Did you or a partner/s recently reveal a secret affair/s or betrayal?
Everyone responds differently to the news that a partner violated a norm/expectation in a relationship, or as we might hear more commonly: "cheated," "had an affair," "infidelity."
Usually it's not pretty, but depending on a variety of factors from culture to relational style and Trauma history, responses in the wake of an "affair-reveal" spread across a pretty wide spectrum.
As Esther Perel describes in her most recent, The State of Affairs, when she was chatting with women in Senegal about infidelity, she heard how little their identities felt rocked when they learned about a betrayal. The women reported that they did cry and feel intense sadness, but most explained their partner's behavior by seeing it as a normal male struggle, a norm expected in culture. Perel contrasts this with women in the West who can tend to fall more into existential meltdown, wondering what in us is deficient or lacking.
Given this wide presentation of responses to infidelity, I'm going to organize these recommendations by the 4 most common responses I clinically and anecdotally observe.
First, I want to invite anyone trudging through this painful relational territory to give yourself permission to treat this time super gently and with great tenderness, like you would if someone in the family died or got a very serious diagnosis.
Go slow. With reverence. Move softly.
But there can be lots of family performance pressure around holidays, celebrations, and family gatherings for broken-hearted clients. It hurts my heart to hear so many stories of people post-affair-reveal crying alone in cars and guest bathrooms after stuffing feelings and faking happy to keep up appearances for family.
It can take a lot of work to repair the kind of emotional wounds we experience when we end up feeling alone and overwhelmed. So, above all: if you're not feeling something in the first weeks/months after finding out about an affair/s, don't force it where possible.
Try to let people support you, even if you feel gross and snotty and can't stop crying. Sometimes people just don't know what to do but they do want to help, so you can make it easy and just say something specific like, "Hey, I really need you to come pick me up and take me for coffee and not ask a lot of questions."
Please, please also do give yourself permission to cry. Your relationship wasn't what you thought. Your partner wasn't behaving like you thought. It's normal to feel a sense of loss. Allow yourself to feel and be whatever comes up as long as you and those around you keep safe.
So, on to the tips! It's helpful to think of this process a bit like bereavement; you'll likely experience evolving cycles of feelings and physiological responses as you heal and grow.
In general we're looking at combinations of 4 experiences: collapse/shutdown, rage, disgust, and grief.
If this is you, it's possible you lost your knees and fell to the floor when you found out your partner 'cheated.' I've heard of people actually fainting! It's not weird. It's actually tragically sweet because technically that's the person's neurophysiology saying, "Whoa we are losing this bond? Estimating a high likelihood we won't survive," "Without you I'm dead." Maybe you felt light-headed and had to sit down. Maybe it became hard to get up and get moving for a while after. Allow yourself to go slow.
If you start to feel flooded, find some rituals for finding the ground, breathing, and reminding yourself that you are safe and whole. Do you have some music that reliably chills you out? Maybe it's taking a walk that brings you back down to Earth. I will say if you're in the wake of an infidelity, maybe don't listen to any of your favorite, favorite music because it can kind of emotionally stain the tracks.
Remember "name it to tame it." If you're an involved partner who cheated, this can be difficult to see, but try to allow your partner to just feel whatever they are feeling. Lots of partners want to rescue hurt partners from being in pain and kind of pull them or convince them out of their emotions, but this can feel disregarding to the hurt partner and increases the chances they'll feel unseen and unimportant. "I see your pain and your tears. I'm here with you," may be all you can offer, but that's an incredible gift. Same with reflecting pain: "You are feeling so devastated. I lied and you feel betrayed. You're hurting. I'm here."
Once it's been long enough for you and you feel ready to rise back up, I highly recommend learning and practicing power poses when you feel so collapsed or ashamed that it feels uncomfortable or intolerable. Brené Brown has great resources to read, as well as Kristin Neff!
If this is you, it's possible you lost your temper and inflicted damage on something or someone when you found out your partner cheated. There might have been suitcases packed, cars destroyed, or divorce papers threatened/served. If it's soon after the infidelity-reveal, give yourself permission to just do what you need to do to keep from being consumed in the fires of your indignation and anger. If this means skipping out on your or partner's family's special occasions or holiday activities and traditions, or making some temporary changes in your own relational routine, that's okay. Just keep retaliation out of the picture.
