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

Understanding Grief in Infidelity

Grieving vs. Mourning - Dr. Alan Wolfelt

2 Part Series:

  1. Do You Struggle with Forgiveness?
  2. Understanding Grief in Infidelity

This week we have Part Two of Mona Shriver's guest post. We've heard nothing but wonderful reviews of last week's article on forgiveness, and this week Mona shares specifically on the need for grief in recovery. Grief can be perplexing, especially as it pertains to infidelity, but after reading Mona's article we hope you'll find that it is necessary, incredibly transformational, and provides a pathway to personal and marital healing. Grief also provides a pathway through what can feel like uncontrollable anger.

The trauma of infidelity is huge. The healing process can be overwhelming and convoluted. When we began our own journey in 1993 there were few resources. We did find a good counselor and we worked hard. We healed. We grew. Neither of us is the same person we were before we went through the healing process to rebuild our marriage. And quite frankly, we're glad. We like ourselves and each other a whole lot more.

Going Through It Alone

One of the needs that soon surfaced after the revelation was to be able to talk with another couple who'd successfully navigated infidelity. Someone to tell us it was worth trying to heal. Someone who could look us in the eyes and tell us it really was possible to enjoy each other again. Someone who had done it. Our pastor and counselor told us they were out there, but we never found them. Two years later our counselor approached us to be that couple for someone else and a ministry was born. Hope & Healing Ministries, Inc. is a Christian peer support ministry for couples in infidelity recovery. We met Rick Reynolds and became acquainted with Affair Recovery many years ago at a conference. We, and the couples we serve, have benefitted greatly from the resources available through Affair Recovery, and it is an honor to offer some insights through this much needed resource.

One of the things I didn't comprehend at the beginning was the depth of the grieving process those of us who have been betrayed must walk through. Oh, certainly I knew that I would grieve many losses in my marriage. It didn't take long at all to understand I'd lost the husband I thought I had - I hadn't for one moment thought Gary was capable of this. I knew I'd lost the "good marriage" I thought we'd had - one that was above this threat. I knew I'd lost my image of myself - a woman who would know if something was wrong and couldn't be deceived. I knew immediately there had been losses. I'd felt the floor fall out from underneath me. My security and stability were far beyond my reach, even my strong faith wobbled in fear and disappointment. But I still didn't understand grieving then. Anger I could understand, but grief was foreign.

Understanding Grief

Grief is defined as deep mental anguish, deep sorrow. Frankly I didn't realize just how "deep" that deep was or what it would take to work my way back up through it. We often tell couples that the revelation of infidelity is comparable to the sudden death of someone you love. I've lost count of how many look me in the eye and say, "this is worse."

How can that be? The big difference is twofold in my opinion.

First, the wound of adultery is personal and feels intentional. It's inflicted by the one we trusted most. Even if there wasn't trust in the marriage, there was always hope they would someday become that person we could trust. Second, those of us experiencing adultery are not supported in the same way as those who experience a death. With death, everyone knows. They grieve with you. They bring meals, send flowers, and go out of their way to help you through this difficult time. And there's ritual - a funeral or memorial. The world stops for just a moment to note this significant event. They encourage us. Tell us we can make it. They don't advise us to give up on healing. In the case of infidelity, if the healing hasn't occurred in the timetable those outside the marriage believe is acceptable, they tell us to get out of the relationship or suck it up and move on. I often wonder if some of those couples who just "couldn't heal" got stuck in the grief of the betrayal.

Fortunately, a lot of excellent work has been done on grieving in the past few years. One of the things we've learned is that pain does not just go away with time. Dr. Gary Rosberg says it best: "You can bury pain, but you bury it alive."1 The pain will work its way out eventually and cause even more damage.

When we attempt to bury the pain or stuff it down, anger emerges, and seemingly compounds almost daily. Betrayed spouses wonder if they will ever be able to diffuse or overcome what feels like raw rage, especially since nothing they have tried has given them any traction. It's a common prescription to betrayed spouses to "just forgive and you won't be angry anymore." I'm sorry, but that's just not usually true. A betrayed spouse who is dealing with severe anger will need to actually grieve first, then slowly and steadily move towards forgiveness.

But grieve what you ask?

They may grieve the loss of the marriage they thought they had. They may grieve the life they thought they were going to live, free of infidelity or addiction. They may also have to grieve for the consequences that have arisen due to their spouse's or partner's actions. They may grieve the image they had of their spouse or even of themselves.

