“I used to think I knew who I was, who he was, and suddenly I don’t recognize us, neither him nor me… My entire life, as I’ve led it up this moment, has crumbled, like in those earthquakes where the very ground devours itself and vanishes beneath your feet while you’re making your escape There is no turning back.”
–Simone de Beauvoir, The Woman Destroyed
I had a question from a client this week about infidelity. They wanted to know how best to heal their relationship with their partner.
The feelings of betrayal that come from an affair being discovered or revealed can be overwhelming. Our world that felt safe in one minute, now feels dangerous and threatening. We can’t think straight, adrenaline is coursing through our bodies, and we shift from a calm, logical mind into fight, flight or freeze.
When we feel triggered, or threatened, our amygdala brain is running the show. Its purpose is solely to protect us from a perceived threat and keep us alive.
For a couple going through infidelity and betrayal, this little bit of brain science is extremely important to understand.
Every living being is constantly scanning to avoid danger and find safety, so it’s not surprising that we’re also on alert for danger in our relationships. Every day of our lives we’re assessing, are we safe in our mother’s arms? Are we safe with our new best friend? Are we safe with the person we sleep beside every night?
When we choose a partner to settle down with, it’s because we’ve found some sense of safety with them. It’s takes time and emotional investment to establish trust and safety.
We all know that panicky transition point in a new relationship where we realize we’ve become attached. We have some skin in the game. We’re vulnerable to being emotionally hurt. This is why early stages of a relationship can feel like a rollercoaster, until we find the feeling of safety our brain is seeking.
As the relationship progresses, our insecurities begin to fade. Trust is built over time, based on consistency and demonstration.
Once we’ve established feelings of safety with our partner, and trust that we’re not at risk of emotional pain, we can relax and settle. We commit to each other, promising to have each other’s backs. We agree to attach more deeply and join as a team.
That feeling of safety, that every couple works so hard to create, takes the hit when it comes to infidelity. If you suddenly don’t feel safe in your relationship, getting back to safety is your first phase of healing.
Here are 10 steps to start rebuilding trust and safety after infidelity:
It’s Ok To Not Know
You may both be confused right now. You may not know if you should stay together or not. Write this down on a note and stick it on your mirror, “It’s ok to not know.” Time will bring clarity. You’re in the middle of a process right now. Allow the clarity to emerge. Don’t force each other to be further along than you are. When you’re not feeling safe, it’s a good time to take care of your nervous system and postpone life-changing decisions.
Less You, More Them
If you’re the one who broke a monogamous agreement, you may be feeling immense guilt and shame. Don’t make it all about you. Don’t get stuck in self-defense. Stay focused on your partner’s needs right now. Express regret; say how sorry you are, but stay empathetic to their feelings. Stay steady and help them feel heard and accepted in all of their emotions.
You may be spending a lot of time initially talking about who, where and when, but also get curious about why. What was the motivating desire behind the affair? What unmet needs caused one of you to look outside the relationship? Needs for desire and affection, novelty, validation, sexual excitement, are just a few reasons that lead us into another’s arms.
Reasons for an affair might be based on what we’re not getting from our partner, or they may be based on what we’re not finding within ourselves. Transgressors can discover a part of themselves they’ve lost along the way. Examining the reasons for an affair is key to moving forward. Find a good relationship coach to help you through this process, and welcome the insight that it brings.
Talk Less, Listen More
Learn to communicate effectively from someone who can teach you and guide you through difficult conversations. Slow down. Ask questions to learn more about your partner’s perspective. If you find yourself getting triggered, ask for a time out, so you can regroup, breathe deeply, and return in a calmer state. If you were a team before the infidelity, you can be a team after as well.
The Need Behind the Emotion
Understand that being triggered or lashing out, is a response to not feeling safe. If your partner is swimming in negative emotions, help them by asking what they need from you to feel safe, and then give it to them.
This is not a time for your explanations or self-defense. Ask them what you can do to calm their inner storm. Hold or cradle them. Listen to them express what they’re feeling without trying to fix them, being reassured of your love, are all ways to help each other calm down and begin the journey back to trust and safety. Even if your future feels unclear in the moment, you can access empathy and compassion to ease their pain.
