He sits down and looks at you dolefully, his big eyes full of hurt and desperation. “I don’t know why she cheated on me,” he whispers hoarsely, “but this is the worst hurt I have ever felt. I don’t know how I will cope, or what it means for our kids. I guess my marriage is over?”

If this is your client and you are faced with the challenge of helping him navigate through the mine field of overwhelming emotion and catastrophic sense of loss, what do you say? What do you need to know about cheating in order to be a helping, healing force? In this and a follow-up article, we examine the question of infidelity. In this piece, we look at it from the angle of the betrayed spouse, and in the next article, from the perspective of the unfaithful partner.

Let us state the delimitations upfront. We will be referring to the parties as “spouses” or “partners”, and we include both clients who are formally married and those who have been in monogamous partnerships of some length. We are excluding from discussion those partnerships or marriages which are “open”: that is, in which the two partners have agreed beforehand that their union is not “exclusive”, that they are free to be romantically or sexually with other partners. Those types of partnerships, too, may have experiences of what they call infidelity, but the definition and dynamics are different.

However the unfaithfulness happens, the after-effects can resemble the “psychic disorientation and confusion” that victims of natural disasters experience, and P.T.S.D. may not be far off (Finn, 2017). We look at why a partner’s affair is so painful, we list the losses, and we offer tips for how you might help with the grieving, in order for the client to arrive (perchance) at forgiveness.

The multiple wounds of infidelity

Have you ever listened to a news report about a person being stabbed “multiple times”? Sometimes victims can survive a single shot or a single stab wound, but “multiple” ones? The survival rate is a lot lower when we’ve been hit over and over, yet that is the overriding sense of things for betrayed spouses. According to Dr Karen Finn (2017), a divorce and personal life coach, the mental, emotional, and physical stabs are felt for numerous reasons.

Your client’s expectations for what it means to be married or in a long-term monogamous relationship have been shattered

The vows your client took, or the promises they made with the partner, are likely to have included notions of sexual, romantic, and emotional faithfulness to each other: “forsaking all others”, as the typical marriage vows proclaim. Thus to find out that the other person breached the rules the client thought they were both living by is a fundamental shock, shaking (and maybe breaking) the very foundations upon which the relationship is based.

Your client will be mightily resisting the change

They will see it as “life BEFORE” (now not seeming so bad) and “life SINCE” (unbearably painful). It is an unwelcome alteration to the course of their life: one they did not choose. They blame their spouse and naturally want him or her to “fix it” (as, after all, the partner caused the problem, right?). As understandable as this position is, the heads-up to you as therapist is that this attitude puts the client into the role of victim, now being held hostage by the actions of their spouse. And we all know victimhood merely prolongs the pain.

The life the client loved is over and – they fear – the pain will continue forever

This is a hard one to sit with. In truth, the life they knew BEFORE is over. You can remind them that they get to choose now (once they can again think clearly and rationally) how they will live now. It is true, sadly, that the devastation of infidelity takes a long time to heal from (one year is short for this wounding), and the pain will continue for a while, but not forever. Your job is to help the client see how to move forward to the “new normal”, with or without the partner (Finn, 2017).

The grief seems unbearable

Finding out about unfaithfulness of a spouse is a loss, to which the normal response is grief: in this case, grief unbearable. More than that, it is disenfranchised grief: that is, grief that cannot be openly acknowledged, socially sanctioned, or publicly mourned (What’s Your Grief, 2018). The person does not have many outlets of expression for the grief because they are somehow not deemed to have “the right” to have the grief. This shows up as, “Look, it’s been three months. Just get over it, ok?” What you see in session is a person crying uncontrollably one moment, seemingly accepting the next, and then rip-roaring mad a few minutes later.

What’s wrong with me? What will people think?

The client’s self-esteem is in free fall, along with heightened embarrassment and shame. Upon discovery of cheating by the spouse, the client wants to know: what was it that the other person has that I don’t? In what basic way am I so deficient that I had to be rejected in favour of another? We can see the problem here; the longer the client listens to this (common) self-talk, the more their fears of not doing enough morph into a sense of not being enough, with the ultimate conclusion that they are unlovable. Ouch. What could be more painful? 

Beyond that, many clients feel embarrassment, and possibly deep shame, about the cheating. They fear that they will be judged by family and friends, even though they do not see how they could have been or done more in the relationship, and even though they did not do the cheating. The client wonders what will be said behind their back, and how they will face the people in their life when the truth comes out.