Grieving vs. Mourning

The Center for Loss and Life Transition in Fort Collins, Colorado is run by Dr. Alan Wolfelt, a noted grief counselor. One of the profound findings they teach is that there is a difference between grieving and mourning. He says this about grieving a death, but I believe it applies to any grieving process:

Grief is what you think and feel on the inside. It's numbness, sadness, anger, regret, and sometimes relief, all rolled up into one. It's a pain in your gut and a hold in your chest. Mourning is expressing your grief, letting it out somehow. You mourn when you cry, talk about it, write about it, punch a pillow. Everybody grieves inside. But only people who mourn really heal and move on to live and love fully again.2
- Dr. Alan Wolfelt

So what does that have to do with infidelity? It means no matter what does or doesn't happen with your marriage, no matter what does or doesn't happen with the pain caused by the betrayal, your ability to grieve well will greatly influence the rest of your life and the lives of those with whom you connect. So we need to consciously make grieving and mourning a part of our recovery process.

What does that look like? First, there is no right or wrong way to grieve, but there are healthy ways to cope with the pain. I believe there are three simple principles which can help guide us in a healthy way.

Recognize the Depth of the Pain

None of us have a problem recognizing there is pain associated with the revelation of infidelity, but I believe we underestimate the depth. At the very least, those who surround us do. And that can include the unfaithful spouse. Betrayed spouses are often allotted a specified period of time to come to grips with what has happened, process it, and move on. The irony is that few, if any, of those who offer this advice would ever say something similar to someone who had experienced a death. Because that expectation is so often communicated, it follows that the betrayed spouse expects this of his or herself. So when s/he finds that six, eight, ten months later s/he is still a mess, his/her mind begins to wonder if healing is really possible. I speak with so many betrayed spouses that share a story along these lines. I listen and then ask one question: "If your spouse had suddenly died 8 or 10 months ago, would you be surprised that you're still struggling?" I've yet to have even one say "yes".

Recognizing the depth of the pain gives us permission to seek healthy ways to mourn instead of wasting so much of our energy trying not to feel the way we do. It would also help those who support us if they understood this principle because they could encourage the one grieving to do the mourning necessary to heal.

Self-Care

The truth is that experiencing this trauma and the grief that accompanies it is exhausting. It takes a lot physically, emotionally, and spiritually to work a healing- process after a deep wound like infidelity. So why do so many of us try to continue on as normal? The problem with "pretending normal" (as Rick calls it) is that we fail miserably and exhaust our resources even more in those efforts.

We tell couples to treat themselves like they were in a severe car accident. Just because you can't see the wound doesn't mean it won't begin to fester without proper care. You wouldn't try to do everything like normal if you had a broken leg or internal bleeding, so stop anything that isn't essential. It will take all you have to just do the necessaries of life. Of course, the difference is no one else can see our broken and bleeding wound, but we can say we're sick. Because the truth is, we are.

And this is where we can help each other. Gary and I tended to take turns being incapacitated. It wasn't anything we planned but it did seem to work out that way. And one of the things we could do for each other - and there weren't a whole lot of those during that time - was give the other person some time and space for extra rest when we ourselves had a bit more energy. In fact, one of the suggestions from our counselor was for Gary to provide me with the opportunity for time alone to do some writing. He took care of the house and kids so I could have a few hours alone to do some of that mourning work. It ended up helping both of us.

Don't Do It Alone

When we were working through recovery, it was the first time in my life I wondered if I would even survive. I found myself totally inadequate. It frightened me and made me question myself. I had simply never experienced trauma and grief at this level, even though I'd experienced the death of a nephew and my father. I had always been the strong, resilient one.

As we've worked with couples in groups, I've seen the value of support. They walk into our first meeting uncertain and wary, their pain obvious even in the way they hold themselves. After experiencing support, there is a noticeable difference. As one person put it, "It's been a refreshing time as opposed to the heaviness of these past weeks".

Grief support groups have become widely accepted as therapeutic and extremely helpful. They are highly recommended to those who have recently experienced a death. People find healing and hope there. We find the same things in that setting for those in infidelity recovery. Very often we hear someone say they finally understand what their spouse and others have been trying to convey for a long time. It's not because we have some extra special words to convey the message, it's simply the dynamics of a group. For me, my final and complete healing came through this support system. I remember clearly stating I had completely healed and realizing it had happened sometime in the past. It had come as we worked with others.

Go through the grieving process. Do the mourning necessary. Access and utilize the expert resources you need to heal. It's the best gift you can give yourself, your kids, and those with whom you do life. And we want to encourage you to continue on so you can process this trauma and heal. It's worth it. I can say that because we did it and I will never regret working through the grief.

Our EMS Online course is a safe environment for both spouses to find the necessary perspective to heal while also providing space for the potential restoration of the marriage. If you're serious about giving the marriage a chance and seeing if there's tangible hope for marital recovery, I hope you'll register today for our next round of EMS Online at 12pm CST.


1. Rosberg, Gary and Barbara. Healing the Hurt in Your Marriage. 2004. PDF.

2. Wolfelt, Alan. Understanding Your Grief: Ten Essential Touchstones for Finding Hope and Healing Your Heart. Fort Collins, CO: Companion Press, 2003. eBook.

