Is sheltering in place with your spouse after an affair a blessing or curse?
Posted May 04, 2020
Couples all over the world have been sheltering in place for weeks. Judging by the calls to my office and confessions from friends and family, I’d say that the old adage, “familiarity breeds contempt” has some merit.
When people are confined to close quarters 24/7, especially when they’re not accustomed to spending much time together, getting on each other’s nerves seems to be fairly universal.
Let’s face it. This hasn’t been easy.
But imagine for a moment what it might be like if, instead of nit-picking about garden variety problems, you or your spouse discovered infidelity right before the coronavirus turned our world upside down and forced you to be together all of the time.
For some, this is not a hypothetical situation; they’re living it.
Although there are some fairly predictable challenges reported by these couples, there are also some surprising bonuses.
Uninterrupted time together. One of the most common things I hear from betrayed partners is that shortly after the discovery, although devastated, they find comfort in the physical presence of their spouses which seems to help ward off rumination and anxiety.
For that reason, in my book Healing From Infidelity, I encourage couples, whenever possible, to spend extra time together, even if it means taking some time off from work.
Now we have little option. We’re together. We have no place to go. These couples are saying that the pandemic has been a blessing in disguise, especially if under normal circumstances extensive time together would have been an impossibility.
Time to talk. After affairs, most betrayed spouses are intensely curious about what happened and why it happened. This often includes marathon discussions about the affair, especially early on. But then life happens and people get busy, necessitating a need to put these healing conversations on hold.
This often infuriates betrayed spouses who insist that the ability to share feelings of bone-deep sadness, shock, and anger is a prerequisite for moving beyond the pain of betrayal.
These in-depth interactions take time. Time together. Our shelter-in-place orders have provided a clear opportunity to be together and talk.
Limited cheating opportunities. Prior to the pandemic, when infidelity was discovered and life went on as usual, betrayed spouses often expressed intense anxiety that their unfaithful spouses might still secretly meet their affair partners, especially if the affair was with a co-worker.
For many, compulsory work-from-home orders have meant one less thing betrayed spouses have to worry about. Although it is possible that illicit contact could be made through text, Zoom, or even in person, the truth is that the lack of simple opportunities to rendezvous has seemed like a heaven-sent gift.
No distractions from the pain. I was once seated near a group of people at a restaurant who were having extremely lively conversations. Always curious about human interaction, I wondered if they were friends or business associates.
As I was leaving the restaurant, they smiled, which prompted my asking what brought them together. They told me that they all lived in a co-housing community.
In a co-housing community, people have the philosophy that it’s better to share their lives than live in isolation. They all own modest homes, but they have common spaces such as parks, large kitchens, and facilities for guests. They plan lots of group activities as well.
I asked them how they liked living there and one man put it succinctly: “The best thing about co-housing is the togetherness. The worst thing about co-housing is the togetherness.”
So, although close quarters has been a blessing for so many couples dealing with infidelity, it has also been a challenge; there is no break whatsoever from reminders about the affair. The unfaithful spouse is always an arms-length away.
Many couples tell me that it helps tremendously to focus on something other than the affair, to have a distraction once in a while. It’s overwhelming to focus on the pain of the affair incessantly.
During “the old normal,” many couples felt better when they did things together outside their home, activities that have been soothing or even enjoyable, such as trying a new restaurant or going to a movie together.
Clearly, the opportunities to take “time off” from the problems by having a change of scenery are extremely limited. In fact, depending upon where couples live in our country, it’s downright impossible. When engaging in outside activities has become impossible, changing “mental channels” requires a great deal more creativity and determination.
No privacy. Many couples dealing with infidelity have children and say it’s not feasible to find ways to have privacy to talk, or when emotions run high, to engage in heated discussions without being overheard.
Similarly, when children need to be cared for, it’s hard to retreat when sadness or other intense emotions arise. Additionally, the constant presence of children makes it more difficult to protect them from their parents’ marital struggles.
COVID fears exacerbating the pain of infidelity. Lately, I find myself putting out marital fires that, in my mind, are caused by underlying anxiety about the future. “Will we get sick?” “Will we die?” “How will we ever recover financially,” just to name a few of these ever-present concerns.
This gnawing worry causes couples to be more irritable than usual and take it out on the people closest to them—their spouses.
This is also true for couples dealing with the monumental crisis of infidelity.
The healing process is made harder because we aren’t at our psychological bests right now. We are scared, on edge, and we have shorter fuses. We are low on emotional resources at a time when we need them the most.
Unfortunately, few people recognize how these external stressors (that have nothing to do with our spouses) prompt us to feel hopeless, helpless, and overly critical.
And without an awareness of how the stressors impact our perceptions of ourselves and our partners, we tend to catastrophize and draw unfortunate conclusions about possibilities for the future.
So, what are some things couples who are dealing with the aftermath of infidelity can do during this unprecedented time?
First, have gratitude for the benefits of having more time together. This is no small gift. The world has slowed down its frenetic pace to give you time to rebuild and reconnect.
Secondly, intentionally schedule “problem-free times,” times when you force yourselves to do something other than process what’s happened, even if it’s awkward at first.
If you’re a parent and you and your spouse need to have what might end up being a heated conversation, if the kids are old enough, go for a walk and talk there.
If the children are young and there are some family members who are included in your “safe pod,” reach out and ask for some babysitting help. You deserve the help. Then find a comfortable spot outside to have your talks.
If an emotional meltdown is brewing, give yourself permission to leave the room, or the house (if the kids are old enough).
And finally, regarding the insidious ways anxiety impacts our interactions with loved ones, it’s important to consistently remind ourselves that everyone—even couples on solid ground—are feeling more judgmental about their partners right now.
Nonetheless, if you’re struggling, get some help.
Don't allow our nation's "shut in" status to trigger you and your partner to shut down.
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