise in humility, and it will be incredibly helpful for your spouse.

Recognize the sacrifice your mate is making by still being with you. Let them know you appreciate the fact they are still with you and are trying to work through this. Acknowledging that you appreciate their effort and sacrifice is a huge gift. It goes a long way to encourage them to keep up their struggle with the emotional flooding.

Seek to understand:
Listen, listen and then listen some more. Do your best to understand their feelings. One of Stephanie's cues for me when she was flooded was to ask, "How loud do I have to get for you to hear me?"It was at that point that I knew it was time to listen rather trying to get her to understand me. Making the effort to first understand them gets the focus off of you and onto what you can do to help them heal.

Ask if they want to talk about it:
Rather than pretending normal, if it's clear they are struggling, ask them if they'd like to talk. If they're not interested they'll let you know, but the fact that you're open to talking to them lets them know you're concerned for them.

Be a safe vessel for anger:
When someone is flooded, one of the greatest gifts you can give them is to be a safe vessel for anger. (This is not the same as allowing someone to be physically abusive. If that happens you need to remove yourself.) Let them talk and be upset. Try to feel their pain without blaming them for what you've done. Having someone who will accept them at their worst communicates that you are safe and that you love them. Try to be present as they talk and try to stay in a mindset of concern and compassion.

There is hope for managing something as chaotic as emotional flooding. If you're unable to be safe while your mate is flooding it only prolongs the flooding both in the moment and as they attempt to recover over the long haul. If you can be there for them, working to be safe for them, then you can help them heal and move beyond their fight or flight cycles. Remember your mate didn't volunteer for this, but if they are still with you they are at least trying to move through this hell in an attempt to salvage your relationship and family.

I'd like to encourage you today to consider attending our EMS Weekend (Virtual Options Now Available!) for further help in understanding how to help your mate heal. Our weekend addresses the pain in an expert driven way for all three parties: the betrayed spouse, the unfaithful spouse, and the marriage, and can help you gain stable ground for your recovery.

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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I found out in December my husband was having an affair for 4 months. We were at the shore and I had to go home. He was staying claiming friends were coming down and he'd get a ride home with them. He was acting strange so I went through his phone and found text messages that his friends was actually the woman he's been seeing. I stormed out, drove 2 hours home hysterical. We talked a couple days later and he said he wanted this marriage to work. He claimed I was the love of his life. I said I would work on the marriage. Little did I know he was still seeing her and continued for another 6 weeks. It is now 5 months later We go to counseling every week. In the beginning I felt as though I hit rock bottom and there was no way out. I had to go on medication just to be ale to function through the day. 5 months later I am starting to fell stronger, still on medication, and deal with the demons he has caused almost on a daily basis. The pain will get better but for me the thoughts are still fresh in my mind. Get a good support system. I found out some parts of my husbands affair while I was at work. (Things he didn't share with me) and had a mental breakdown. I thank God for my work family who have been very supportive of me and have been their to help me through this mess. As for my relationship, we are still trying to work on it, so hopefully we can make it through this.
Good luck to you!!!

Thank you

My husband betrayed me multiple times over past 9 years. We are still in the middle of the hurricane. For years I have been trying to tell him how he makes me feel when I am emotionally flooded, but it was never perceived or heard until I found this video today. This video is 💯 % on what is happening and I am going through. I sent this to my husband and told him, if you ever want to help me or do something for me then watch this video. He did and he finally understood what he was doing to me and why we can’t get passed it. I hope that we can both apply the things we learn here to safe our marriage. Thank you again for this video and help.

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