At times, I find myself sitting with a couple in my office and one partner presents as extremely upset and the other looks mortified; fearful that he or she is about to be pranced across the town square with the dreaded scarlet letter "A" tattooed on his or her forehead.
Each partner may be feeling overwhelmed and flooded by their individual emotions as a result of this recent discovery of an affair. So often the betrayed partner will say, “I feel crazy”, and their partner may look at me, as if to say non verbally, “She is crazy”. And, I will often reply….”your brain is functioning as if you are crazy”.
When we meet that special person, and begin the developmental process of dating, that eventually leads to falling in love and we set the stage for the beginning of a significant emotional attachment. When this leads to marriage, it likely unfolds in a mutual commitment and boundary that is developed around the couple that creates their sense of “us”.
This sense of “us” is what ultimately allows the attachment bond to form and creates the secure base of a marriage. (BTW, this attachment is an re-enactment of our original primary attachment from our childhood…YIKES!)
Ideally, this secure base is what allows “Us” to weather the many storms of life and to deal with the inevitable highs and lows of marriage.
For most married couples, marriage implies commitment and sexual monogamy. It gives each partner an added sense of security; particularly in the idea that no one else will enter into this very sacred physical and emotional space that the couple shares.
Ellyn Bader defines infidelity as “when one partner secretly violates an actual or implied expectation of the other’s primacy”. As you can see, this definition does not suggest that “sex” or physical contact is required to qualify as infidelity. This definition also leaves room for a host of other behaviors to be viewed as infidelity.
So often, the partner who has been accused of cheating will say, “I didn’t have sex” or “I just sent a few inappropriate texts” and is struggling to understand why his or her partner’s brain is ablaze and why they are throwing them out of the house, threatening divorce and posting angry quotes on Facebook.
Well the definition above reveals the answer…..because those “inappropriate texts” suggest to your partner that he or she is no longer your primary attachment. Those texts tell your partner that your commitment to him or her has been broken and he or she is no longer special.
These acts are in essence an “assault to the attachment bond”, and that is experienced as a trauma by the partner’s brain. It often leads to a cascade of neurochemical changes in the brain and central nervous system that can look very similar to Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). It creates the “crazy” one may experience after the betrayal of infidelity.
In addition to these challenges, the betrayed partner is now left questioning EVERYTHING about themselves and the marriage and ultimately re-evaluating the meaning of the relationship. Questions such as "Did he really love me?,or, "What's wrong with me?", "Was our marriage what I thought it was?" There is inherently a since of loss and therefore a grief response will follow. This overwhelming loss of the specialness of the “us” must be processed for healing to occur.
Each person’s way of coping is different, but so often the betrayed spouses find themselves hanging out on one of the banks of extreme responses……either very angry and emotionally reactive or detached and totally shut down. This often leaves the other partner unsure of how to approach their spouse and confused about how to make things right.
So How Can Therapy Quell the Crazy?
According to thesaurus.com, the word quell is synonymous to “extinguish”, as in put out a fire. So often, the hurt partner’s response is akin to a neurobiological fire. The more betrayed the partner feels, the bigger the flame. The bigger the flame, the more damage the marriage experiences. Often times, the couple does not have the ability to put the fire out on their own. So often, couples will enter the office with their “marriage on fire”. Making the decision to start the process of couples therapy is often like calling 911 and having the fire department come extinguish the blaze.
Seeking the support of a professional, experienced marriage therapist, who specializes in working with infidelity, can provide the couple a safe environment to begin the process of healing. It affords the couple the opportunity to determine if they can recommit and reconnect, and if so, can start the process of healing the relationship, restoring trust, rebuilding the commitment and repairing the disrupted attachment bond.
Seeking couples therapy to heal from infidelity is indeed a decision that requires radical courage, transparency, vulnerability and likely a good supply of grace and forgiveness.
I have heard it said many times……”I wouldn’t want to go through this pain again…..but I appreciate the opportunity to do this work. It may have saved our marriage”. Often times clients can smile while saying it :)
If you or someone you know has been affected by marital infidelity, give HCS a call. I welcome the opportunity to be of service and walk along side the couple during this journey.
Thanks for reading!
Kimberly Gist Miller, LMFT Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist
Harmony Counseling Services