Managing Your Emotions Following the Discovery of Your Partner's Infidelity
Published on 12th January, 2020 by Muhammad Haikal Bin Jamil
Discovering that your partner has been unfaithful can be an extremely traumatising experience and is associated with depressive and anxiety symptoms (Roos, O’Connor, Canevello & Bennett, 2019; Bird, Butler & Fife, 2007). It is common to feel angry, disbelief or disappointed following the discovery of infidelity by the partner. For some, the negative emotions may be directed towards themselves, such as feeling guilty for not being a better partner or feeling foolish for not noticing the lies.
Following the discovery of infidelity, it is tempting for the betrayed partner to make rash decisions, such as insisting on monitoring their partner’s whereabouts 24/7 and even to end the relationship (Warach & Josephs, 2019). However, rash decisions done in a state of turmoil might cause more harm to your psychological wellbeing and the relationship (Stosny, 2013). With the pain from the betrayal still fresh, you may not be in the right headspace to make important decisions about the relationship.
The following are some steps that you can take to focus on your own healing before making a decision about your relationship:
1. Differentiate your current feelings from your values
Impulsive behaviours spurred by strong emotions following discovery of the infidelity can be expected. Following the discovery of infidelity by your partner, the brain’s goes into a hypervigilance state to detect signs of further betrayal (Stosny, 2013). As a result, an ambiguous move by your partner can easily be interpreted as signs of further betrayal, leading you to lash out at your partner even though he/she may have good intentions. For example, the betrayed partner may assume that the partner who had been unfaithful is still secretly meeting the lover when he/she comes home late from work.
It is thus, now more crucial than ever to not lose sight of who you are as they could be lost amidst the barrage of emotions. Stosny (2013), a marriage therapist, recommends trying out the “Value Behaviour exercise” which helps one to act more rationally rather than succumbing to one’s emotions. First, starting with “I am …” list out all the characteristics and values that you wish to be associated with (eg. “I am kind to the people around me.”). Next, beside each of these values, write down a follow-up action starting with “I will …” (eg. “I will clarify with my partner if I have doubts about him/her”). Stosny (2013) also recommends keeping a behaviour log for the few weeks to track how often your actions were guided by your emotions rather than rationality.
2. Stepping out of the victim mindset
Many feel that they were an innocent victim in the situation and that their partner should be persecuted. Rightly so as the faithful partner did not have any choice in the matter and it was the unfaithful partner who decided to spit on the sanctity of the relationship.
However, the problem with the victim mentality is that it removes all semblance of control one has over the situation. Identifying as the victim might lead to thoughts like, “He/she was wrong and he/she has to make it up to me.” (Stosny, 2013). Although these thoughts are valid, they can make one feel helpless in the face of the anxiety and sadness brought about by a cheating partner.
Stosny (2013) suggests creating a healing identity rather than holding on to the victim identity. A healing identity allows one to focus on their strengths to regain some control over a situation that one originally had no control over. Stosny (2013) recommends the following steps to kickstart your healing identity:
1) On a piece of paper, list down all your strengths (eg. Smart, brave, humble …),
2) List down instance where you have shown resilience (eg. I helped my mother through a life-threatening illness.),
3) Think through what triggered the low and/or erratic moods and write down what you can do to improve your mood.
Admittedly, forming a healing identity is no easy task especially when one is fresh out of a relationship following infidelity. Of course, you don’t have to step out of the victim role immediately after discovering the infidelity. By all means, take some time to cry, vent and rant about how your partner has wronged you, it is human after all to feel hurt and anger after such a betrayal.
3. Take care of your mental health
You are more susceptible to depressive and anxiety symptoms following infidelity (Roos et al., 2019). Therefore, it is crucial to take good care of your mental health during this difficult period. To reduce your vulnerability for depression, stay connected with the loved ones who can help you through this rough period. As much as you may want to remain cooped up at home, it is important to remain physically active. Exercising produces endorphins which help combat depressive symptoms (Dinas, Koutedakis, & Flouris, 2011).
When you are overly anxious thinking about your partner’s infidelity, consider simple breathing exercises to calm yourself down in times of high distress. For instance, try using the 4-2-4 breathing technique. Breathe in through your nose for 4 seconds, hold your breath for 2 seconds and then, release that breath in 4 seconds through your mouth. Repeat this exercise until your heartbeat and breathing becomes regular. If any of the symptoms become too overwhelming to handle, do reach out to a professional psychologist or therapist.