The Tango Rule
At some point, ideally with the help of a professional, both partners need to explore how their behaviors may have contributed to the affair. Without placing 100% of the blame on the betrayer or dwelling in self-condemnation on the part of the betrayed, both partner’s need to engage in a two-way examination.
This can sometimes be tricky for a partner who chooses to only view themselves as a victim, but what I’ve found is when partners are willing to dig deep and be honest, there are sides to the story of infidelity both of them can speak to. Taking the role of victim out of the equation helps create a path to accountability and self awareness.
Strong and Sturdy Baby Steps
Build trust and safety slowly. If you’re the transgressor, you’ll want to insure you keep the small agreements you make with your partner. Be on time, do what you say you’ll do, be generous with your attention, initiate moments of intimate sharing, inquire about your partner’s needs when you sense they’re feeling unsafe or triggered.
Small things can be blown out of proportion because resentment, hurt, or anger are still running the show, so be aware of the undercurrents, and try to meet the needs behind the emotions. Your partner’s amygdala is not going to have a rational conversation with you. Focus on reestablishing safety for your partner right now.
Don’t Sweep Things Under the Rug
This is not a problem the transgressor can skirt around, by avoiding the topic and denying the complex emotions your partner is experiencing (even if they too are by-passers). You have to go through it together to get to the other side. It’s easy to want to by-pass something that makes us feel bad about ourselves, but your partner needs you to be the anchor in their storm of emotions.
If you sense your partner is in the pain of rumination or feeling insecure, don’t wait for them to have to speak about it. Don’t let them suffer silently in their thoughts. Tell them what they’re needing to hear in that moment to reassure them. Stay afloat, and learn to guide them back to calm waters without drowning in your own pain of shame and regret.
Build Back Better
Acknowledge that the infidelity may mean the end of your relationship, as itwas. You now have the opportunity to build a new relationship with your partner – one based on honesty and vulnerability. Revisit your mutual agreements and expectations around monogamy. Learn about the power of forgiveness and why it’s important for both of you. Relationship problems push us outside of our comfort zone and force us to expand and mature. I’ve seen couples come out of infidelity closer than ever, humbled in their humanness, and able to repair and move forward.
Gratitude x 3
Each night before sleeping, practice gratitude with each other. Find even the smallest things and start there. Choose 3 things each and say them out loud while you’re lying in bed together. Remind your partner every day that you have gratitude for what they bring to your life, what they did that day that you appreciated, and what you love about them. Use this practice to reframe challenging emotions, and fall asleep with a grateful heart.
These 10 steps are phase one of your healing process. Don’t feel you have to go down this road alone. It can be dark and treacherous without someone shining the light for you. Infidelity is just one part of your relationship journey. It doesn’t have to be the end of road.
“Our partners do not belong to us; they are only on loan, with an option to renew – or not. Knowing that we can lose them does not have to undermine commitment; rather, it mandates an active engagement that long-term couples often lose. The realization that our loved ones are forever elusive should jolt us out of complacency in the most positive sense.”
—Esther Perel, The State of Affairs.
Your relationship can survive infidelity, but it can’t survive divorce.
Private coaching helps a couple rebuild safety and move forward from a firm foundation of unity and understanding.
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I woke up this morning feeling emotionally battered by the bullying behavior in our first national Presidential debate this week. I thought about how many people who currently live, or have lived under the same roof with an adult bully. I wondered how many of them were left triggered by the bullying behavior that is all too painfully familiar.
If sex is not on your mind these days, don’t beat yourself up about it. Our bodies are not designed to think about sex when our brains are communicating that we may be in danger. We can’t convince our bodies that we’re safe, when in fact we’re not. When stress is dictating our lack of sexual desire, we need to find ways to regulate our stress. We may not be able to avoid stress, but we can learn to manage it.
You may not identify with having sexual shame. You may be quite liberal when it comes to the sex you see on screen and in advertising. You may support honest and truthful sex education, and have a tolerant, accepting attitude toward less conventional sexual expressions. The shame I’m talking about is found less in spoken opinions and more in unspoken feelings and beliefs. Not wanting to talk about sex in our relationships is how we carry forth our ancestor’s sexual doctrine, and I see it in many of my clients.
Teri and John (we’ll call them) came to see me a few months ago. They described their 15 year relationship as compatible and loving, except when it came to sex and intimacy, neither of which they were able to figure out how to change for the better. They reached a point where they could see three roads ahead of them...