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Comments

I guess I am grieving

It has been 1 year since the FIRST D-day and we are a couple of days away from the second D-Day. I discovered the most current affair and then about a month later my husband confessed that there had been 2 others that I did not know about.

After reading that article I guess I have moved to the grieving phrase....I just feel weighted down, like a sad cloud has moved in....my husband has restored some of my trust, but my issue is that my faith has been so shaken I am not sure it will ever be restored. I trusted God to protect me and my marriage. I trusted God to heal my mother, I trusted God to keep my daughter with in the bounds of her commitments. I trusted God in the business of our church. In my grief I don't know that I want to trust God any longer. See first a pastor came that almost destroyed our church. Next another pastor came to repair the damage, but managed to just divide the people and most of mine and my husbands aged group left, then we watched people that had held the church together after the first pastor be pushed out by the new one. Then my mother died. Then I discovered my husband was having and affair after he had asked me for a divorce with plans of eventually moving in with her. Then I discovered that this was not his first affair, but his third. Each affair occurred during a time in my life and our marriage that I was experiencing major depression. Then my unmarried college student daughter got pregnant.
My husband is home, we have worked VERY hard to recover from this, but there was a discovery last week in counseling that knocked me off my feet yet again. My husband was asked a question about the AP and his comment was I knew I wanted to come home when it became clear although she said she wanted me to leave my wife she never asked me to come to her or when I was moving in. He back tracked and said that convinced him that she was not the one for him and that I was.......BUT I am just not sure. Is he with me because she really did not want him after all or is he with me because he really thought about what he was loosing?
See I had just started to TRUST that all this might be worth it......NOW I am not sure......and once again all I have asked God over the past year is to give me strength and discernment for my marriage and I feel like he has allowed me to be deceived once again. For YEARS I have begged my husband to stop spending money and pay off debt. In the past year he has worked his tail off to pay off debt. We are close to being debt fee. Now I wonder if this is just so he can leave.

Great article, easy to

Great article, easy to understand - thanks for sharing.

Wife was the one who cheated. Not much help for men dealing with

Do you have a section devoted to husbands dealing with an unfaithful wife? All information and stories always seem that the husband or man was the cheater and not the wife. It's a completely different aspect and I can't resonate with stories of an unfaithful husband.

Especially when it comes so sex. Mean view it differently. It's a stab at our dignity and many other things. I feel that there are way to few resources for men who are dealing with infidelity from women.

I'm not doubting it's out there. If you have links you can send, that would be great. I just feel 99% if information out there is where the woman was cheated on.

Thank you

Hey Matt - Sorry you qualify

Hey Matt - Sorry you qualify for this "club". As a fellow betrayed husband, I know what you are saying and there are some unique aspects to this journey as a guy. I suggest looking into taking the Harboring Hope class. I just finished the class about a month ago, you would be in a group with exclusively betrayed men where the wife is the one who cheated. It has been helpful for me to connect in a small group with a group of guys in the same situation, and I think you'd find it valuable too.
To Healing,

What a wonderfully written

What a wonderfully written article which is so timely. Lots of nuggets in there to chew on as I go through the grieving process of my spouses infidelity. Thanks for giving me permission to continue grieving and not to give into the pressure to "pretend normal"!

Thank you! That articulated

Thank you! That articulated so much of how I feel having discovered last January that my ‘lovely’ clergy husband of 46 years of marriage had been lying and cheating on and off for most of these last 30 years with a ‘friend’ of mine from our church. What a relief to see it written down!

Having trouble grieving

Looking at the loss and mistrust I have experienced in life (with Dad, with God and, ultimately, with my wife when she had her 2-year emotional affair), I have found ways to cope by burying my emotions, which I know is bad because all it does is suppress my anger until it is triggered. Then all hell breaks loose in either blowups or extreme sadness and resentment. Not sure how exactly to walk through any of this in a healthy way. I have been in both individual and marital counseling over the 2-plus years since the affair was exposed, but no one really understands because they haven't been through this emotional roller coaster I am riding.

The days seem to be getting better -- much more than the first year where I was triggered and blew up over almost everything in interactions with my wife -- but I know I am truly only finding ways to cope and numb the pain. That is until I start thinking once again about the past -- and also that my wife still stays fairly disconnected from me (which I need to ask is this normal for the betrayer to not try and make amends?) -- so I find myself adding to my bitterness and resentment that she is still with me and says she is giving it over to God daily to reconnect, but it's been 2-plus years and I feel that she is more of a roommate than anything. No kissing, no hugging, no cuddling/snuggling, no holding hands -- all things I desperately crave and long for.

Just don't know. Need answers, need healing, need to grieve and mourn, really really need to forgive. My wife has told our marriage counselor that she feels I will never forgive her. I want to so badly give her unconditional love, but I have such a hard time since she is moving so slowly in reconnecting.

HELP!

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