Moving past infidelity together with your partner
After you have taken some time for yourself to heal, it might be time to address the elephant in the room – the relationship. Regardless of the decision you make, it is crucial to ask yourself the following questions (Stosny, 2013):
Do I want to repair or walk away from this relationship?
Why do I want to work on the relationship?
Do I want to work on the relationship together with my partner?
What is my role in the breakdown in the relationship?
Look at the values that you hold and think about whether the decisions you are intending to make is in line with your values.
Before starting the journey to patch the relationship, it is vital to note that infidelity typically is not the cause of any unhappiness in a relationship. Rather, it is often the outcome of an accumulation of one or more issues in the relationship- poor communication skills, lack of trust and accountability, etc.
Both parties should first ensure that they are on the same page. Take some time to write down what both of you want in moving forward and also re-establish acceptable boundaries with your partner (Skurtu, 2018). Instead of blaming each other, try to remember why you both fell in love with each other in the beginning and how this might be different now. This reminds both parties why they are trying to mend the relationship in the first place (Bird, Butler & Stephen, 2007).
Both parties can then set certain rules to keep to so that you both can communicate and be accountable to each other while healing (Bird, Butler & Stephen, 2007). These rules, such as communicating your whereabouts, may seem very basic but it provides the foundations for deeper conversations in future. Think about it- if you can’t trust that your partner is at work right now, how can you start trusting that your partner will not cheat again.
Consider couple therapy
Admittedly, it might be difficult to work things out rationally as both parties are emotionally invested in the relationship. Thus, couples who are struggling to move past infidelity can consider couple’s therapy. The following are ways in which couples therapy can be helpful:
- A neutral ground
Couples may not be open with each other for fear of being judged. The neutrality of the therapist can help couples become more open to sharing their thoughts, thereby improving communication between partners (Bird, Butler & Stephen, 2007).
- Clarity about the journey ahead
A therapist will be able to explain the recovery process and guide couples through it. Couples might feel secure knowing that what they do during therapy will eventually help mend the relationship and that the problems that they are facing are not unusual for couples who have to deal with infidelity (Bird, Butler & Stephen, 2007).
Overall, overcoming infidelity is not simple and the healing process may take years. From trying to pick yourself up after the betrayal to trying to build what’s left of the relationship, each step takes intense effort and commitment. With the shame many associates with infidelity, many couples do not talk to others about it. This makes dealing with infidelity feel all the more isolating and hopeless. However, as discussed, there are ways to help keep oneself together during this difficult time. Also, although infidelity may rattle the very foundations of the relationship, if both partners want to and are willing to commit and work through their problems, it is possible to rebuild the relationship a block at a time.
Bird, M. H., Butler, M. H., & Fife, S. T. (2007). The Process of Couple Healing Following Infidelity. Journal of Couple & Relationship Therapy, 6(4), 1–25. doi: 10.1300/j398v06n04_01
Dinas, P. C., Koutedakis , Y., & Flouris , A. D. (2011). Effects of exercise and physical activity on depression. Irish Journal of Medical Science , 180(2), 319–325. Retrieved from https://doi-org.libproxy1.nus.edu.sg/10.1007/s11845-010-0633-9
Roos, L. G., Oconnor, V., Canevello, A., & Bennett, J. M. (2019). Post‐traumatic stress and psychological health following infidelity in unmarried young adults. Stress and Health, 35(4), 468–479. doi: 10.1002/smi.2880
Skurtu, A. (2018). Helping Couples Overcome Infidelity A Therapists Manual. Milton: Taylor and Francis.
Stosny, S. (2013). Living & Loving after Betrayal. Oakland: New Harbinger.
Warach, B., & Josephs, L. (2019). The aftershocks of infidelity: a review of infidelity-based attachment trauma. Sexual and Relationship Therapy, 1–23. doi: 10.1080/14681994.2019.1577961
Article written with Charmaine Leong. Charmaine is a psychology undergraduate from the National University of Singapore (NUS). Charmaine is an aspiring clinical psychologist who is passionate about raising awareness of mental health issues in Singapore. She is currently on internship with ImPossible Psychological Services under the supervision of senior clinical psychologist, Haikal.