The guilt is pure torture

As much as the client realises that this was not of their doing, there is still likely to be a part of them that wonders: “If I had done this or that differently, would my partner still have cheated?” As therapist, you get to remind them that no one is perfect, and any spouse expecting perfection is living in “la-la land”. No matter what the client did or didn’t do, it was the partner who made the decision to stray.

The scenes – imagined or known – of what they did together torments the client

Granted, this is self-torture, as the client is inflicting this pain on themselves, whether from imagining what the partner and the other did together or ruminating over what is known. To be fair, though, it’s a bit like flashbacks and memories in P.T.S.D.: the scenes come unbidden and are hard to get rid of. Again, you can help with mindfulness exercises, CBT work, and planned distractions to steer the client’s mind away from the torment.

The ripping away of emotional security may unleash powerful anger and desire for vengeance

In life BEFORE, the partner was likely the one person entrusted with all of the client’s secrets; the client knew the person would “be there” for them emotionally. It is like having the rug pulled out from underneath them, the client feels alone, and the resulting emotions are often uncontrolled rage and a desire for revenge. As members of the helping profession, we recognise anger as “the great protector”, so it may serve to awaken some clients to just how seriously their boundaries have been violated – and the need to take protective action. But over-the-top, uncontrolled rage – and especially when coupled with an insistence on the partner “paying for” what they’ve done – is lethal for happiness. It strongly tempts the client to do things they may later regret, and the focus on vengeful payback keeps the client from participating fully in their life. The pain is prolonged. 

The client’s health suffers from all the negativity

Of course, we do not advocate suppression, but the longer the client stays mired in intense, painful emotions, the more the pain of the infidelity will manifest in various physical ailments. From chest pain, bowel irregularities, insomnia, and headaches to appetite changes, dry mouth, and even bodily aches and pains, the body is simply registering what the client is experiencing on a mental/emotional level. If your client has not had to deal with frighteningly intense anger in the past, you may need to help train them in methods for directing its expression in ways that are not maladaptive, such as through journalling, art, music, high-intensity exercise, or catharsis (adapted from Finn, 2017).

Multiple losses and the need to grieve

We have referred to the many consequences for the client as “wounds”; in fact, we need to acknowledge them as losses, too. As the therapist, you need to be prepared to help the client acknowledge all of these losses, whether they are immediately evident to the client or not:

  1. Loss of the idea of their marriage/partnership
  2. Loss of the person with whom they were in relationship
  3. Loss of their dreams for the future
  4. Loss of emotional safety
  5. Loss of trust and confidence (in the other person and in themselves)
  6. Loss of mana, as they confront embarrassment and shame
  7. Loss of health on all levels
  8. Loss of hope for their marriage/partnership and/or future together (Reynolds, n.d.)

Grief is the normal reaction to loss, and grieving is the healing task of the client who has experienced the loss. Unfortunately, grief is not linear and the client may leap forward to greater acceptance, only to be suddenly triggered and taken back to intense anger, moving forward again to the bargaining phase. Multiple grieving models exist to help you sit with this process with the client, and all of them emphasise the need to work through the normal but intense and debilitating emotions that accompany a serious loss. 

To simplify thinking with your betrayed client, however, you may like to conceptualise the grieving task through the lens of Worden’s model, especially his first two steps, called “tasks” rather than stages. 

The first task: accepting the reality of the loss. This can be hugely difficult, especially for clients who never saw it coming. Shock, numbness, and disbelief are often part of this. Again, your job as therapist is to support the client so that the devastating reality with all its attendant losses can be taken in. Empathy goes a long way here.

The second task: working through the pain of the grief: well, all the pains, as we noted above (Perper, 2015). Tips for the therapist here:

  1. Encourage the client to be patient with themselves.
  2. Help the client to notice and enjoy the moments that are not permeated with overwhelming pain or emotion. The intensity comes and goes; it lessens over time: a long time. 
  3. Help the client to build a community of support people: possibly others who have faced a devastating breakup, or those who can genuinely be non-judgmental and supportive; you may have to help the client educate those around him or her on how to do this.

