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Affairs: The Healing Process

The landscape of healing after an affair

Affairs are devastating on a lot of levels – the lying, the betrayal, the kick in the gut to your self esteem. At some core level it is about trust and grief – trust in that it is broken and now haunted by a notion that it will never return, a nagging worry that what happened can happen again. Grief because it is a loss in two ways: a loss of your image of the relationship, that even though I thought we had problems, I never thought that it was this bad, that it would come to this. A loss too of your image of your partner: I never thought you would be a person who would do this and now can’t find a way to make sense of this.

Whether you decide to stay together or not, there is a process that unfolds propelled by these trust and loss issues. Here is map of the common post-affair landscape:

Shock. This can last 3 days to 3 weeks. You feel blind-sided even if you suspected something was going on. You walk around in a daze. Your head is spinning. Your emotions vacillate, from being angry to beating yourself up. You want to talk about it, you want to be left alone. It is hard to focus on your work. If you break up, you are alone, another challenge. If you stay together, the other person is apologizing, trying to make up, move beyond, but your mixed feelings make it hard to deal with and be around.

Obsessing. This can last 3-6 months. The initial shock wears off, the moods still ride up and down but less so. Your concentration is better. But your mind is running 24/7 – about past arguments, off-hand comments. You're obsessing about details – did he take her with him on the business trip? Did they have sex in the house? If your partner is there, you are on interrogation mode – when, who, where – tell me, don’t lie, has this happened before? What would have happened if I hadn’t found out? Friends are taking sides in the split, another loss.

The reason for the obsessing is that you struggling to make sense of all this, to come up with a coherent explanation, to connect the dots. The memories and sense of past are now filtered through this event. This is what happens with grief. You need an story, not jumbled fragments – it’s your fault, his fault. So you wake up in the middle of night piecing together events, you ask question after question about details. If the person is still with you he or she is patient for a while, but then gets tired of it all and urges you to just move on. But that’s hard to do.

If you are apart, there is a danger during this time of rebound relationship. The loneliness sets in, you miss having someone around, you're vulnerable to the kindness of strangers and you can fall into or seek out other relationships. Or not, and swear off relationships and drive yourself into work. You're also vulnerable to past losses. Suddenly you're thinking about your grandmother who died two years ago, lost friends, past boyfriends. Losses are all connected so it makes sense that this loss triggers the others.

And some are vulnerable to coping through the mental cut-and-run. You decide that he just has no morals or compassion, that she always had those tendencies but you failed to acknowledge them. When acquintances ask you what happened you give the simple answer, that there were problems, or if you're feeling bold or angry that he / she was screwing around.

The problem with this is the explanation is too simple. The affair is a bad solution to another problem, either within the individual, the relationship, or most often both. By simply chalking it up to irresponsible acting out doesn’t help you learn the nuances of the relationship. Your only take-away is that next time I need to either find someone who is a doormat and doesn't have the imagination to stray, or someone that I need to keep on a short leash. Over the long haul, neither of these options will work.

Theory #1. 6 months +. Your mind starts to settle. If you are together hopefully you have begun to deconstruct the relationship – are coming to a more complicated theory – a bit of you, bit of him; your shared inability to speak up and solve problems, his withdrawal, your control or nagging, different visions of the future that neither of you could articulate. A realization that the affair sex wasn’t really about sex but something else. New couple experiences, though at times stiff, awkward, give you hope that things are maybe changing, begin to create new memories to replace the negative ones of the past.

If you had a rebound relationship, cracks in it may begin to show. You see similar patterns developing or you realize that you’ve swung too far in the opposite direction – the nice guy turns out to be pretty passive, the spontaneous woman now seems a bit too impulsive and erratic – or you are stable enough to no longer need this transitional relationship. You stop and slow down or end or continue to date with a more realistic frame of mind.

And if you had unresolved losses in the past they may continue to linger. This is a good time to put them to rest.

Theory #2. 6 months – 1 year. Through your dating, through therapy perhaps, through conversations with friends you begin to see more fully your role in the making of the relationship. Not in terms of blame but in self-honesty. With that the anger and anguish subsides. With the moving on of your own life, you are able to focus more on the present and future and not just the staying stuck in the past. The theory is now more complex and realistic. The pain subsides, you've learned something, however hard the learning has been.

You are coming out of the emotional woods. You have a sense that a new chapter is about to start.

More from Robert Taibbi L.C.S.W.
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