Try to avoid visual images of your partner's' affair partner/s. If you need to do some temporary social media unfollows/blocks, do it. Please don't seek out affair partner; seek to leave them out of the relationship until you have the capacity to think calmly and rationally enough to get the information and details you need to make informed, health-promoting decisions.
Take breaks! Lots and lots of breaks. At least 15-20mins at a time if possible. Remember that rage is a way we cope with deep sadness, loss, fear, and feeling out of control. Pop culture says go and scream and punch a pillow, but research shows this just mostly ramps up anger. So instead of ruminating on upsetting mental imagery, try "naming it to tame it," Loving Kindness Meditation, self-compassion practices, yoga, etc., *not* tire slashing or 'Facebook stalking.' I also recommend Harriet Lerner's The Dance of Anger.
Involved partners can really help take some heat out by doing things like taking accountability, acknowledging and validating the anger, and being vulnerable and holding off on defensiveness. If you cheated, don't avoid questions, but do find a couples counselor to help guide pacing and navigate why certain questions are asked, which really need full answers, and how to answer most compassionately and honestly.
If this is you, it's possible you might have actually vomited when you found out your partner cheated. Disgust frequently hangs out with shame too, so you might have experienced both together. If it's soon after the infidelity-reveal, make sure to drink lots of water and try to at least squeeze in 30min-1hr walks a few times a week if not daily. Try to avoid junky, greasy food even if you crave it, especially if you keep throwing up when you think hard about the infidelity. Cool it a little on caffeine, citric acid, dairy, and spicy/greasy foods for a hot minute as much as you can. Your body will right itself.
Don't try to force eating with your partner or eating foods that make you uneasy to please relatives, friends, or even the partner. This can be awful tough for an involved partner who cheated to have to watch, so just know if this is happening, it's just what the body needs to do right now to keep from capsizing. If it's really bad, get involved partner to hang back and bring a caretaking friend in for a few days to mitigate exposure of hurt partner to involved partner.
It's easy to accidentally create lasting wounds in this terrain with words. Hurt partner, "You disgust me" can feel too painful because it's rejecting inherently; stick with "I feel sick" if you can, especially if you want to stay in the relationship in the long run. Focus on partner's behaviors and your own feelings, not character attacks; you can trust that involved partners also feel disgust and shame, and often bear this burden solo for a long time. If "I disgust myself" is coming up a lot for anyone, bop in for some individual counseling to check-in because it can be a sign of older wounds and shame.
Also, I invite you to avoid discussing the explicit sex acts involved in the affair/s, especially at first when you're most off kilter and least capable of dealing. Focus on finding balance and building safety first and trust that understanding and insight will come. Usually, these sexual details never become necessary to disclose for healing, and typically only only provide fuel for further mental masochism and rumination spirals.
If this is you, it's possible you cried and sobbed your eyes out and cried some more when you found out your partner cheated. In Trust First Aid, I find that there's just a lot of sads and tears that need space to get voiced and released. It's so tempting to try to "snap out of it" and bulldoze past the sad part, but you'll regret it if you speed past heavy feels after affairs and don't take time to just be in them.
Grief is like a jacuzzi: the person soaking in it just needs be still, and it's nice when someone else eases down in beside you to join you, as opposed to just dipping a toe in and saying, "Yow! Get out of there! You've been in too long... You're going to cook yourself!" You don't get to have the same relationship after an affair. The relationship can transform, but something is inherently lost, even if it's just an idea. It's natural and health-promoting to allow yourself to mourn for the loss of something precious, even if it is as simple as "I thought you were happy." Take all the time you need. No one gets to tell anyone who and when to forgive.
Mindfully and collaboratively co-decide who you and your partner disclose the affair to, but do reach out for support from trusted, discreet friends/family. Again, it's okay to skip holiday traditions if you are worried about emotionally staining memories, or crumbling under the pressure of "keeping it together" in front of other people. Also, 2 words: take baths.
Involved partners, try to remind yourself that the intensity of grief often goes with the size and importance of the love; big sads = big love for you. It can feel awful because your usual superpower to calm and reassure your partner may not work like used to for a while. It will again. Try to be patient and tender with yourself.
Patience and tenderness all around, inside and out. There's hope.