If the client is still in the relationship, there is advice for the straying partner: they need to own what they have done, they are not allowed to complain that the client is not “over it” yet, and they are discouraged from withdrawing with anger, disgust, or in ignorance of how to respond. They can’t “fix” it (meaning, make it go away), and their main task for the foreseeable future is to re-build trust, which they can only do through total transparency and emotional presence. This might be a big ask if the partner wasn’t that good at these tasks before cheating, but it’s fair for you to lay out to the betrayed client that – if the marriage is to be saved – the straying partner has some obligations (Reynolds, n.d.). 

Getting to forgiveness

As normal and predictable as the intense reactions and grieving for losses are after an affair, once the client is working through the shock, sadness, anger, and grief, there is the question of forgiveness. If you broach the matter to the client, you may need to be prepared for yet another huge reaction: anything from complete stupefaction (e.g., “You want me to forgive him after this?”) to armed resistance (“No way, not on my deathbed, not in a million years!”). Again, this is fair enough! In support of forgiveness, though, you can make these points to the client.

It’s good for health. Researchers at John Hopkins University (John Hopkins Medicine, 2019) have found that the act of forgiveness can reduce the risk of heart attack, lower cholesterol levels, improve sleep, reduce pain, lower your blood pressure, and decrease levels of anxiety, depression, and stress. And forgiveness provides greater benefits as we age. Sadly, the converse is also true: failing to forgive undermines the client’s wellbeing, emotionally as well as physically, and chips away at any possibility of restoring relationship; it will wear the client down.

Forgiving does not mean condoning. When someone has been betrayed by their partner, there can be the sense that the cheating act is condoned if the hurt spouse forgives: kind of like, “Well, go ahead and do it again.” Not so. 

Forgiveness is a conscious decision, but not one that can be hurried. Encourage your client to be patient with themselves, especially when those intense thoughts of getting even come flooding in. Retribution and revenge extend the pain. Ditto the act of bringing up the cheating act later as ammunition in a disagreement (for those staying in the relationship). These responses won’t make the client feel better!

Forgiveness may have to happen without the client ever knowing the reason for the transgression. It’s possible that the cheater doesn’t even know for sure why they did it.

Forgiving does not necessarily mean the forgiver wants to resume the relationship with the forgiven. This misconception, too, is important to clear up. In some instances, the hurting has been going on for so long or is so egregious that there is little foundation on which to rebuild. Certainly in cases of intimate partner violence, it may be ill-advised to restore the relationship. Forgiveness is still a good idea, though, because…

… Forgiveness is a gift to oneself. Hopefully the other party, and also the relationship, benefits from the act of forgiving, but engaging it is a gift the client gives themselves, in order to move forward with peace and a sense of lightness, having let go of the hurt of the offence. You can remind the client that there are two parts to forgiveness: the intrapsychic part and the interpersonal part. The latter may not see the client re-engaging the relationship, but the intrapsychic part is important for the client’s health on every level (adapted from Stritof, 2019).

Ultimately, being cheated on is a deeply wounding event, one which requires serious, long-term processing to move through. Your client can have the cold comfort of knowing they are not alone, and that the intense emotions will decrease over time. Not to be overoptimistic, but some lucky few even find that the affair becomes a catalyst to work on the marriage, which becomes stronger over time.

References:

  1. Finn, K. (2017). Why infidelity is so painful to the betrayed spouse. Drkarenfinn.com. Retrieved on 26 November, 2019, from: Website.
    John Hopkins Medicine. (2019). Forgiveness: Your health depends on it. Hopkinsmedicine.org. Retrieved on 26 November, 2019, from: Website.
  2. Perper, R. (2015). Worden’s four tasks of grieving. Therapychanges.com. Retrieved on 28 November, 2019, from: Website.  
  3. Reynolds, R. (n.d.). How does the betrayed spouse grieve properly? Affairrecovery.com. Retrieved on 26 November, 2019, from: Website.
  4. Schade, L.C. (2017). How finding out about a spouse’s affair is like a death. WordPress.com. Retrieved on 26 November, 2019, from: Website.
  5. Schade, L.C. (2017). Marital betrayal: Forgiveness 101. WordPress.com. Retrieved on 26 November, 2019, from: Website.
  6. Stritof, S. (2019). How to practice forgiveness in marriage. Verywellmind.com. Retrieved on 26 November, 2019, from: Website.
  7. What’s Your Grief? (2018). 64 examples of disenfranchised grief. What’s Your Grief? Retrieved on 28 November, 2019, from: Website